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When Northeast Ohio’s theaters collaborate, audiences benefit

By Bob Abelman

Theater is often described as a collaborative art – a joining of talents on stage and behind it. But collaboration most often takes place within producing theater companies and not between them.

Standing in the way of cooperative companies and creative partnerships is the significant competition that exists for rears to fill the tiers.

And because ticket sales to season subscribers and walk-in audiences account for less than 50 percent of the cost of doing business, local theater companies are also in competition for community and government resources, foundation support, corporate underwriting and the contributions of individual philanthropists to subsidize their work.

In short, collaboration is the equivalent of sleeping with the enemy.   

And yet we have seen an influx of theater partnerships in recent years. Some are fairly innocuous, such as when a consortium of local theaters comes together to host a joint audition for an upcoming season. Others reflect a temporary coming together that serves to support the arts in a community, such as when theater companies cross-promote or offer discounted tickets to each other’s work in playbills and on social media.

But, increasingly, there are companies willing to pool resources in order to share the financial costs associated with artistic risk-taking and innovation. Many theaters are seeing collaboration as a way to fill the creative gaps between what they must do to survive, what they can do, and what they would like to do. And there are partnerships motivated by the desire to give emerging artists at one venue a larger or more diverse platform at others.

We see all this happening in major cities with vibrant theater communities. Just recently, in a show of support for new plays, the Second Stage Theater in New York and the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles agreed to commission a series of world premiere works by American writers that will be staged first in California and then on Broadway.

Here in Cleveland, we also see collaboration. And we asked the artistic and managing directors of partnering professional theaters about the costs and benefits – for the respective companies and for their audiences – of having such strange bedfellows.    

A May-December romance:

Beck Center for the Arts and Baldwin Wallace University

Since 1999, under artistic director Scott Spence’s guidance, Lakewood’s Beck Center for the Arts has systematically worked toward professionalizing its theater offerings, including the provision of Equity contracts for actors. It is now recognized as one of the stronger, year-round professional theaters that produce musicals.   

For the past six years, Beck Center’s annual production schedule has included one musical infused with young talent found due south on the small Berea campus of Baldwin Wallace University. There, in its conservatory of music, is a musical theater program under Victoria Bussert’s direction that ranks high among the elite programs in the country. Within the program resides a pool of talented undergraduates who, upon graduation or sooner, have been landing agents and lead roles on Broadway and London’s West End.

As the musical theater program grew over the years, the on-campus stage facilities shared with BW’s opera and theater programs proved limiting in size and availability. Having worked at the Beck Center as a freelance director, Bussert worked out a formal partnership with Spence’s theater, where the students and the faculty design team are hired on as professionals. Mainstage collaborations have included “Carrie,” “In the Heights,” and most recently, “Bring It On.” Canvas recently spoke to Bussert and Spence, who describe the partnership:

Bussert: Scott and I have been able to choose projects that are attractive to the Beck Center audiences and accommodate the nature of our young casting population and our educational mission. Everything we do at BW has to have an educational element, so I am always looking for performance opportunities that teach the kids new skill sets.

Spence: This partnership gives us a greater opportunity to seek out those shows that have appeal to younger audiences and require a cast of younger actors. Every theater has an obligation to its older subscriber base, but it must also vary its product in order to invest in tomorrow’s audiences.

Bussert: Remember, these are college students who all have choir commitments up to their junior year, a full academic and performance skills course load, workshops and workouts at ballet boot camp, auditions and rehearsals for other projects.   

Spence: Once we were able to work out a scheduling formula, this partnership has been nothing but fantastic.

Bussert:  The 20-minute drive from Berea gives the students’ brains time to shift into “I’m leaving as a student and arriving as a professional.” And their experience at Beck – the shorter rehearsal time on stage and the longer production schedule, the working with professionals who do not operate the same way their teachers do, the audiences who are paying customers and not just supportive colleagues – offers valuable insight into the life of a working professional actor.

Spence: Just recently, I went to Columbus to do a Congressional tour and meet with the Ohio Arts Council. The council had taken notice of this partnership between the Beck Center and BW, to the point where it said it wanted to work with us to not only form a statewide model for academic and professional collaborations but a national model as well. We are pretty jazzed about this.

A long-distance affair:

Great Lakes Theater/Idaho Shakespeare Festival/Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival

Charles Fee, Great Lakes Theater producing artistic director, and Victoria Bussert, Baldwin Wallace University musical theater program director, at Hanna Theatre, home of Great Lakes Theater, in downtown Cleveland.

Charles Fee, Great Lakes Theater producing artistic director, and Victoria Bussert, Baldwin Wallace University musical theater program director, at Hanna Theatre, home of Great Lakes Theater, in downtown Cleveland. Photo by Roger Mastrioianni

Charles Fee holds a unique position in the American theater scene. He is the producing artistic director of three independently operated, professional theater companies – Idaho Shakespeare Festival in Boise, Idaho (which he joined in 1991), Great Lakes Theater in Cleveland (starting in 2002), and Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival in Lake Tahoe, Nevada (since 2010) – that have created an innovative production-sharing alliance.

Prior to the partnership, each theater was in a state of creative and financial duress. “We were all spreading our resources so thin that no one’s actually creating real work at real wages for anyone,” says Fee in a 2011 interview during the early stages of this alliance.

“Unlike co-producing models, our collaboration creates year-round opportunities for our artists and our production staffs by extending contracts across all three cities,” Fee says. “In other words, we create all of the work seen in our three cities.” And because ideas and information about marketing and other logistic considerations are shared between companies, each respective staff operates with greater speed and efficiency.

The first show Fee staged upon his arrival at Great Lakes Theater was the “Much Ado About Nothing” production he had just orchestrated at Boise.

After Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival joined the alliance, its production of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare” had previously played in Boise, where several weeks before, the sets, costumes, props and performers were trucked 2,000 miles from Cleveland, where the show had been built and premiered.

More than 60 productions have been shared since Cleveland joined the alliance. 

“Because our strategic alliance’s business model affords extended work opportunities for artists and production personnel,” notes Fee, “we are able to attract and retain a truly extraordinarily creative team that has found a remarkable chemistry over time. We’re not starting from scratch with a new collection of people with each production. We’re working with a core group of artists that have collaborated together for many years. This level of collaboration enables us to deepen our work as a company. And I think audiences benefit immensely as a result.”

