Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Funky, fun, “High Fidelity a musical” at Blank Canvas

Pat Ciamacco, artistic director at Blank Canvas, has a “thing” for off-beat musicals.  Sure, he produced “Hair” and “Godspell,” but it’s more likely that what you’ll see mounted on his stage are “Beach Blanket Party,” “Debbie Does Dallas,” and “Texas Chainsaw Musical.”  I’m surprised he’s missed out on “Bullshot Crummond,” “Dance of the Vampires,” “Expresso Bongo,” “Hands on a Hard Body, and, of course, “The Rocky Horror Show.”

Pat’s latest offering is David Lindsay-Abaire, Amanda Green and Tom Kitt’s “High Fidelity, a musical,”  which is based on Nick Hornby’s similarly named novel.

The story centers on Rob Gordon, a 30-year old slacker, who owns a record shop. ("I'm sitting on a business that has zero growth potential, and I wouldn't change a thing.")   He is obsessed with developing top five lists for everything.  You name the category, and Rob, rather than concentrating on what is really happening in his life, has developed a top five. 

He’s kind of a Peter Pan who refuses to grow up, geared to live with and obsess about disappointment.  “Never grow up, never grow up, never grow up,” that is, until his girlfriend, Laura, leaves him (not even qualifying for his “Worst Top Five Breakup” list).  When Laura’s father dies, Rob suddenly has an epiphany, “He needs to let loose of his top five lists, yes, even his “Top Five ‘mother load’ of 45-rpm records” list, and the records, themselves, and his self-centered view of the world. 

The musical had a short and mixed-reviews run in Boston, then a fourteen performance run on Broadway.  With a review from a New York leading newspaper calling the epic-not “an all-time most forgettable musical,” there wasn’t much of a future for this script. 

Short runs and bad reviews don’t dissuade Ciamacco.  He knows his niche audience and his own off-the-wall sense of humor.  His people go for loud, brash and kooky, not sweet, home style and family friendly.  Yeah, blood zones, not comfort zones.  So this off-the wall script is a perfect choice for him and them.

The score includes ballads, rock, country western, and heavy metal.  There are references to mega-stars like the Beastie Boys, Indigo Girls, Talking Heads, and Aretha Franklin.  All of the songs are original, however, so no old standards are sung.  This is not a jukebox musical.

The music is loud, everyone is miked, even the orchestra, which shakes the walls and chairs in the postage-stamp sized theatre, where the furthest seat is ten feet from the stage. 

My head is still ringing, and I removed my hearing-aids half way through.  I still have an echo in my head twenty-four hours later.  I guess it’s a generational thing, but  I have a strong desire to hear the words the singers are singing, not the semblance of words.  I think since the words were written, I should understand them. As I said, it’s a generational thing.

Songs include “The Last Real Record Store,” “Desert Island Top 5-Break-Ups,” “Ian’s Here,” “Ready to Settle,” “Cryin’ in The Rain,” and “Turn the World Off.” 

Favorites songs include the clever “Nine Percent Chance,” the statistical probability that Laura will take Rob back, which had a boy-group sound complete with repetitive gestures and choreography. 

Another delight was “It’s No Problem,” first sung by the utterly charming Charlie Brown-like Pat Miller as the nerdy Dick, who doesn’t know whether he has had sex or not.  But by the end of the show, he has a girl friend, Anna (the equally nerdy Monica Zach) who joins Miller in the song’s reprise. 

And then there is “Laura, Laura,” a nice ballad, performed beautifully by our hero, the tall, skinny, handsome, Shane Patrick O’Neill, he of great voice and acting talent. 

I heard and understood the lyrics to those three “quiet” songs.

The cast is talented, sings well, and has a ball portraying their odd ball parts.  They even did justice to the farce nature of the piece, a hard task.

Leslie Andrews is girlfriend Laura, Kate Leigh Michalski is Rob’s nagging female friend, director Pat Ciamacco displays a big set of singing pipes as the negative Barry, Kevin Myers is a hoot as T.M.P.M.I.T.W. (yes, that’s what the guys call him!).  Stephen Berg does a bad (yes, bad, “bad,” not bad “good”) take-off on Bruce Springsteen, to the delight of the audience.

The overly energetic and overly miked orchestra, under the direction of Lawrence Wallace, played the begeebers out of the music.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: “High Fidelity, a musical,” now on stage at Blank Canvas, is fun.  It’s filled with delightful ridiculousness, is well-staged and performed, and is definitely LOUD.  If you are in the mood for a night of off- beat “cool,” and “different” and want to avoid Santa Claus, reindeer, an umbrella carrying flying nanny, and “bah-humbug,” this should be your holiday theatre treat. 

Blank Canvas runs “High Fidelity, a musical” through December 20 in its west side theatre, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland.  For tickets and directions go to www.blankcanvasthetre.com

Monday, December 08, 2014

MARY POPPINS continues the happy holiday tradition at Beck

Like retail stores, local theatres realize that they need a big December holiday season to make enough profits to sustain themselves for rest of the year. 

Looking on the holiday boards, there’s Great Lakes with their umpteenth production of “A Christmas Carol,” Cleveland Play House’s “A Christmas Story,” and Cleveland Public Theatre’s “Santaland Diaries.” PlayhouseSquare joined the jolly days with a production of “White Christmas.”  Even Dobama, the “serious theatre” added “A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration” to its line up, with seemingly good pre-sales. 

Beck has used ”Annie” and “Beauty And The Beast” as its holiday cash cows in previous years.  This time, it decided to start a new tradition with “Mary Poppins.”

Beck is up against several obstacles with their selection.  Because of the theatre space not having a fly gallery, Mary, as she does in the movie version, can’t fly.  (Leave it to some cute little lass, who, when the nanny with the umbrella in the movie went skyward, and our Mary was instead gliding, anchored to a moving stepladder, jumped out of her seat and wailed, “Why isn’t she flying?”)

Poppins is also a “lesson” play.  It doesn’t have a prince and princess or a little orphan girl who gets saved.  It also doesn’t have a cute dog, or a monster who turns in to a handsome prince.  It’s long on story and is short on cutesy stuff, slapstick, and unbridled action. 

Fortunately, the theatre employs Martin Céspedes, the most awarded choreographer in the area.  Leave it to Céspedes to create some show stopping dances that tended to hold the attention of the kids and adults alike. 

But, as good as the production is, under Scott Plate’s inventive staging, this just isn’t a kid pleasing show, especially kids who have seen the movie so many times that they can repeat the lines and expect Mary to fly and for Burt and his chimney sweeps to dance on the roof tops.

As the story goes, Jane and Michael Banks, the children of the up-tight banker George Banks, are the scourge of nannies.  The parade of child keepers, go in and out of employment, as if the house had a revolving door. No ad was run, no one knew the last nanny left, but based on a ripped-up note thrown into the air (magically taken sky-bound by creative electronic video), “The Perfect Nanny,” Poppins, shows up. 

Using a child rearing philosophy of “A Spoon Full of Sugar,” the nanny tames the wild beasts and inserts a joyful ”Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” attitude.  When Poppins leaves to test her long term effect, Mrs. Banks finds Mr. Banks’ old nanny, the fearsome Miss Andrew to take her place.  The results, of course, are disastrous. Poppins returns, to “Cherry Tree Lane” and  the family settles down  in happy bliss, appreciating the value of family and the need for love rather than fear. Mary Poppins leaves to the strains of “A Shooting Star.”

Along the way, such tunes as “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “Jolly Holiday,” “A Man Has Dreams,” “Feed the Birds,” “Playing the Game,” and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” are sung, and Céspedes pulls off his choreographic magic with rousing numbers such as “Step in Time.”

Scott Plate does a “Practically Perfect” job of directing. 