From flirtation to fling:

Dobama Theater and Karamu House

From left, Nathan Motta, Dobama Theatre’s artistic director; Tony Sias, Karamu House president and CEO; and Scott Spence, Beck Center for the Arts artistic director on stage at the Beck Center in Lakewood.

From left, Nathan Motta, Dobama Theatre’s artistic director; Tony Sias, Karamu House president and CEO; and Scott Spence, Beck Center for the Arts artistic
director on stage at the Beck Center in Lakewood. Photo by AJ Abelman

In 1915, a pair of Oberlin graduates opened a settlement house where people of different races and religions could come together. They soon discovered that the arts provided the perfect common ground. The Playhouse Settlement, renamed Karamu – a Swahili word meaning “place of enjoyment” – in 1941, quickly became a magnet and forum for some of the best African-American artists of the day.

During a “getting to know you” meeting in 2016 at which Tony Sias was introduced as Karamu’s new president and CEO, Dobama Theatre’s artistic director Nathan Motta shared a few ideas about a potential partnership intended to enrich their respective theater making. Motta had been appointed as Dobama’s fifth artistic director in 2013, which spurred the theater’s move to become the region’s newest full-time Equity House (along with the Cleveland Play House and Great Lakes Theater).

These two theaters have occasionally flirted with each other in the years since Dobama was founded in 1959. Most recently, after leaving its long-time residence on Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights in 2005 but before finding its current home on Lee Road, the company launched a highly successful co-production with Karamu of the musical “Caroline or Change.” But now they are in the early stages of what could very well be a long term, comprehensive partnership. Canvas recently spoke to Motta and Sias, who discussed their collaboration:

Motta: This season, we did an artist exchange where our Ben Needham did the scenic design for “Rasheeda Speaking” at Karamu, and their production manager, Richard H. Morris Jr., designed “An Octoroon” at Dobama. Company members learning and communicating about how each of us have dealt with creative challenges and where we’ve succeeded and failed can help us all grow stronger.

Sias: That exchange went exceptionally well and set the tone for future creative collaborations. Dobama will also be leasing a rehearsal room, storage space and a break room at Karamu. Just recently, our artists (in “Sister Act”) rehearsed next door to theirs (in “Peter and the Starcatcher”), so people are getting to know each other and understand the culture of our respective institutions.

Motta: By encouraging artists we work with to work – and see work – at other places, they learn new ways of doing things and experience other artists’ approaches to theater making. We are also working toward making the creation of theater more cost effective, while increasing the quality of the artistic product. This is nothing but a good thing for our audiences.

Sias: The Karamu/Dobama partnership will also be a catalyst for community outreach, engagement and education. We’re launching a new joint program called Theatre Artists for Social Change (TASC) that will mount organized artistic responses to current news events that concern social justice. This way, our theaters can be responsive and proactive, and our art can play a bigger role in creating awareness and change.

Cleveland Play House’s promiscuity

Laura Kepley, Cleveland Play House artistic director, and Donald Carrier, interim director of the Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House MFA acting program, inside the Allen Theatre lobby in downtown Cleveland.

Laura Kepley, Cleveland Play House artistic director, and Donald Carrier, interim director of the Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House MFA acting program, inside the Allen Theatre lobby in downtown Cleveland. Photo by Michael C. Butz

Cleveland Play House, founded in 1915 and the recipient of the 2015 Regional Theatre Tony Award, has produced more than 100 world or American premieres, and during its long history, more than 12 million people have attended more than 1,600 productions. 

The CPH balances several collaborations at once to help maintain this level of productivity. One is an artistic and financial co-production partnership with a variety of sister theater companies across the country. The CPH and partnering theaters collaborate on show selection and artistic staffing, and share the costs of building, casting, rehearsing and staging the shows. 

In the 2016-17 season, “Baskerville” was built and opened in Cleveland and then went to Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. “How I Learned to Drive” went to Syracuse Stage after its opening run at the CPH. “Disney’s Freaky Friday” was built and opened at La Jolla Playhouse and moved to the Alley Theatre in Houston after spending a few weeks at the CPH.

According to Kevin Moore, who became managing director of Cleveland Play House in 2007, “we are extremely selective about how many of these partnerships originate elsewhere. ‘Freaky Friday’ is our first received co-production in two years because a received co-pro means less work is available for our CPH production teams.” But co-productions allow for large and elaborate shows to be staged here that could not otherwise be afforded because of the production rights, the prominent directors and designers brought in, and the large number of cast members they require. (“Freaky Friday” has a cast of 17 and a nine-member band.)

The CPH has also done collaborative cross-disciplinary projects with the world-class Cleveland Orchestra, including the most recent commissioned world premiere of Quiara Alegria Hudes’s play for actor-and-orchestra, “The Good Peaches.” 

“These are landmark opportunities,” says Moore, “where audiences get to see work that would not otherwise be done by two venerable institutions. Financially, sharing costs allow both arts organizations to keep operating and innovating.” Suggests Laura Kepley, CPH artistic director, “The logistical challenges of this partnership are really artistic possibilities. For each group to get to expose its core audience to an adjacent art form is really exciting.”

Another collaboration is the jointly administered Case Western Reserve University/ Cleveland Play House Master of Fine Arts in Acting Program, which began in 1996. Students are not only taught by industry professionals from CWRU, they also receive training from CPH artists and internationally renowned guest artists. A third-year residency at CPH provides students with on-stage performance experience in CPH productions, such as last season’s “The Crucible.”

A 2009 partnership with Cleveland State University and the Playhouse Square Foundation helped finance the flexible 300-seat Outcalt Theatre and the 150-seat Helen Rosenfeld Lewis Bialosky Lab Theatre, which are shared by CPH, Playhouse Square, CSU and the CWRU/CPH MFA Acting Program. 

These are just a few of the partnerships taking place in the local arts community.  “The spirit of collaboration in Cleveland,” notes Kepley, “is the most generous and robust of any city I have ever worked in.” CV

 

Daniel Scott Telford and Molly Israel. Photo | Andy Dudik

Beck Center’s superb ‘Really Really’ puts the “I” in iPhone

By Bob Abelman

In the tragicomical “Really Really,” which premiered at Washington D.C.’s Signature Theatre in 2011, 26-year-old playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo puts his own entitled, self-centered generation on display. And it isn’t pretty.

The play opens with a wonderfully wordless scene in which inebriated, short-skirted upperclassmen Leigh and Grace (the riveting Molly Israel and Rachel Lee Kolis, respectively) return to their campus apartment after an epic kegger.

While Grace’s 90-proof exhilaration lapses into regurgitation, Leigh is busy reflecting on the drunk sex she had that evening, the consensuality of which will be the plot point that drives this play’s drama.

What compels this play’s comedy can be found in the testosterone-saturated party apartment of the brash and braggadocious Cooper (a disarmingly likable Chris Richards) and the more studious and sensitive Davis (the charming Daniel Scott Telford).

They, too, are recovering from the evening’s festivities and upon the arrival of rugby teammates Johnson (an intense Jack Schmitt) and Jimmy (Randy Dierkes, in an understated but effective performance), recount their conquests by engaging in the playfully profane wordplay and frat-boy preoccupation with sex that dominates each conversation and defines their relationships.

As the hormones and booze subside, so does the humor as what happened that night between Leigh and Davis is given closer examination. Well, as close as possible considering that the sex in question occurred behind closed doors before the audience took their seats and when everyone on stage was under the influence. Davis doesn’t remember a thing. Leigh remembers saying “no.”

Accusations become legal actions. Friendships are challenged. And looking out for Number One goes from being a catchy mantra for Generation Me to really intriguing theater on the Beck Center’s intimate Studio Theater stage.

The playwright cleverly builds the tension by keeping most of the action within these two apartments and shifting from one to the other with increasingly rapid succession.

Scenic designer Cameron Caley Michalak makes these shifts silent and seamless by having one apartment morph into the other by way of a rotating platform that swaps out the girls’ kitchenette for the boys’ living room.

Director Donald Carrier sees these set changes as a theatrical opportunity and allows departing characters in the previous scene to share just a fleeting moment and some intense eye contact with arriving characters in the scene to follow.

Carrier and his cast actually take advantage of every moment in the script and always find something interesting to offer.  And because this play is not without its faults, they often come to its rescue.

Rather than simply allowing the play’s overriding theme of generational self-absorption to reveal itself organically through dialogue, which it does, the young playwright clobbers us over the head with a scene in which Grace delivers a passionate, bullet-pointed speech at a meeting of the conservative Future Leaders of America.

Fortunately, this allows the exceptionally talented Kolis to showcase her skills as she milks the melodrama and allows the speech’s irony to bubble to the surface.

And rather than allowing the play’s comedy to bow out to make way for the intense drama, Colaizzo introduces us to Leigh’s white-trash sister, Hayley (Olivia Scicolone), who comes to visit so to reap some of the financial benefits her sister is sure to generate by accusing a rich boy of rape.

Some really fine acting keeps Hayley from being merely distracting comic relief.  And by portraying her as the only character without an ounce of pretense, Scicolone helps expose the sexual politics being played out in this production.

“Really Really” had a twice-extended run Off-Broadway in 2013. It will not be surprising if the Beck Center production follows suit.

On Stage

WHERE:  Beck Center for the Arts, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood

WHEN:  Through July 2

TICKETS & INFO:  $12 – $31, call 216-521-2540 or go to beckcenter.org


Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. Ohio AP Media Editor’s best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on June 3, 2017.

Lead image: Daniel Scott Telford and Molly Israel.  Photo | Andy Dudik

The kids from Jackson High. Photo | Roger Mastroianni

Beck’s ‘Bring It On’ offers cheer-face and style over substance

By Bob Abelman

It has been suggested by experts like Oskar Eustis, the Artistic Director at New York City’s Public Theater, that Lin-Manuel Miranda – who penned the Tony Award-winning musicals “In the Heights” and “Hamilton” – may be the next Shakespeare.

Miranda has, at a very young age, demonstrated incredible productivity, extraordinary popularity and a proclivity for turning the language of the people – in his case, hip-hop and rap – into heightened verse.

And, if it is true that the Bard did not always work alone, neither did Miranda in the making of  “Bring It On: The Musical,” which is currently on stage at the Beck Center for the Arts in collaboration with Baldwin Wallace University’s Music Theatre Program.

“Bring It On” is loosely based on the 2000 film of the same name but features an original libretto by Tony Award winner Jeff Whitty (“Avenue Q”), music by Miranda and Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner Tom Kitt (“Next to Normal”), and lyrics by Miranda and Amanda Green (“High Fidelity”).

It revolves around a privileged, lily-white high school cheer captain named Campbell (Kailey Boyle) who gets redistricted from affluent Truman High to a struggling, primarily black inner-city school. There she transforms the homegrown Jackson High hip-hop crew, run by Danielle (Shayla Brielle) and her posse (Joy Del Valle and Michael Canada), into a cheerleading squad to compete against Campbell’s former team, now led by Skylar (Victoria Pippo), Kylar (MacKenzie Wright) and the divisive Eva (Abby DeWitte).

Teen-spirit and up-beat cheer-face aside, Miranda’s “Bring It On” is very much the equivalent of Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline.” Both are lesser works with fleeting moments of art amidst a preponderance of artifice.  And both are geared more for the people in the cheap seats seeking entertainment than those in the royal boxes seeking enlightenment.

“Bring It On’s” musical numbers are an interesting but unremarkable assemblage of pop-Broadway tunes that either fit the moment or fill a void in the storytelling rather than form a stylistically complex or thematically comprehensive score.

And the supporting characters – which include an awkward outsider (Shelby Griswold as the plus-size Bridget), a brain-dead jock (Jonathan Young as Steven), and an adorable love interest for the lead (Mike Cefalo as Randall) – are the same highly recognizable, go-to archetypes found in other high school-centric musicals like “Carrie” and “Heathers.

These shows have also been performed at the Beck Center in collaboration with BW, no doubt because of their preponderance of young adult roles that showcase the triple-threat skills a BW education is known for.

“Bring it On” is particularly saturated with BW students and alum, from the director (Will Brandstetter) to the music director and his associate (Peter Van Reesema and Alyssa Kay Thompson), the cheerleading choreographer (Mary Sheridan), nearly every actor in the cast, the stage manager (Lucas Clark) and the guy behind the drum kit in the orchestra (Tyler Hawes).

Thanks to this talent pool between and behind the proscenium arch, and the chemistry they share, this production rises well above the material.

Director Brandstetter manages to bring all the funny moments in the script to the forefront, which are delivered to perfection by this cast, and is able to blend its fragmented elements into a more cohesive whole.

And every musical number is delivered with intensity, energy and precision.  While Boyle as Campbell and Brielle as Danielle are absolutely incredible and practically own the stage every moment they are on it, the script gives generous face-time to the high-energy ensemble members who double as Truman and Jackson gymnasts and dancers.  They’ve completely mastered the elaborate and always-interesting hip-hop choreography designed by Martín Céspedes as well as the high-flying, though often repeated, cheer choreography by Sheridan.