The cast is universally strong.  As Jane and Michael, Anna Barrett and Joseph Daso have been well-versed in the ways of theatre and the to be natural and not act their roles.  Accent perfect, the duo are totally believable.  Good job!

Matthew Ryan Thompson succeeds in the battle to create his own Bert and not imitate Dick VanDyke.  He sings well, dances with gusto and has a nice touch with humor.  Rebecca Pitcher as “The Perfect Nanny,” also avoids the film’s stereotype set by Julie Andrews.  She reverts to the character as written in the P. L. Travers’ book series, stern but loving, rather than syrupy sweet.

Katherine DeBoer is properly motherly and displays a well-trained singing voice.   Curt Arnold is excellent as the rigid George Banks.  Lissy Gulick is adorable as Mrs. Brill, the put-upon house keeper.  Aimee Collier plays the nasty Miss Andrew with a negative relish and a big voice!  Peggy Gibbons delivers a lovely rendition of “Feed the Birds.” 

The dancing corps is excellent, pulling off the choreography with ease and effectiveness.  The orchestra, under the direction of Larry Goodpaster, plays well and supports rather than drowning out the singers.  Sound designer Carlton Guc did the masterful job of getting the Beck sound system to operate without a single sound squeal!

Jeff Herrmann, cursed with a small playing area and no back or side stage space, must be a master of jigsaw puzzles, as set pieces whiz on and off stage with comparative ease.  Using many, many white umbrellas hanging from the batons, as a background for Mike Tutaj’s masterfully designed videos, was a stroke of genius.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  “Mary Poppins, based on the stories of P. L. Travers and the Walt Disney Film, is generally delightful, though not as charismatic as required for the attention of young children.  It will delight most theatre-goers as Mary Poppins flylessly cavorts into their hearts and feeds them “A Spoon Full of Sugar.”

“Mary Poppins” is scheduled to run at Beck Center for the Arts through January 4, 2015.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go online to http://www.beckcenter.org

CPT’s “American Falls” is an existentialist tale of yearning and destruction

The existentialists ask, “What does it mean to exist?  What is our purpose in being?”  “American Falls,” Miki Johnson’s drama which showcases eight people living in a small town—six alive, two dead—is an existentialist exercise. 

The Cleveland Public Theatre production probes “the inner life of everyday people desperately seeking meaning and love on the razor’s edge of transcendence and despair.”

Much in the vein of Thornton Wilder’s classic, “Our Town,” “American Falls” takes place in a small town, populated by people who examine life from birth through death and thereafter.  Neither give answers, but much in the pattern of Talmudic scholars, asks questions. 

Wilder’s heroine, Emily Webb asks, “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?”  Wilder goes on to observe:  “That's what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another.”

Lisa, one of the dead characters states, “I mean, we do these things.  We spill coffee down our sleeve, we read the labels on soup cans, we honk our horns and floss our teeth and cry and sing and swallow and turn on light switches and turn them off again and get places on time and get places late and watch TV and we get upset when a storm takes out the electricity and we blink and open drawers and sometimes forget to close them again and write ourselves reminders.  All these things.  And it’s nothing.  It’s all nothing. And it’s everything . . .It’s so lovely, so kind that this is how it ends.

The play starts with the line, “Let me tell you a story.”  And, what a story it is.  A story of intrigue, yet, ordinariness.  A tale of horror, yet one of longing.  The events appear to be a natural outlet for probing about life by Miki Johnson, born and nurtured in the small town of Green, Ohio (near Akron).

In one suspended period of time, we hear the tales of Lisa, a new suicide, who relates her life of abuse, while we view her former husband, Samuel, transform himself from ranting male to psychotic female…denuding himself of all bodily hair, putting on a wig, as he explains to an uncomprehending young boy why he is not really the child’s biological father, because his mother had an affair .  As this part of the tale unravels, the boy’s real father is interacting with two friends in a bar, and a Native American shoe salesman tells about his magical shoes, “Not bullshit magic, real magic.”  Samuel’s dead mother relates her tale of depression, alcoholism, mothering 11 children, and the mistakes of her life. 

The stories continue, some funny, some sad, but all filled with some sort of heartache and pain, and how life carries on with losses and gains.

Johnson uses numerous pop references in her tale-telling.   She refers to Budweiser beer, National Public Radio, Terry Gross interviews, Frank Capra movies, and “Law and Order:  Special Victims Unit” in her metaphoric descriptions of the story of life.

The characters are bound by geography, but, most by being humans and probing for the whys of their existence.

The performances, most of which are presented in monologue form directly to the audience, are compelling.  Each member of the cast, Darius Stubbs, Faye Hargate, Adam Seeholzer, Chris Seibert, PJ MCready, Ryan Edlinger, Dionne D. Atchison, and Anthony Sevier is convincing in being, not acting, his/her character.

Capsule judgement: “American Falls” is not an easy sit.  If takes concentration.  As Raymond Bobgan, the director, states in his program notes, “This journey requires curiosity, attention and a yearning for something wonderful to happen.”  Each will take his/her own journey in this complex piece.

“American Falls” continues at Cleveland Public Theatre through December 20, 2014.  For tickets go to: 216-631-2727 or go to www.cptonline.org

Sunday, December 07, 2014

“A Civil War Christmas,” a massive and impressive undertaking at Dobama

Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel is noted for crafting play scripts which impact directly on the lives of people.  A review of her works illustrates that  she writes about issues that need to be expressed (AIDS, sexual abuse, prostitution, degradation of the individual), she favors writing about emotional circumstances which she expresses in narrative structures, and her works contain theatrical requirements that make for better viewing, than reading.

Her “A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration,” which was written over a ten-year period, reflects her focus on direct impact of situations and experiences on the lives of people.

The epic drama, which is set on Christmas Eve, 1864, in Washington, D.C., centers on the lives of about a dozen characters, some real (e.g., Abraham Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth and Clara Barton), some compositions which allude to real people, and purely fiction beings.  There is a multi-religious message, as well as historical tales.  It highlights community and family values (e.g., deep dedication of Southerners regarding their cause, even when faced with certain defeat; the confusion on the part of the slaves of what it meant to be free; the conflict between religious convictions and national pride.)

The musical interludes contain slave songs, spirituals, code songs (melodies of the Underground railroad intended to give directions to Blacks who were attempting to flee to the North, on whether it was safe to travel by land or waterways), as well as traditional Americana tunes, carols, and even a Hebrew prayer. 

Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of seeing victory within reach of the union, frets over the gloves he bought for his wife, which were left at the family’s summer home; John Wilkes Booth schemes to capture the president; a Quaker questions whether he could kill someone if forced to do so; bi-polar Mary Lincoln fusses and fumes over obtaining a holiday tree, her need for a new dress, mourning the death of her son, and balancing her over-extended budget; a black Union solder wants revenge against the Rebels for kidnapping his wife; a young black girl wanders the frigid streets of D.C. in search of her mother and a place to stay.

The story of nation, family, reconciliation and communal hope, spotlights familiar themes, often in a code that only a keen viewer will grasp.  The mother and child, like the Jesus story, are refused entrance to their home (the nation’s capital), the child is swaddled in straw (in this case, in a shipping container), and is found by a group of do-gooders (much like the Wise Men).   A delirious wounded Jewish young man hears the songs of the “Kaddish” (the prayer for the dead) sung as he confuses a hallucination of poet Walt Whitman, who was noted for visiting the wounded Union soldiers, as a vision who is looking out for him.  “Marching Through Georgia,” the fevered Confederate battle cry blasts forth in pride, even though the South has lost what they called “the war of Northern aggression,” a war that is still being fought today in the minds of some.  The Black experience on both sides of the conflict center on what has changed, what will change and what will stay the same.  The race card issue is very much in the present day news.