Preparation is another reason for this production’s success.  On opening night, an injury to ensemble member Dan Hoy required the last-minute substitution of swing/understudy Veronica Otim, which was seamless.

All this takes place in a typical high school hallway, complete with second story scaffolding, created by scenic designer Jordan Janota.  This space also serves as all the show’s locations with the assistance of Jason Lyons’ lighting, Adam Zeek’s projections and Carlton Guc’s sound.

This musical may not live up to the Miranda brand, but its performance certainly meets the high entertainment expectations of a Beck Center and BW production. CV

On Stage: 

WHAT:  “Bring It On: The Musical”

WHERE:   Beck Center for the Arts, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood

WHEN:  Through Feb. 26

TICKETS & INFO:  $12 – $31, call 216-521-2540 or go to beckcenter.org


Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Feb. 11, 2017.

Lead image: The kids from Jackson High. Photo | Roger Mastroianni

Tom Ford, left, as Henry Higgins and Aled Davies as Colonel Pickering in Great Lakes Theater's "My Fair Lady". Photo | Matthew Murphy

By Bob Abelman

When we reflect back on a live theater production, it is usually a specific moment that we recall – an instant when a playwright’s idea, a director’s vision, or an actor’s performance surpasses an audience’s expectations and something special happens.

Such moments seem frozen in time and suspended in space. It is these isolated, elusive and brilliant moments that keep theatergoers coming back for more and win over the next generation of subscribers.

Theatrical missteps and creative miscarriages are similarly memorable and, for the audience if not the performers or production staff, they are just as entertaining. Awe can be found in work both awesome and awful.

Here are ten of this past year’s most memorable moments – both fantastic and unfortunate – from productions that have graced Cleveland’s Playhouse Square, Outside-the-Square theaters, and other area stages.

10. I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face

Tom Ford, left, as Henry Higgins and Aled Davies as Colonel Pickering in Great Lakes Theater's "My Fair Lady". Photo | Roger Mastroianni

Tom Ford, left, as Henry Higgins and Aled Davies as Colonel Pickering in Great Lakes Theater’s “My Fair Lady”. Photo | Roger Mastroianni

As Henry Higgins in Great Lakes Theater’s “My Fair Lady,” under Victoria Bussert’s direction, actor Tom Ford was playful, passionate and absolutely charming. These are characteristics rarely associated with the role. As such, his songs “Why Can’t the English,” “I’m An Ordinary Man” and “A Hymn to Him” were humorous and thought-full reflections of Higgins’ worldview rather than the droll barbs typically thrown in other productions. And Higgin’s eleventh-hour “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” was so much more than a song of regret; it was a moment of genuine heartbreak.

9. Matthew Wright in drag

Lindsey Mitchell, from left, as Mrs. Denmark, Matthew Wright as Sylvia St. Croix, and Calista Zajac as Tina Denmark in Beck Center's "Ruthless". Photo | Kathy Sandham

Lindsey Mitchell, from left, as Mrs. Denmark, Matthew Wright as Sylvia St. Croix, and Calista Zajac as Tina Denmark in Beck Center’s “Ruthless”. Photo | Kathy Sandham

There was much to love about Beck Center’s “Ruthless” – an outrageously campy, thoroughly self-aware musical comedy mashup of psychological thriller films – starting with 11-year-old triple threat Calista Zajac as the featured sociopath. But the moment when classically trained actor Matthew Wright stepped on stage as Sylvia St. Croix – adorned in a thigh-hugging dress and makeup applied with a spatula – was the moment when the show boldly exceeded the boundaries of outrageous and dared to go well past campy.

8. Girls gone Wilde

Heather Anderson Boll as Mrs. Erlynne, from left, Rachel Lee Kolis as Lady Windermere, and Chris Ross as Lord Windermere in Mamai's "Lady Windermere's Fan". Photo|Bob Perkoski

Heather Anderson Boll as Mrs. Erlynne, from left, Rachel Lee Kolis as Lady Windermere, and Chris Ross as Lord Windermere in Mamai’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan”. Photo | Bob Perkoski

Actual actresses ruled the Mamaí Theatre’s production of “Lady Windermere’s Fan.” Mamaí’s greatest strength is its ability to assemble an ensemble of remarkable female performers, and Rachel Lee Kolis as young Lady Windermere and Heather Anderson Boll as the mysterious newcomer Mrs. Erlynne handled every one of Oscar Wilde’s poignant, empowering soliloquies and each pointed piece of social commentary with astounding virtuosity.

7. “The Wild Party” sizzles

Patrick Ciamacco, center, as the brutal vaudevillian clown Burrs in Blank Canvas' "The Wild Party". Photo | Andy Dudik

Patrick Ciamacco, center, as the brutal vaudevillian clown Burrs in Blank Canvas’ “The Wild Party”. Photo | Andy Dudik

“Some love is fire: some love is rust/But the fiercest, cleanest love is lust.” So begins the seedy, Jazz Age narrative poem “The Wild Party,” on which Andrew Lippa’s lyrical musical of the same name is based. Several moments into Blank Canvas’ summer production, the theater’s air conditioner expired and, by the second song, the steamy, sticky and sweltering atmosphere perfectly matched the sexy score and its lusty performance by a superb seven-piece band – Ian Huettel, Ernie Molner, Zach Davis, Skip Edwards, Matt Wirfel, Jeff Fabis and Jessica D’Ambrosia. Clearly, this show is best served hot and with high humidity.

6. A store-bought musical

The ensemble of Mercury Theatre's "The Little Mermaid". Photo | PRM Digital Productions

The ensemble of Mercury Theatre’s “The Little Mermaid”. Photo | PRM Digital Productions

For a theater company best known for its unbridled imagination, which earlier this year was put on display in its wonderfully minimalistic “Finian’s Rainbow,” Mercury Theatre’s “The Little Mermaid” felt like an off-season, off-strip Vegas show. The production’s eye-candy costuming was rented from The Kansas City Costume Company, its set pieces were imported from Virginia Musical Theatre, and a pre-recorded soundtrack was purchased from Music Theatre International. From the opening moment, this prefab production was absolutely beautiful to watch but so very disappointing to see.

5Once more into the fray

Krystopher Perry as Ross, left, and Don Edelman as Mr. Green in the CVLT production of "Visiting Mr. Green". Photo | Courtesy of the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre

Krystopher Perry as Ross, left, and Don Edelman as Mr. Green in the CVLT production of “Visiting Mr. Green”. Photo | Courtesy of the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre

There will not be many more opportunities for 88-year-old veteran actor Don Edelman to ride the boards at his beloved Chagrin Valley Little Theatre. After all, how many plays call for a grumpy Old Jew character that the energetic and undersized Edelman has not already mastered and performed? The moment he walked on stage as the devout and despondent title character in Jeff Baron’s endearing “Visiting Mr. Green,” which was directed with immense tenderness by Carol Jaffee Pribble, the audience was privileged to witness what talent and tenacity can achieve when given time to properly mature.

4. A bad revue

The ensemble of Actors' Summit's "Tintypes". Photo | Bruce Ford

The ensemble of Actors’ Summit’s “Tintypes”. Photo | Bruce Ford

Popular during the Golden Age of bad entertainment, the revue is musical theater’s ugly ancestor. Its place of performance has been largely reduced to cruise ships, amusement parks and, inexplicably, Akron. Actors’ Summit’s production of “Tintypes,” a revue that offered a tour through 19th century America by way of public domain ditties, was the company’s grand finale, for founders Neil Thackaberry and MaryJo Alexander called it quits after 17 seasons. They produced over 141 shows, most of them superb and some truly spectacular… just not the one that left the lasting last impression.

3. Turning the Paige

Payton St. John, right, with Kayleigh Hahn as Annie in Magnificat High School's production of "Annie". Photo | Mary Papa

Payton St. John, right, with Kayleigh Hahn as Annie in Magnificat High School’s production of “Annie”. Photo | Mary Papa

Even with a feisty redheaded orphan, an adorable dog and 40 talented teenagers on stage, it was impossible to take your eyes off of Payton St. John during Magnificat High School’s recent production of “Annie.” While ensemble members are asked to blend in and not pull focus, these were impossible expectations for the younger sister of Magnificat alum and Inside Dance Magazine’s “2015 Dancer of the Year” Paige St. John. From the moment of Payton’s first perfect pirouette, it was clear that her kind of precision, passion and stage presence can’t help but call attention to itself.

2. When locals go national

Patty Lohr, far right top-tier, and the “Kinky Boots” national tour ensemble. Photo | Matthew Murphy

Patty Lohr, far right top-tier, and the “Kinky Boots” national tour ensemble. Photo | Matthew Murphy

The Tony Award-winning musical “Beautiful,” about the life, times and tunes of Carole King, came through Playhouse Square on national tour. It brought with it Cleveland-born actor Ben Fankhauser in a featured role. When the touring “Kinky Boots” recently strutted on stage at the Connor Palace Theatre, there was local actress and Baldwin Wallace University grad Patty Lohr in a supporting role. How wonderful to witness – whether for a few fleeting moments or for the duration of a production – the high-profile success stories that got their start on Northeast Ohio stages.

1. Showcasing Stockholm syndrome

John de Lancie as Mr. Wolf and Juliet Brett as Theresa in Cleveland Play House's "Mr. Wolf". Photo | Roger Mastroianni

John de Lancie as Mr. Wolf and Juliet Brett as Theresa in Cleveland Play House’s “Mr. Wolf”. Photo | Roger Mastroianni

Playwright Rajiv Joseph has a remarkable proclivity for examining big-ticket issues by way of small-scale stories. In “Mr. Wolf,” at the Cleveland Play House, a young girl played by Juliet Brett was abducted and hidden from the world by an astronomer played by John de Lancie who believed she can unravel the mysteries of the universe and find God. Early in the play, the entire set receded deep into the far recesses of the performance space and nearly vanished among the surrounding stars, suggesting the infinite expanses of the universe as well as the astronomical odds of this girl’s parents ever seeing her again. It was a moment when the playwright’s idea, director Giovanna Sardelli’s creative vision, Timothy R. Mackabee’s innovative stagecraft and the actors’ brilliant performances became so much greater than the sum of these parts.

Here’s to more memorable theater moments in the year to come and to you witnessing every one of them for yourself.


Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Dec. 9, 2016.

Lead image: Patty Lohr, far right top-tier, and the “Kinky Boots” national tour ensemble. Photo | Matthew Murphy

Wesley Allen as Sebastian (center), Kathleen Rooney as Ariel (left center), and the ensemble of “The Little Mermaid”. Photo | Kathy Sandham

Beck Center’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ a buoyant fish-out-of-water tale

By Bob Abelman

A few months ago, several blogs reported that people in possession of “Black Diamond Collection” Disney VHS tapes might have thousands of dollars’ worth of rare materials on their hands. “The Little Mermaid” was identified as one of the most valuable and sought after commodities in the eBay marketplace.

Unfortunately, like most of the mint-condition Beanie Babies and unopened packs of Pokémon cards we’ve been hoarding, Disney VHS tapes are worth only the price of purchase. Cheer up. The Beck Center for the Arts’ production of “The Little Mermaid” is worth far more than the cost of admission.

The show is based on the 2008 Broadway production that was based on the animated 1989 film that was based on Hans Christian Andersen’s classic story about a young mermaid who dreams of the world above the sea and gives up her voice and flippers to find love.

While the film garnered an impressive $84 million at the domestic box office during its initial release and the VHS tape became the year’s top-selling title on home video, the Broadway production did not fare as well.

The reason is that Doug Wright’s script does not live up to the film’s screenplay, several new tunes written with Glenn Slater don’t live up to Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s wonderfully witty and melodic film score, and no amount of costly special effects – including a flying apparatus used to create the illusion of characters swimming underwater – can recreate Disney’s cinematic storytelling.

Beck Center director Scott Spence’s answer to the fundamental flaws in this family-friendly show is to throw talent at it, which works like a charm.

In lieu of exorbitant special effects, he relies on Adam Zeek’s animated projections and Jeff Herrmann’s lighting to expand and enhance Douglas Puskas attractive scenic design and to help differentiate sea from shore.

In the place of wires and harnesses, every musical number is given flight by Martin Cespedes’ charming and exceptionally clever choreography, which is delivered by a talented and thoroughly invested ensemble of sea creatures and seagulls. “Under the Sea,” “Positoovity,” “Kiss the Girl” and “She’s in Love” are genuine showstoppers.