This is not a historical play as many of the “facts” are not “facts,’ per se, but Vogel will not allow the audience to ignore that that war, and the trauma it left behind is still present.

Dobama has taken on a major task in producing “A Civil War Christmas:  An American Musical Celebration.”  Not only does the production require 15 skilled actors who portray 60 characters, each character requires a number of unique costumes.  In order to visually transport the audience from each of the 64 scenes to the other, a massive turntable had to be constructed.  Props are numerous.  Special lighting effects were present.  This is the most expensive and probably the most complex show that Dobama has ever produced.

Director Nathan Motta has succeeded in master-planning the epic tale.  Nothing short of using an Excel spreadsheet could have solved how to keep track of all the characters and where they should be on and off stage at all times, as well as the numerous props and multitude of lighting changes.

The technical aspects of the show were as complex as the staging.  Ben Needham’s set designs, Marcus Dana’s lighting, Richard Ingraham’s sound design, Mark Jenks’ puppets, Jeremy Dobbins’ projection designs, and Tesia Dugan Benson’s costumes all added to the epic feel and images of the production.

Daryl Waters’ musical arrangements were well honed.  Especially effective were the singing of the spirituals and the counterpoint of “Kaddish”/”Silent Night,” and the musical sounds of Jordan Cooper and the orchestra.

The cast was universally outstanding.  Curtain calls to Vincent Briley (Willy Mack), precocious Caris Collins (Jessa), Andrew Gombas (Moses Levy/Chester Saunders), Natalie Green (RAZ), Sally Groth (Clara Barton), Katrice Headd (Hannah), Bob Keefe (Ulysses S. Grant), Nathan Lilly (Bronson), Lashawn Little (Jim Wormley), Brian Mueller (John Surrat), ), Matt O’Shea (Johns Wilkes Booth), Sally Field’s look and-sound-a-like Juliette Regnier (Mary Todd Lincoln), Nicole Sumlin (Elizabeth Keckley), Tim Tavcar (Robert E. Lee), and Matthew Wright (Lincoln).

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  Audiences looking for an alternative to the usual escapist holiday treats have an opportunity to attend “A Civil War Christmas:  An American Musical Celebration, ” and broaden their knowledge of a series of historical and fictional events, which should challenge their thinking, while helping place some of the current legal and ethical issues in a broad perspective.  The production is stronger than the content, but it is a show well worth seeing.
“A Civil War Christmas:  An American Musical Celebration” runs through January 4, 2015, at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.

Friday, December 05, 2014

New cast brings added cheer to ‘A Christmas Story” at Cleveland Play House

Little did I realize as I stood many years ago, as an extra, in front of Higbee’s Department Store in downtown Cleveland at 3 AM, that I was participating in the filming of what would become one of the most popular winter holiday movies of all times. 

The filming was done in the middle of the night because in daytime, the Erieview Tower and Federal Building were visible from Public Square, as was the shell of the BP Tower, that was under construction.

I also didn’t know, as I stood on the stoop of a house, a couple of doors down from 3159 West 11th Street, in the heart of Tremont, that the single sentence I spoke on camera, would wind up on the cutting room floor, eliminating my actual role in “A Christmas Story.” Ah, show business, cruel show business!

Many Clevelanders think of “A Christmas Story” as “our” movie, a movie set and made in Cleveland.  They are only partially right.  Our fair city was selected as the place to film the low budget flick because Cleveland, in the winter, has lots of snow.  Right?  Wrong!  A freak of nature caused 1982 to be mild.  Little snow.  The movie mavens had to flood the scenes with fake snow.  Finally, frustration set in and the powers that be moved the filming to Canada.

Before the flight across the lake took place, the now dubbed “The Official Christmas Story House” was used for external shots, including the footage of the stocking lamp in the front window.  Interior scenes were shot on a sound stage.  The actual house, after falling into disrepair, was bought, turned into a museum which displays rooms rebuilt to duplicate the images on the sound stage decorated with props from the film, as well as hundreds of rare, behind-the-scenes photos, which are now on display.

(Nope, though I was posed for some pictures, and interviewed Peter Billingsley (the film’s Ralphie) and Scott Schwartz (Flick) for Continental Cable, I’m not on display their either). 

The house gets about 50,000 visitors a year.  Across the street there is a gift store that sells such goodies as Lifebuoy soap,  pink bunny suits and leg lamps.

The interior of the beautiful Higbee’s Department Store, now the home of the Horseshoe Casino, was actually used for “the visit to Santa” scene.  Santa’s house and slide, where Ralphie and his friends went to sit on the lap of he great-giver-of-gifts, which was built for the movie, was left in the store after the film crew departed.  The slide was used from that time until the store closed in 2002.

The film, “A Christmas Story,” was released in 1983.  It takes place on Cleveland Street in Hohman, Indiana, in the 1940s.  It centers on Ralphie, a 9 year-old boy whose goal in life is to have Santa bring him “an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time.”

Ralphie and his best friends, Flick and Schwartz, try to negotiate life as tweens. A life filled with sophomoric wishes, eluding Scut Farkas, the neighborhood bully, putting up with Randy, Ralphie’s younger brother, escaping the grasps of Esther Jane, who has a crush on our hero, and the need to convince every one in his life, that he won’t shoot out his eye with the sought after bb gun. 

The tale is narrated through remembrances relayed by Ralph, the adult Ralphie.  (In the film Ralph’s voice was supplied by Jean Shepherd, the films co-author.)

The play, written by Philip Grecian, is based on Shepherd, Leigh Brown and Bob Clark’s film script and Shepherd’s book, “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.”

The stage version is filled with the memorable lines of the film, including, “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine,” “Daddy’s gonna kill Ralphie!,” “Only I didn’t say ‘Fudge.’  I said the WORD, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the ‘F-dash-dash-dash’ word!,” “Some men are Baptists, others Catholics, my father was an Oldsmobile man!,” “Scut Farkus staring out at us with his yellow eyes.  He had yellow eyes!  SO HELP ME GOD, YELLOW EYES,” “Aha, aha, it’s a clinkerrrr!!! That blasted, stupid furnace. Dadgummit!.”  And, the never to be forgotten epithet by Flick before he succumbed to the , “I TRIPLE-dog-dare you!”
Yes, “Stick my tongue to that stupid pole, that’s stupid.”

Again this year, the Play House production is directed by John McCluggage.  Last time around the production was sluggish and lacked some of the requisite charm.  McCluggage replaced much of the cast, has refined some of the technical aspects, and added zing that previously was missing.

Jeff Talbott revived his role as Ralph, the on-stage narrator, with great ease, charm and empathy. 

Skipper Rankin grew enough to move from being Randy in last year’s production, to portray Ralphie.  Though his voice got a little into the high range, making it difficult to hear some words, Skipper was real, believable and delightful.

Ethan Montoya was amusing as the put upon Flick, though he needs to work on projection.  Yumi Ndhlovu was properly full of herself as Helen, and Giovanna A. Layne was on point as the crush-struck Esther Jane.  Jake Spencer nearly stole the show as probably the best, “I have to go wee-wee” Randy, in the long history of local staging. 

Newcomers, Christopher Gerson, was wonderful as The Old Man, and Madeleine Maby was perfect as the gentle, put upon, June Cleaverish-mom.  Laura Perrotta was nicely fierce as Miss Shields, the teacher who turns in the Wicked Witch of the West!

Robert Mark Morgan’s set design worked well, but the Higbee’s Santa house and slide are still flimsy and underwhelming.  James C. Swonger’s sound design was outstanding.  The audio special effects, especially the “clinkers” and “Bumpuses’s dogs” were terrific. 

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  This year’s “THE CHRISTMAS STORY,” now a seemingly permanent installment as CPH’s holiday show, was a step above some of the recent stagings of the epic.  Many of the opening night audience seemed to be long time devotees, as many of the laugh lines were preceded by pre-giggles and oral  forecasting of the now famous lines.  It was almost like a midnight viewing of “The Rocky Horror Show.” Yes, a good time was had by all.  No “bah Humbug” here!

“A Christmas Story,” runs through December 21, 2014 in the Allen Theatre at PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

It’s that time of year—“Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” @ State Theatre

The holiday season is upon us.  Many local theatres are geared to make your days merry and bright.  Curtains have or will shortly go up on the likes of “A Christmas Carol,” “A Christmas Story,” and “Santaland Diaries.”  Even The  Key Bank Broadway series is ringing in the season with a holiday musical, “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.”

The stage musical, with libretto by David Ives and Paul Blake, and music and lyrics by Irvin Berlin, is loosely based on the 1954 film, “White Christmas, which was based on the 1942 film, “Holiday Inn.” 

It’s 1944.  America and its Allies are involved in the second world war.  Bob Wallace and Phil Davis are doing a USO-type show for the troops of the 151st Division.  Not only is there a war hanging over the heads of the troops, but their beloved commanding officer, Major General Thomas F. Waverly, is about to be relieved of his duties.  At the end of the show-within a show, a musical tribute is given in honor of Waverly. 

As the rest  of the story unfolds, Wallace and Davis,  following the war,  become celebrities doing night club, radio and TV gigs, including appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show.  Years later, the duo finds that General Waverly’s ski lodge in Vermont is about to be foreclosed upon, and along with two cuties and a host of entertainers, they put on a fund-raising tribute for the General, and, of course, save the lodge and find love. 

As has to happen in any escapist musical, boy-girl meet and argue and make up (in this plot two boys and two girls), a crisis or two has to emerge and be solved, and all ends well, since, as one of the show’s songs says, “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.”

All of the required audience pleasers are present.  There’s a cute little talented girl, a lovable local yokel, adorable dancing girls, handsome dancing boys, and a big-mouthed sarcastic aging female.

In the course of the action, the cast and audience is humming and singing such classics as, “White Christmas,” “Let Yourself Go,” “Sisters,” “Count Your Blessings, Instead of Sheep, and “Blue Skies.”  There is even an audience sing along.

The songs are shoe-horned in, sometimes with no real reason other than that Irving Berlin wrote them.  This is no book musical in the ilk of “Fiddler on the Roof” or “West Side Story.”  It’s no thinking person’s script, such as “Next to Normal.” That matters little.  That’s not the purpose of this type of show.  It’s pure entertainment for entertainment’s sake.  It’s “42nd Street” and “Singing in the Rain.”  It’s meant to be fantasy, feel good stuff.

“Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” has been hailed as “a holiday day card come to life,” and, that it is. Snow falls on the stage and the audience, Christmas trees shine brightly, and there are big dancing and singing production numbers.  The whole experience is all decked out in the holiday mood.  As one of the songs says, “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.”

The touring production does not have great production qualities.  Most of the sets are painted drops, no electronic special effects, just good old fashioned, old time techniques.  Curtains close between each scene to allow time to set up for the next scene.  It, like the script, is a flashback to the past.

The production, under the direction of Randy Skinner, who is also the choreographer, is filled with creative dancing and gimmicks. Those who left at intermission missed the exciting show stopper, “I Love a Piano,” which opened Act II and concluded to extended applause.

The cast is uneven.  The male leads need to sparkle.  Think Donald O’Connor, Gene Kelly, Tommy Tune, Danny Kaye.  Jeremy Benton comes close as Phil.  He has a nice connection with his female “love,” the pert and talented Kaitlyn Davison.  He sings well and dances even better.  On the other hand, James Clow lacks the charisma and stage magnetism for creating a believable Bob.  He displays little emotional connection to his lady love, the big voiced, stand-offish Trista Moldovan (Betty).

Pamela Myers delights as the Ethel Merman-ish Martha, the Inn’s take-charge lady.  Conrad John Schuck was correctly military-stuffy as General Waverly.

Though his talents are basically wasted, Clevelanders should be thrilled to see Elyrian Cliff Bemis on the State’s stage, a stage which he helped save.  He was cast  a member of “Jacques Brel,” which played, in an extended run, in the lobby of the State Theatre while money was raised to stop the destruction of what is now the PlayhouseSquare theatre complex. 

BTW...”Jacques Brel’s” director, Joe Garry, and Bemis’s fellow cast member, David O. Frazier, were in the “White Christmas” audience to see their old buddy portray Mr. Snoring Man and Ezekiel Foster, the local yokel.  Bemis, a Baldwin Wallace graduate, who is often seen in TV commercials (think "Hi, Cliff here for IHOP") has established a music theatre scholarship at his alma mater.

The dance corps was excellent, as were the group choral sounds.  The large local orchestra, which had a nice upbeat tone, sometimes overpowered the singers.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” is theatrical fluff that makes for a nice marzipan treat for the holidays.  Don’t go expecting a great American musical.  It’s intended to entertain, not teach a lesson or give advice on how to solve the world’s problems.  If  you ”Let Yourself Go,” the show should add to your “Happy Holiday.”

“Irving Berlin’s White Christmas,” is scheduled to run through December 14 , 2014.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org

Monday, December 01, 2014

Farcical “Hounds of the Baskervilles” at Actors’ Summit

There’s a moor, a diabolical hound, a maiden, a man who dies of a heart attack (well, maybe), a butler who carries around a tray of plastic food and wears an obvious fake beard, an attempt to perform CPR on an obvious stuffed dummy, men in a sauna wearing towels over their suits, men dressed as women, and lots of doors slamming. 

Then there’s Sir Henry, the last of the Baskervilles (well, maybe).  Sherlock Holmes and his faithful companion, Dr. Watson, are brought in to protect Sir Henry, but bumble so badly at the start of the production, the play has to be started over.  Then there’s a series of tweets about the play, while it is going on, requiring the cast to redo the entire show to prove its not as outlandish as the tweet indicated. 

Yes, Actors’ Summit is staging a British farce entitled “Hound of the Baskervilles.” 

The mystery novel “The Hound of the Baskervilles” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the third of his novels about the detective Sherlock Holmes.  It, like the play adaptation by Steven Canny and Frank Nicholson, takes place on Dartmoor in Devon, located in England’s West Country.  Like the play, the book tells of an attempted murder of the last in the line of Baskervilles, wealthy landowners. 

Any resemblance between the serious tone of the book and the ridiculous staged version ends there.

Canny and Nicholson pull out all the stops to create a typical British farce, much in the vein of “The 39 Steps” and “Noises Off.”  They have three men playing fifteen parts, which results in lots of quick costume changes, males playing females, bad wigs and beards, maniacal changing of sets, ridiculous double entendres, the stretching of reality to its limits, and general exhausting chaos on both the parts of the actors and the audience.

British theatrical farces, commonly referred to as “foolish shows,” “mockeries,” or “ridiculous shams” can be very, very funny.  The difficulty is that to make them hilarious requires meticulous staging.   British and Canadian actors and directors have been trained to be sensitive to making over-exaggeration look natural and the real, a requirement for effective farce. Double takes, side glances, asides to the audience are all part of the farce lexicon. Think Monte Python. 

Much of British humor is tongue-in-cheek.  This has also built a pattern for the presentation, as does the ability to play with the sound of British punctuation and the pitches of the voice.   These techniques do not come naturally to Americans.  Few U.S. playwrights use that type of humor.  Most, like Neil Simon, put their characters in real humorous situations, not preposterous ones.  Mel Brooks uses exaggeration, but not of the British variety.  American jokes tend to be self-deprecating or sexually laden.  Neither of these lend themselves to farce presentation.  It accounts to why Americans often “don’t get” British humor.