And though the rental of second-tier costuming merely captures the essence of each nonhuman character, the gifted actors inside – J.R. Heckman as the teenaged Flounder, Wesley Allen as the Caribbean crab Sebastian, Zachary Vederman as the scatterbrained seagull Scuttle and Darryl Lewis as put-upon single-Dad King Triton – do the rest.

Natalie Blalock’s octopus costume is significantly more detailed and elaborate, but then the role and Blalock’s remarkable performance as Ursula warrants it. Summit J. Starr and Carlos Antonio Cruz, as Ursula’s moray eel henchmen Flotsam and Jetsam, don’t need the aide of the rollerblades worn by the Broadway performers to give them snake-like movement. Their graceful physicality is more than sufficient.

Knowing that the title-character is the thing that drives every Disney’s princess production, Spence has found the perfect Ariel and Prince Eric in Kathleen Rooney and Shane Patrick O’Neill. They look, sound and astound like the animated versions, but bring to the stage heart and vulnerability that is theirs alone. An exceptional dancer, Rooney is given ample opportunity to put her talents on display once her fishtail is replaced by feet, thanks to Ursula’s spell.

Brian Pedaci as Prince Eric’s authoritative guardian, Grimsby, anchors this fish tale in life’s realities with great tenderness while Robert Pierce weighs anchor with wonderful abandon as Chef Louis in the hilarious “Les Poissons” production number and subsequent slap-stick chase scene that got the kids in the audience – a 3:1 radio to adults at the opening Saturday matinee – screaming with delight.

And because this large kid contingency might not notice or care about such things, particularly in a Disney musical, this production takes some creative license with regard to natural science. In the undersea scenes, no one undulates rhythmically or reactions to currents as if floating. In the scenes on shore, no attention is given to how the sea creatures attending Ariel and Eric’s wedding manage to breathe.

One would imagine some interesting conversations on the drive home, starting with what a delightful experience this Beck Center production delivered.

On Stage

WHAT:  “The Little Mermaid”

WHERE: Beck Center for the Arts, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood

WHEN: Through Dec. 31

TICKETS & INFO:  $12 – $31, call 216-521-2540 or go to beckcenter.org


Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Nov. 19, 2016.

Lead image: Wesley Allen as Sebastian (center), Kathleen Rooney as Ariel (left center), and the ensemble of “The Little Mermaid”. Photo | Kathy Sandham

Rick Montgomery Jr., from left, Anne McEvoy, Julia Kolibab and Richie Gagen | Photo / Kathy Sandham

Beck’s ‘Body Awareness’ so low key it unlocks very little

By Bob Abelman

The New Yorker wrote last year that “we’re lucky to be living in the era of Annie Baker” when discussing the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright “who listens to people so carefully, who recreates human speech with such amusement and care, that her characters feel startlingly familiar.”

This was clearly a skill set acquired over time, for her Off-Broadway debut in 2008 in a one-act comedy, “Body Awareness,” is a decisively lesser work. It is getting a rather mundane staging at the Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood.

Set in a small college town in Vermont, the play features three characters who spend their time side-stepping each other’s psychological soft spots. They are Joyce (Anne McEvoy), a high school cultural studies teacher who identifies as lesbian after a failed marriage; her 21-year-old son Jared (Richie Gagen), who has all the telltale signs of Asperger syndrome but vehemently denies this; and Phyllis (Julia Kolibab), a feminist academic and Joyce’s live-in partner. 

With Phyllis’ college commemorating “Body Awareness Week,” a celebrated photographer of nude women and girls named Frank Bonitatibus (Rick Montgomery Jr.) is invited as a guest artist and, in one of the play’s most implausible plot points, is invited to stay at Phyllis’ home. 

Joyce finds Frank and his work alluring, Phyllis finds them repulsive, and Jared – who is socially ill-equipped to engage with others – finds them and everything else he encounters “stupid.” 

Frank’s presence so disrupts the household dynamics that Joyce, Phyllis and Jared soon find themselves pressing and occasionally pouncing on those aforementioned soft spots. All of this unfolds in Baker’s typically understated and anti-theatrical voice, where much of the humor can be found in the things left unsaid and in the pauses that exist between exchanges. 

Performing Baker’s work not only requires the mastery of the scripted words and its essential silences, but a delicate and unpretentious handling of the subtle comedy. When it all comes together, as it did in Dobama Theatre’s productions of “Circle Mirror Transformation” in 2011 and “The Aliens” in 2014, the results are miraculous and reinforce all “The New Yorker’s” accolades. 

But “Body Awareness” needs some help finding and cultivating the laughs, which this production does not offer under David Vegh’s direction. Little attention is given to the pacing, which drags. Nearly everything is flat and very little is funny.

Gagen as Jared cannot be blamed, for his affectless tone and stiff physicality sets up and serves as a wonderful and implicitly comedic counterpoint to the terse aggressiveness and quirky obsession with etymology that Baker bequeaths the character. 

But potentially funny lines aimed at his mother or Phyllis, like “Maybe you have Asperger’s.  You’re 55 and you’ve never read ‘Crime and Punishment,’” tend to result in a dramatic reaction or, worse, no reaction from McEvoy’s Joyce and Kolibab’s Phyllis, which cuts off the comedy at its source. And although their performances are deft, engaging and authentic, McEvoy and Kolibab rarely inspire much to laugh at on their own.      

Enter Frank. His scripted political incorrectness regarding Jared, lack of awareness of Phyllis’ unease with his art and “male gaze,” and absence of empathy regarding Joyce’s fragility are all intended to serve as a catalyst for humor. 

But Montgomery’s depiction of Frank has none of the ingredients necessary to make that happen. What he does bring to the table – a laid-back demeanor and devil-may-care attitude – is often at odds with the machismo or creepiness or pretension that Baker’s script seems to call for. 

This is particularly evident during one of the potentially funniest scenes in the play, where Frank gives Jared misguided and inappropriately explicit advice about approaching and sexually pleasing women. The set up and the execution seem forced and the scene is one of many that go nowhere.   

All this takes place in a home so startlingly normal in its layout and design – as rendered by Aaron Benson and lit by Marcus Dana – that it begs for something out of the ordinary to happen there. As does the audience. CV

On Stage

“Body Awareness”

WHERE: Beck Center for the Arts’ Studio Theater, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood

WHEN: Through Nov. 6

TICKETS & INFO: $12-$31, call 216-521-2540 or visit beckcenter.org


Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News.  Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.

Orginally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Oct. 9, 2016.

Lead image: Rick Montgomery Jr., from left, Anne McEvoy, Julia Kolibab and Richie Gagen. Photo| Kathy Sandham

Lindsey Mitchell, from left, Matthew Wright and Calista Zajac. PHOTO | Kathy Sanham

Beck Center for the Art’s ‘Ruthless!’ goes for broke, pays huge dividends

By Bob Abelman

One can only imagine the dead silence in the room when lyricist Joel Paley and composer Marvin Laird pitched their idea for “Ruthless!” to off-Broadway investors back in 1992.

It probably matched the silence that engulfed the Beck Center for the Arts’ boardroom when artistic director Scott Spence pitched this show for the main stage season opener.

“Ruthless!” is an outrageously campy, thoroughly self-aware musical comedy mash-up of late-1950s and early-1960s psychological thriller films that simultaneously pokes fun at its muses.

The show revolves around a precocious song-and-dance sociopath named Tina Denmark, played to perfection by 11-year-old triple threat Calista Zajac, who knocks off a rival in her grade-school play in order to land the lead role. Like her character’s inspiration – the similarly named Rhoda Penmark in the film “The Bad Seed” – young Zajac’s feigned syrupy sweetness seamlessly transitions into the death stare of a natural born killer.

If you ever wondered what ever happened to Baby Jane in the film about a deranged former child actress played by Betty Davis, well, here’s the backstory.

The show also borrows from “Gypsy,” where consummate stage mother Rose – played on Broadway by the likes of Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters, and originally, Ethel Merman – introduces her daughters to the hardships of show business.

In “Ruthless!” Tina’s vacant-eyed, homemaker mom Judy – portrayed by silver-throated and downright hilarious Lindsey Mitchell – turns diva and distant when she learns from her mother that she was adopted and (in another nod to “The Bad Seed”) that her birth parents were show business legends.

What may well have sold this show to the Beck Center’s board of directors is director William Roudebush’s promise to go for broke regarding this musical’s camp quotient, which he delivers in spades and most distinctively in his casting of Sylvia St. Croix, the talent agent/publicist who takes young Tina under her wing.

Armed with Davis’s formidability, adorned in makeup applied with a spatula by Baby Jane’s cosmetologist, and imbued with Patti LuPone’s extraordinary sense of self is the classically trained actor Matthew Wright in drag, who steals the show.

Not an easy task considering the other talent that rounds out the ensemble and their displays of impeccable comic timing.

Paying homage to Ethel Merman is the wonderful Carla Petroski as Judy’s mom, Lita Encore, who is a caustic theater critic that once caused famous actress Ruth DelMarco to kill herself after a particularly negative review, leaving the Great White Way forever … ruthless. Even if the show’s thinly camouflaged show biz in-jokes go underappreciated or unrecognized, the more subtle ones – like Encore’s clever signature song “I Hate Musicals,” which comes with an encore – most certainly will not.

Kate Leigh Michalski is a delight as the boozy and bitter Miss Thorn, who is a failed actress that has reluctantly fallen back on teaching third-grade drama. Her “Teaching Third Grade” number is sidesplitting. Also delightful is Brittni Shambaugh Addison as the envious and backstabbing personal aide to the now-famous Judy Denmark.

All this is accentuated by Eisenhower-era scenic design by Aaron Benson, resulting in a stylized playhouse of a home for the Denmarks in Act 1 and its posh New York apartment equivalent in Act 2. Like-minded costuming is designed by Aimee Kluiber and lighting that quickly shifts from ambient to melodramatic to sinister and back again comes courtesy of Marcus Dana.

The one disappointment in this otherwise spectacular production is that it is accompanied by piano only, under Larry Goodpaster’s direction, rather than a full orchestra. This offers thin support to the songs and their singers. Worse, it flies in face of Roudebush’s “go big or go home” mantra and occasionally undermines the key ingredient that lifts silly to a higher art form.

Fortunately, there is enough outrageousness in this show and these performances to go around. CV

On stage

WHAT: “Ruthless!”

WHERE: Beck Center for the Arts, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood

WHEN: Through Oct. 16

TICKETS & INFO: $12-$31, call 216-521-2540 or visit beckcenter.org


Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow him at facebook.com/BobAbelman3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Sept. 23, 2016.

Lead image: Lindsey Mitchell, from left, Matthew Wright and Calista Zajac. PHOTO | Kathy Sanham

Tia Karaplis as Heather Duke, from left, Kayla Heichel as Heather Chandler and Amy Kohmescher as Heather McNamara. PHOTO | Patrick R. Murphy/PRM Digital Productions

‘Heathers: The Musical,’ Beck Center for the Art’s black farce, slays audiences

By Bob Abelman

With its regional premiere production of “Heathers: The Musical,” the Studio Theater in the rear of the Beck Center for the Arts has firmly established itself as a safe haven and the go-to performance space for dark, delightfully deranged musicals.

Its reputation was built on past performances of the slightly askew rock musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” the bizarre operatic rendition of the syndicated trash talk show “Jerry Springer,” and the splendidly sordid musical versions of the films “Evil Dead” and “Reefer Madness.”

But now, with this adaptation of the iconic 1989 cult comedy classic “Heathers,” audiences should forever expect irony, an adrenaline rush and a splash zone when entering the intimate arena. And be thoroughly entertained by the time they leave.

The film, “Heathers,” with its cynical worldview, vicious dark streak and snappy dialogue, wasn’t just a precursor to “Clueless” and “Mean Girls.” It offered a heavy dose of teenage angst with a body count and became one of the most scathing indictments and engaging explorations of high school populism ever produced.

Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy’s musical adaptation, which played briefly off-Broadway in 2014, is mostly true to its source material.

Smart girl outcast Veronica Sawyer (Madeline Krucek) is accepted into the inner circle of popular girls known as the Heathers (Kayla Heichel as Heather Chandler, Amy Kohmescher as Heather McNamara, and Tia Karaplis as Heather Duke) because of her forgery skills and high cheekbones. But with this rise in social status comes a sadistic cruelty and cultish groupthink that Veronica can’t accept. She defects once she hooks up with the new kid in school — the moody bad boy J.D. (Shane Lonergan) — and becomes complicit in his homicidal leveling of the social playing field.

Key to deriving pleasure from a show like this — which deals so sardonically with school bullying, date rape, teen suicide, campus shootings and bomb threats — is to give into its satirical world, buy into the cynicism of its characters and ignore that part of your brain that is shouting loudly: “This is so very wrong on so many levels.”