Accepting the difficulty of staging and acting in farce, the Actor’s Summit production of ‘Hound of the Baskervilles” is quite nice, especially considering I saw an early-in-the-run staging.  Farce tends to improve as the production goes on, as the timing becomes more crisp, adding to the folly.

Stuart Hoffman, who not only played Holmes, but four other males and two females, was properly staid as the great detective and humorous as Cecile Stapleton and Mrs. Barrymore.

Frank Jackman was on target as Watson and a local yokel.

Jim Fippin nicely carried much of the load with his six characterizations.

British accents, when used, were well done, the costume changes fun to watch, many of the shticks worked.  The numerous movements of set pieces slowed down the production and got monotonous.  Some other way of making the shifts would have helped so that there were not long pauses.

Capsule judgement: You have to go to Actors’ Summit to see “The Hounds of the Baskervilles” in the right state of mind.  Understand that this is not a “real” Sherlock Holmes mystery tale.  Be prepared to laugh, accept the outlandish, and groan at the ridiculousness.

For tickets to “Hound of the Baskervilles” which runs through December 21, 2014, call 330-374-7568 or go to www.actorssummit.org

Sunday, November 30, 2014

“The Nutcracker”—orchestra and chorus superb, short version and dancing proficient

From 1981 until about 2000, Cleveland audiences were enchanted with Dennis Nahat, the then artistic-director of Cleveland Ballet, later the Cleveland San Jose Ballet’ s version of “The Nutcracker.”  Often starring the wunderkinds of the company, Karen Gabay and Raymond Rodriguez, the production was filled creativity, gorgeous costumes and scenery, enveloping story telling, and general wonder.

Since the departure of the company to San Jose, California, the holiday season offering of the epic “The Nutcracker,” adapted from the E.T.A. Hofmann tale, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” with magnificent score by Tchaikovsky, which has become one of the most famous compositions in the western lexicon of music, has been filled by touring productions.  Companies such as the Pennsylvania Ballet and Winnipeg Ballet have performed.  Though competent, they did not compare with the Nahat version, nor meet the dance levels of his performers.

The newest guests are the Joffrey Ballet.  The company has performed during the summer at Blossom with mixed results.  Sometimes their performances have been breath taking, at other times pedestrian. 

Joffrey’s production, staged for seven performances, is drawing large crowds.  Little girls, dressed in their holiday finest, are seen joyously prancing through the lobby, with visions of Nutcrackers, princes and sugarplums in their heads and smiles on their faces.

The Joffrey production was conceived and directed by Robert Joffrey, with choreography for “Waltz of the Snowflakes” and “Waltz of the Flowers” by Gerald Arpino. 

The Joffrey version, as is traditional, is set in Germany on Christmas Eve. (The Winnipeg production was set in Canada, and started out with a hockey match, proceeding the march of guests coming to the family celebration. 

Two children if the house, Clara and Fritz Stahlbaum, and their cousins and guests, enjoy the lovely party.   Clara and Fritz’s godfather, the toymaker, Herr Drosselmeyer, gives the children gifts.  Clara receives a large nutcracker doll, which unfortunately is broken by Fritz and mended by Drosselmeyer.  When the children are sent to sleep, Clara dreams of her nutcracker and his adventures fighting The Mouse King and going on a journey to an enchanted forest where the Sugar Plum Fairy, and the presents, who have been brought to life, perform traditional dances of various countries.

This presentation is an adapted version, cutting out about eight minutes of the traditional staging, cuts which took away some of the visual wonder from the “Waltz of the Snowflakes,” have Drosselmeyer, rather than the nutcracker prince accompany Clara on her journey, and doesn’t have her return to her home to realize she has been dreaming, but, instead, she floats away in a hot air balloon, thus leaving the tale incomplete.  It changed the fairy tale love by almost eliminating the story of Clara and her prince, and instead had her spending time with Drosselmeyer.  

Traditionalists will not be enchanted by these changes, though the shorter sit time is wonderful for children, as was the decision to start the evening performances at 7 o’clock so that parents didn’t have to carry sleeping young children out of the State Theatre.

On opening night the dancing was generally fine.  It was not world class, but acceptable.  Some of the staging confounded.  Why, in the second act, was Drosselmeyer allowed to distract attention from the dancers, upstaging them, by repeatedly waving his arms, wandering among them, rearranging his cloak while sitting, and talking to Clara, was confounding. 

The large number of local children who were incorporated as “supernumeraries,” was exciting, especially since they were excellent, thanks to Gladisa Guadalupe, their rehearsal director.

The sets, costumes, and special effects were beautiful.

The highlights of the evening were the Cleveland Orchestra and the Cleveland Orchestra’s Children’s Chorus.

Under the baton of Tito Muñoz, the orchestra created a sound that virtually engulfed the audience with a clarity and style that made the music live.  Even though they were in the pit, which often muffles the sound, the tones were full and articulate.  The chorus, under the direction of Ann Usher, perched in the mezzanine level boxes on both sides of the theatre, created pitch perfect sounds that added illusions of delight and beauty. 

The combined sound of the orchestra and chorus was acknowledged when on opening the audience, who gave the dancers a polite round of applause, leapt from their seats as Muñoz came onto the stage, gestured toward the orchestra, and the lights came up on the choir.  Bravo!

Capsule judgement:  It has been an interesting experience to see a variety of companies come into the area in and attempt to fill the void of not having a local company to satisfy the “The Nutcracker” tradition.  None of these groups has yet reached the level of the rendition by Dennis Nahat and Cleveland Ballet.  The recent presentation, which combined the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus with the Joffrey Ballet, was entertaining, with the music and singing superb, and the dancing quite proficient, but not compelling. 

The performances conclude with performances at 2 and 7 on November 30, 2014.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

TOPDOG/UNDERDOG affords a conflicted look at the African American male@ none too fragile

Suzan-Lori Parks won a Pulitzer Prize for her script “Topdog/Underdog,” now in production at none-too-fragile theatre.  She also won the MacArthur “Genius Grant” Award for the play.   The script is an existential trip asking, “What is it like to be a black male in modern America?”

Being a student of James Baldwin, African American powerhouse writer, when she was a student at Mount Holyoke College, afforded Parks a model for delving into the Black experience, especially the male experience.

“Topdog/Underdog” showcases how two brothers, Lincoln and Booth, deal with women, poverty, racism, and their troubled upbringing.  They came from a home where the mother abandoned the family, the father named them Lincoln and Booth as a joke, and also split from the boys when they were teens, and the duo has struggled to find a constructive place in society.

The setting is a depressing, small apartment in an unnamed urban area.  The  brothers have a relationship based on a thin line of being brothers, but brothers of a very different ilk.  Lincoln graduated from high school and has been employed with odd jobs.  His latest is being a stand-in for Abraham Lincoln at an arcade, where the patrons pay to assassinate honest Abe, much like John Wilkes Booth did near the end of the Civil War as he watched a production of “Our American Cousin” in Washington D.C.’s Ford’s Theatre.  In the role he is painted with white makeup and given a lower wage than his white predecessor.  With little compassion, he is fired and replaced by a wax figure.

Lincoln walks through life in a coma.  He was married, but his wife left because his life centered on making money by conning tourists while performing a three-card Monte game.  When his partner was killed, he left the “business.”  He sleeps on a recliner in his brother’s apartment, which, he pays for with his arcade job.  He spends most of his time drinking, lying in the chair, and hanging out.  After his firing, he turns back to a life of shilling, with eventually bitter results.

Booth, a high school dropout with no prospects for any type of income, spends his time trying to emulate his brother’s success as a card dealer, telling fantasy success tall tales about his carnal life with Grace his “fiancé,” stealing , and fantasizing about sex.

As the prospects for their futures become more and more tenuous, a psychological battle between Lincoln (topdog) and Booth (underdog) escalates.   Eventually, Booth shoots Grace and, as their names indicate, a confrontation between the brothers brings to a climax the tale of Lincoln and Booth.

The none-too-fragile production, under the direction of Sean Derry, though overly long, grabs and holds the audience’s attention.  The quality of the acting is excellent.  Both Brian Kenneth Armour as Booth and Robert Grant III as Lincoln are totally natural and don’t act the parts, but become the characters.   Short, chunky Armour reeks of a frustrated boy-child with no realistic future, so he must invent a reason for respect and purposefulness.  Tall, handsome, Grant wants desperately to escape from his frustrating trap of a life, but doesn’t have the skills or tools to see daylight.

Capsule judgement:  “Topdog/Underdog” is one of those well directed, acted and written plays that should be seen by anyone interested in the plight of the Black man in America.  On the other hand, with nearly one in three 20-29 year-old African American males under some form of criminal justice supervision, whether imprisoned, in  jail, or on parole or probation, it is frustrating to realize that the situation may be hopeless and there appears to be no way to solve the problems.  Sad, so sad.

For tickets call 330-671-4563 or go to http://www.nonetoofragile.com

Sunday, November 23, 2014

“The story is told in verse, densely packed with rhyme, which has to be spoken so that it sounds like natural language.“  “Much of the play concerns a battle between angels and demons.”  “There is little action in the play, just a series of monologues.”  The descriptions are vivid, “fingernails pierce an eyeball and drain it of fluid, a knife slices into a woman while she’s having sex.  A body implodes beneath the tires of a truck.”  “The play is filled with vivid, vulgar verse.”

Most theatre’s artistic directors, reading those descriptions, wouldn’t even conceive of producing such a script.  But fear not local theater-goers looking for the unusual in the theatre, know that Clyde Simon, the chief guru of congruence-continuum, is turned on by such imagery.  He knows that his niche audience will flock through the doors of his postage stamp-sized theatre to see how he stages such visuals as a police chase of a stolen truck, the sex and beating scenes, and an attempted abortion with a pointed broom handle.

Irish writer Mark O’Rowe, who is noted for writing about thugs and lowlifes who have fits of savagery, has penned “Terminus,” a vivid play in which all of the action takes place in the theatre-goer’s imagination, rather than on stage.  In other words, he has written a movie script for the listener’s mind.

He does this by using vivid language to create the imagery.   Rather than dialogue, which places the actions on stage between people, he has his three actors speak monologues directly to the audience, forcing the listener to take the words and experience them.

Why the monologues?  O’Rowe says, ““The monologue is somewhere in the middle of theater, stand-up, and the novel.  You can’t look away, because everything that’s said is already inside your head.’’

Why this story and format?  The author states, ““The truest thing I can say is I’m indulging my inner 16-year-old, who loves films about blowing [stuff] up,’’
The storyline centers on three people, “A,” “B” and “C.”  “A” is a former teacher who is now working on a suicide hotline.  She is a mother who is estranged from her daughter.  “B” is a young pregnant girl, who is in the clutches of a powerful lesbian pimp.  “C” is a murderous, socially incompetent male psychopath, who has seemingly made a deal with the devil.  

The trio’s lives intersect in a series of violent confrontations. 

While on the hotline, “A” receives a call from a former student who is threatening to abort her 9-month fetus.  When she turns into a sleuth in order to track the young lady down, she ends up dipping her toe into the gritty Dublin underworld of lesbian gangs, abortions in backroom bars, physical beatings, and death.

Lucy Bredeson was born to play “A.”  She gives a vivid, performance.  Her eyes flashing, she tells her part of the tale in a direct, flat tone that is chilling!

Rachel Lee Kolis portrays “B,” telling her part of the tale consisting of searched after affection, and a near-death encounter with an otherworldly creature, with attention-demanding clarity.

Dana Hart, portrays “C,” an oddball with no conscience, who has supposedly sold his soul to the devil.  He is often compelling in his tall telling. Unfortunately, on opening night, some of the power of his last scene was diminished by some line stumbles.

Jim Smith’s set design, a series of three-step platforms on different parts of the stage, a modified crane, and graffiti covered walls, works well, as does Jeremy Allen’s music choices, which underlie many of the scenes. 

Dialect coach, Chuck Richie, has masterfully perfected each of the actor’s Irish lilts. 

Capsule Judgement:   Though compelling, “Terminus” is definitely not a play for everyone.  The language is rough, the vivid descriptions often unnerving, and the closeness of the actors to the audience can be off-putting.  On the other hand, the performances, the experience of listening to the impressive poetic writing, and the opportunity to experience intense emotional involvement, may stir the right audience to attend.

“Terminus” runs through December 20, 2014 at 8 pm on 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 or go to convergence-continuum.org

Saturday, November 22, 2014

"A Chorus Line” is “one singular sensation” at BWU

Baldwin Wallace is a powerhouse in providing talent to the Broadway stage.  In the past year, over a dozen of the program’s grads have listed, “a proud graduate of Baldwin Wallace” in their Great White Way “Playbill” resumes. 

What’s the secret?  A selection system that picks only the best applicants, fine training in dancing, voice and acting, and good counseling in the art of trying out and obtaining an agent.  The student’s culminating activity is participating in a New York showcase during the student’s senior year that exposes their talents to directors, casting agents and Broadway movers and shakers.

Two of those grads, and incidentally Aurora, Ohio residents, Chris McCarrell (class of 2013) and Caitlin Houlahan (2014) will be appearing in NBC TV’s “Peter Pan Live,” on December 4 at 8 PM.  McCarrell, fresh off his Broadway debut as Joly and Marius’s understudy in this year’s revival of “Les Misérables,” will play Nibs, one of the lost boys, while Houlahan, who lit up the stage in this year’s “Carrie“ at Beck Center, will be Jane.

The students got to hone their tryout and performance skills by staging “A Chorus Line,” which showcases a group of dancers auditioning.  Each dancer is showcased as s/he tries to win a spot in the chorus line.  The production was staged by the program’s director Victoria Bussert, with musical direction by David Pepin, and Gregory Daniels restaging the original choreography.

A Chorus Line,” the 1975 Broadway show, which won twelve Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, was directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett.  The role of Cassie was portrayed by Donna McKecknie, a character based in great part on hers life, as was the role of Maggie. 

McKecknie, a Tony Award winner, was a close associate with Bennett, who she later married. McKecknie was brought in to work with the BW students as they rehearsed for their staging of “A Chorus Line?”  

Yes, the students not only got to work with Victoria Bussert, but with a star from the original production, who is also an expert on Bennett’s demanding choreographic style. Exposure to Broadway power players is part of the BW program.

BWU’s “A Chorus Line” featured two alternating casts during its 10 performance run (November 13 through November 23). 

I saw the Cassie cast perform.  And what a performance it was!  It was difficult to realize that these weren’t experienced professionals. 

The very physically and psychologically demanding dancing was finely carried out by the youthful performers.

The cast was almost universally excellent, with many displaying Broadway-ready skills.  Standouts were Michael Canada as Paul, whose monologue about coming to terms with his sexuality, was emotionally stirring.   Genna-Paige Kanago as Cassie had the difficult task of dancing the demanding “The Music and the Mirror.”  She carried it off impressively.  Victoria Pippo portrayed the role of the bitchy and sexy Sheila with just the right attitude, not going over board and begging for laughs.  Mackenzie Wright stopped the show with her vocalization of “What I Did for Love.” Annalise Griswold was delightful as Val, whose version of “Dance Ten, Looks:  Three,” often referred to as “Tits and Ass,” was a show highlight.

Side notes:  Elyria native, Lorain County Community College and Kent State graduate, Crissy Wilzak, had a long run as Broadway’s Val.  She also played Vicki and Judy in the show’s run.  And, Elyria High School grad James Kirkwood won a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for co-writing the book for “A Chorus Line.”

If you missed seeing “A Chorus Line,” you will have the opportunity to see some of the students from the BWU program at Beck Center when the theatre presents “Dogfight” from February 6 through March 15, 2015.  The show, based on the musical film of the same name, centers on three young Marines, who, in 1963, before the night of their deployment, learn the power of compassion.  For tickets call 216-521-2540 or for information and/or tickets, go to  http://www.beckcenter.org

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Previews and Quick Reviews: CWRU/CPH, Groundworks, KIBBUTZ CONTEMPORARY DANCE COMPANY, THE NUTCRACKER: Joffrey Ballet/Cleveland Orchestra

“Three Sisters” @ CWRU/CPH MFA Acting Program

Eight students are accepted each year to be part of the Case Western Reserve/Cleveland Play House MFA Acting Program.   The purpose of the program is to combine educational and professional theater experiences to prepare students for theatre careers.

Their latest production, staged in the Helen Theatre in the Allen Complex in PlayhouseSquare, was Anton Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters.” 

Chekhov was a Russian realist writer who is often referred to as the literary predictor of the twentieth century Russian Revolution.

“The Three Sisters” centers on the Prozorov sisters who relocated from their beloved Moscow to a provincial Russian town with their late father.  They wish to return to the refined life in Moscow, but fail to do so and their dreams recede further and further.
The production, under the direction of Ron Wilson, is slowly paced and thoughtful.  The acting is generally proficient.  Standouts in the cast are Nick Barbato as Andrei, the frustrated brother of the three sisters who was moving swiftly toward being a professor before he was wrenched from Moscow to live in the provinces,  Kathryn Metzger as Olga, is the matriarchal and spinster sister, Megan King as Masha, who is involved in a disappointing marriage, and Katie O. Solomon as Irina, the youngest sister, who believes her love is in Moscow and she must go there to find happiness. 
The images are nicely showcased in a fragmented set, enhanced by traditional Russian music, and era correct costumes.
The production runs through November 18, 2014.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or www.clevelandplayhouse.com

The next performance by the CWRU/CPH MFA program will be Phillip Barry’s “The Philadelphia Story” from February 25th through March 7th, 2015 in the Helen.

GroundWorks Dance Theater, Fall Concert @ the Allen Theatre

Bannered as “imagination you can see,” GroundWorks dance has been critically celebrated as an “artistically significant” ensemble.  The company, which was founded in 1998, spreads its creative wings by performing in challenging settings including an ice house, cathedrals, libraries, outdoor venues, often with live musicians on stage.  In its 16 years it has commissioned 23 premiers from national and international choreographers, as well as 30 new works by its Artistic Director, David Shimotakahara, and 10 by Artistic Associate, Amy Miller.

Earlier this fall the company presented its third annual concert series at the Allen Theatre in partnership with Cleveland State University as its professional dance company in residence.

The nicely balanced program introduced GroundWorks newest company member, Troy Macklin, a welcome addition.  His youth and dynamisms fit well with the precision, athleticism and discipline demanded by Shimotakahara.

The program included “Always” choreographed by Gina Gibney to the music of Patsy Cline, centering on story telling, often about relationships.  The pulse and rhythms of the music were well integrated into the movements.  The second offering was the world premiere of “wait. now. go now.” by choreographer Johannes Wieland, which combined theatre and dance centering on how others see us and we see ourselves.   The concluding piece, “CoDa,” choreographed by Ronen Koresh, was a display of high level emotions, which featured the concept of focus as illustrated by strong physical and static movements.

GroundWorks next public presentations, The Winter/Spring Concert will be March 5 & 6 at EJThomas Hall in Akron and March 20 & 21 at The Breen Center,
2008 West 30th Street, Cleveland.


A joint production of the Cleveland-Israel Arts Connection, The Jewish Federation of Cleveland and Dance Cleveland, the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, presented “If At All,” choreographed by Rami Be’er, at the Ohio Theatre.

The 65-minute piece, presented without intermission, was a dance/theatrical piece which centered on interpersonal relationships by using literal and abstract movements, mainly the forming and breaking of circles.  The constant motion, and the expanding and contracting physical space, created a feeling of the altering dynamic of individuals and groups sometimes interacting, sometimes being static, other times being alone.

Though the choreography was often repetitive, the overall effect was positive. The well trained and disciplined dancers, especially, the males, were dynamic in their explosive movements. 

Dance Cleveland’s next offering is the creative Pilobolus (http://www.pilobolus.com/) on Saturday, January 31 @ 8 PM in the State Theatre.  For tickets, which run $20-55, call 216-241-6000 or go on line to www.playhousesquare.org


The holiday season is upon us and nothing seems to signal it more clearly than a performance of “The Nutcracker.”  And what could be more exciting than hearing Tchaikovsky’s distinctive score, being performed by The Cleveland Orchestra, one of the world’s great musical assemblages, and danced by the famous Joffrey Ballet?   Great music, choreographic excellent, brilliant costumes, larger than life scenery, all showcased in a tale for all times.

When?  November 26-30, 2014.  Tickets:  $20-99.  Where:  State Theatre in PlayhouseSquare. 

Please note:  Children under two years of age are not permitted.  Everyone, no matter their age, must have a ticket and be seated with an adult.

For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org

Monday, November 17, 2014

Classic, “The Great Gatsby,” at Ensemble

F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of “The Great Gatsby,” which many consider one of the greatest American novels, is the writer who, more than any other, painted a literary vision of the American Jazz age.  It was the 1920s, the era of decadence, mob violence, prohibition, flappers, dance crazes, high fashion, loose women,  powerful men, love and lust.

Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise,” “The Beautiful and Damned,” and “Tender Is the Night” were all classics, but nothing grabbed and still holds the public’s attention more than “The Great Gatsby.”  The novel was so compelling that at least five movie versions have been made.  The latest was in a 2014 which directed by Baz Luhrmann and featured Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire.

Fitzgerald wrote in his novel, “The Rich Boy,” “Let me tell you about the rich.  They are different from you and me.” Jay Gatsby, the central character in “Gatsby,” a stage adapted version by Simon Levy, which is now on stage at Ensemble Theatre, should have taken Fitzgerald’s statement into consideration in dealing with Tom Buchannan and his wife Daisy.  As it turned out, nouveau rich Gatsby was no match for the depths to which the old-money wealthy Tom would go to keep Daisy.

Jay Gatsby, the play’s flawed protagonist, lives in a large mansion in a fictional section on Long Island.  Many secrets circulate about the man who throws lavish parities for the rich and famous and how he obtained his wealth.  As the tale unfolds we learn that “Jay Gatsby” was born on a farm in North Dakota, befriended by a millionaire who taught him the skills of making massive amounts of money, met Daisy while in officer training school, fell in love with her, and spent the rest of his life in pursuit of the Louisville debutant.

Daisy Buchanan, who, after meeting Gatsby during World War I, promised to wait for him, also craves wealth and power.  When Tom Buchanan, who has both, proposes to her, she dismisses her promise to wait for Gatsby, and accepts.

Years later, after Gatsby has achieved his fortune, for the sole purpose of getting Daisy, the duo are reunited after much manipulating on Gatsby’s part.  Daisy agrees to leave her husband.   But the woman, who is subject to mood and decision swings is incapable of making a break from her philandering husband.

In the tale, Nick Carraway, who acts as the story’s narrator, is a young man from Minnesota, who fought in World War I, and goes to New York to learn the bond business.  He moves to Long Island, living in a small cottage next to the opulent estate of  secretive, wealthy Jay Gatsby.  As a cousin of Daisy Buchanan, Nick is encouraged by Gatsby, who has befriended the Midwest transplant, to arrange for a meeting between Daisy and Gatsby.  Little does Nick know that he is partaking in rekindling a romance between the two, a romance that will lead to psychological and physical destruction.

The story’s antagonist, Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s wealthy husband, is a self-centered, arrogant bully.  He is a true image of Fitzgerald’s “The Rich Boy” quote about the ways of the rich.  He beds who he likes, including the pretty but shallow Myrtle, the wife of a local service station owner.  It is this relationship which is the catalyst that brings “The Great Gatsby” to its emotional ending.

Simon Levy’s stage version of “The Great Gatsby, is an encapsulated version of the original Fitzgerald manuscript. This writing completes what he calls his Fitzgerald Trilogy, in which he adapted “Tender Is the Night,” and “The Last Tycoon” into stage plays. The compressed format lends itself to a streamlined play, with fragmentary scenery, a small cast, and the bare essentials of the story.

Ensemble’s production of “The Great Gatsby,” under the direction of Ian Wolfgang Hinz, accomplishes Levy’s goal of giving a snapshot version of the tale of Gatsby, Daisy, Nick and the decadence of the Jazz era.

Hinz has made an ingenious choice in casting Kyle Carthens in the Jay Gatsby role and Greg White as Meyer Wolfsheim.  Both actors are Black.  This not only takes the interpretation of the play in a different direction than the movie versions, which cast White actors in the roles, but highlights the racial and religious prejudice of the 1920s.  It makes Nick’s obvious deep seated hatreds sizzle even more.  He not only despises Gatsby for his desire for Daisy, but highlights Nick’s underlying racial prejudices.  It also puts a spotlight on Nick’s dislike for Meyer Wolfsheim, usually played as a Jewish gangster, and Wolfsheim’s being Gatsby’s benefactor. 

James Rankin nicely textures his performance as Nick Carraway, the play’s narrator.  He, more than anyone in the cast, comes across as real, not feigning emotions and motivations.

One of the production’s weaknesses is missing out on creating the required opulence of the Gatsby estate and the high level of visual elegance needed to live up to Fitzgerald’s descriptions in the book and Hollywood’s ability to create the proper illusion in their pictorial visions of the manuscript.  This was very noticeable in the costume designs, especially the male costumes, which were highlighted by inexpensive, ill-fitting suits, which were often era incorrect.  The required upscale image of the natty clothing of Gatsby, for example, and his famous pristine cream colored suit, were missing.

Capsule judgment:  “The Great Gatsby” is the illuminating tale of the Jazz Age, a time of the pursuit of money for the pursuit of money, with no moral base.  Neither the play version itself, nor the Ensemble production, is a perfect rendition of Fitzgerald’s classic book, but both do develop the basic  story and give an illusion of the America that was.  It’s worth a viewing.

“The Great Gatsby” runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through December 14, 2014.  For tickets go to www.ensemble-theatre.com or 216-321-2930

Next at Ensemble:  “The Never-Ending Story’ adapted by David S. Craig, based on the novel by Michael Ende, directed by Ian Wolfgang Hinz, January 8-18, 2015.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Mesmerizing “The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time” is a must see!

Christopher, age 15, the character at the center of “The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time,” has Asperger’s Syndrome.  AS is one of the five classifications of the Autism Spectrum Disorders, as defined by the American Psychiatric Association’s “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual” (DSM).

Asperger’s is characterized by “severe deficits in social interaction and communication.”  It is fairly common for those with the syndrome to display inconsistent eye contact when speaking to others. They often lack the ability to pick up appropriate topics for discussion, usually interrupting when they want to say something, paying no attention to the needs of  others. 

Another common sign is sensitive to being touched or of having their space invaded.  There is also a tendency to be obsessive compulsive, making sure things are in the order which they perceive as “correct”  and setting up routines that must be followed.  If their rules are broken, they act out with loud noises, physical aggression, or huffily retreating.  Those with AS are often physically clumsy.

Asperger’s kids are sometimes nicknamed “little professors,” as they tend to have above average intelligence, and are commonly skilled in a particular subject, such as mathematics..

It’s 1998 in Swindon, England.  Christopher stands over the dead body of Wellington, a large dog owned by his neighbor.  This incident takes the fifteen-year old boy out of his comfort zone and he overreacts by attacking the policeman who comes to investigate the killing when the law enforcement agent attempts to touch him.  Christopher has difficulty conveying his ideas and starts yelling when the policeman questions him.  His movements are flailing and jerky. 

The story is told in the form of a narrator reading a book that Christopher has written about his life as part of a school assignment.  The tale is acted out by Christopher, his father, his estranged mother, his neighbors, and others he meets on his path of investigation and discovery of not only who killed the dog, but who Christopher really is. 

The tangled plot includes several infidelities, Christopher’s desire to take the A-level math exam for which he is too young to be eligible, and his discovery of reveling letters that leads him to distrust his father.  Pushing against his strong desires for security and order, Christopher undertakes the daunting task of leaving his neighborhood, taking a train to London, and searching for his mother.  There is a reconnection with his mother, a return to Swindon, readjusting to his father, and his sitting for the A-level test,.  As Christopher has promised the audience, he gets his A grade, “the best possible score.” 

We learn from the tale that as Christopher says, “I have been very brave.”  Yes, he has solved the mystery of Wellington’s murder, conquered the trip to London, found his mother, and writing a book that tells the tale!

The production under the guidance of director Marianne Elliott is mesmerizing.  The story grabs and holds attention.  The pacing is crisp and involving.  The acting is superb.  The technical aspects amaze.

Finn Ross’s video design is awesome.  Electronically, the audience is carried inside Christopher’s mind, tracing his thought processes as he solves problems, and follows street maps as he wends his way.  The viewers vicariously fall off subway tracks with him.  The entire stage, which is a large electronic light box, is like a large computer game which takes on the aura of being an additional character.

Alex Sharp, a recent Julliard graduate, makes his Broadway debut as Christopher.  Sharp doesn’t portray Christopher, he is Christopher.  Eyes blinking, hands flailing, reacting to being touched, avoiding eye contact, losing physical control, shrieking--he lives the life of a boy with Asperger’s.

The rest of the cast, each of whom play multiple roles, are all excellent.  They mold together to create the people in Christopher’s life.

During one scene, Christopher starts to explain to the audience how he solved one of the problems on his A-level math test.  He gets carried away with details.  The narrator explains to him that the audience probably isn’t interested in all the details, but anyone who is can stay after the play is over and Christopher can then explain the details in three minutes.  With a plan set, he is willing to stop the discourse.

After the traditional curtain call, the actors start leaving the stage.  Sharp suddenly turns, transforms himself back into Christopher and, arms swinging, hands flailing, eyes blinking, voice going into a high pitch, yells, “Wait, I forgot to tell you how I solved the problem.  It will only take three minutes.”  The audience froze in place. He proceeds, as the stage clock counts down the time, and the electronics illustrate his thinking process.  And, as promised, he finishes in exactly three minutes, smiles, and awkwardly runs off the stage!

Capsule judgement:  The production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is outstanding on every level.  Well written, creatively staged and exceptionally acted, it is a highlight of the Fall, 2014 season.  It well-deserved the screaming standing ovation it received.  To add to the excitement, Alex Sharp gives a Tony Award winning performance!

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is in an open-ended run at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, New York, New York