See the anthropological dissection of high school cliques amid the grossly stereotypical depictions of characters named Beleaguered Geek (Zach Landes), Preppy Stud (Greg Good), Hipster Dork (Joe Virgo), New Wave Party Girl (DeLee Cooper), Stoner Chick (Kacey Faix) and Young Republicanette (Gabi Shook). And take pleasure in the remarkable harmonies they generate in every ensemble number, of which there are many.

Accept the subversive and profane language, and while doing so, embrace the hard-rocking music these crazy kids seem to love, magnificently performed by a seven-piece off-stage band under Larry Goodpaster’s baton; it effectively captures the satirical tone of the film.

And take solace in the sensational performances turned in every actor.

Though less edgy than their cinematic counterparts Christian Slater and Winona Ryder, Lonergan as J.D. is a very sympathetic psychopath and the silver-throated Krucek is an intriguing Veronica. Many of her self-reflective monologues in the film have been turned into songs here, and Krucek and Lonergan’s duets — particularly “Seventeen” and “Our Love is God” — are breathtaking.

As the inconsequential and interchangeable adults, Matthew Wright, Amiee Collier and Paul Floriano are brilliant. And their songs — the hysterical “My Dead Gay Son” sung by two dads, and the gospel-inspired “Shine a Light,” sung by hippie teacher Ms. Fleming — are among the show’s best.

Nearly stealing the show is the outrageously profane “Blue,” which the remarkable Riley Ewing and Jonathan Walker White perform in Act I as jocks Ram and Kurt, and “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” which the wonderful Molly Millsaps sings in Act II as hapless victim Martha Dunnstock.

Heichel, Kohmescher and Karaplis as the Heathers who cause most of the angst that drives this musical, are triple-threat performers and absolutely perfect in these roles. Their initial entrance on a carpet of dry ice through a dramatic parting of the scenery while the company serenades them with the anthem “Beautiful” couldn’t have been better conceived or executed.

In fact, Beck Center’s design team under Scott Spence’s creative vision and superb direction makes it easy for audiences to suspend reflection on the serious subject matter and simply enjoy themselves.

Eye-catching, character-defining choreography and costuming designed by Martín Céspedes and Aimee Kluiber, respectively, conspire to help drown out that shouting, disapproving part of your brain by constantly stimulating the endorphin-producing part.

The scenery that surrounds the performance space consists of layer upon layer of brightly colored school lockers designed and lit by Trad A Burns, so that the stage resembles an old “Betty and Veronica” comic book. This offsets all that is dark and disturbing in this play, which adds yet another layer of irony to the clever storytelling.

All that’s missing in this production is the splash zone. CV

On stage

WHAT: “Heathers: The Musical”

WHERE: Beck Center for the Arts, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood

WHEN: Through July 2

TICKETS & INFO: $12-$31. Call 216-521-2540 or go to beckcenter.org


Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on June 5, 2016.

Lead image: Tia Karaplis as Heather Duke, from left, Kayla Heichel as Heather Chandler and Amy Kohmescher as Heather McNamara. PHOTO | Patrick R. Murphy/PRM Digital Productions

Robert Hawkes, left, as John and Adam Heffernan as Ian. PHOTO | Kathy Sandham

Beck Center for the Arts’ yarn, ‘Shining City,’ inspires a yawn

By Bob Abelman

Irish playwright Conor McPherson is a master storyteller whose tall tales, often told in short form, overflow with brilliant passages and vivid imagery that are both powerful and poetic.

Each of his plays — of which there are 15 — take place over a short period of time, which generates a strong sense of immediacy and urgency. The person telling the story does so with extended monologues that tend to be more confessional than theatrical. And there is always a quirky, other-worldly element that bites at the heels of the play’s otherwise stark and quite dramatic realism.

“Shining City,” first produced in 2004 and on stage at the Beck Center for the Arts’ intimate Studio Theater, is all of these things. And it is very much a ghost story.

This tale is mostly told by a middle-aged businessman and recent widower named John (Robert Hawkes) during his therapy sessions with Ian (Adam Heffernan). He is the first patient of Ian’s, who has recently left the priesthood and hung his shingle in a rundown office building in downtown Dublin (nicely rendered by designer Aaron Benson). John keeps seeing his wife, Mari, who died in a car crash and whose vision so frightens him that he has traded their haunted house for residence in a local B&B.

John’s uncomfortable, ineffective and disconnected encounters with the dead aren’t all that different from Ian’s conversation with his estranged girlfriend, Neasa (Ursula Cataan), who is raising their baby alone and in unfriendly surroundings. Or the conversation Ian has with Laurence (Nicholas Chokan), a down-on-his-luck acquaintance whom he seeks out for comfort.

Everyone in “Shining City” is living in a state of discomfort and is lost in his or her haunted loneliness. And that is pretty much the point of McPherson’s one-act character study masquerading as a 100-minute play.

As if to emphasize their loneliness and discomfort, none of the characters in this play have a home to call their own, all of them have sought out sexual encounters that are as unsavory as they are unsatisfying, and no more than two of them are on stage at any given time.

And everyone in this play is an inept and ineffective communicator, speaking in fragmented, frequently interrupted half-thoughts laced with Harold Pinter pauses and David Mamet-like pacing and abundance of profanity that loses its meaning and menace because of its frequency.

Like actors in a Mamet or Pinter play, those in this one require a special set of skills to properly execute what playwright McPherson has rendered.

Hawkes is called on to do most of the heavy lifting. And while his character’s drollness and the immense weight of his sorrow come through nicely, his stuttering delivery during his sustained monologues grows increasingly tedious. Worse, it keeps much of the tension and subtlety in the script at bay by sputtering past those necessary pauses. This makes it difficult for audiences to see themselves in John’s awkwardness and inadequacies.

Hawkes is not done any favors by director Bernadette Clemens, who keeps Ian on the periphery — pinned behind his desk or at a significant distance from John — when all eyes are on Hawkes. Neither the actor nor the audience can benefit from Ian’s reactions.

Heffernan does a masterful job of playing the anguished, mortally and morally wounded Ian and executing the playwright’s complicated writing. And Cataan, despite her relatively brief time onstage, is just as effective. Neasa’s pain is palpable and the dialogue she is given in her irritatingly disconnected exchange with Ian comes across as so very real.

This is not the case with Chokan, who does not really bring much to Laurence’s short and admittedly difficult scene with Ian.

Also disappointing is the execution of some of the small production elements on opening Saturday night. A missed lighting cue and a quirky play-ending special effect wouldn’t normally mean much in the course of a play. But they weigh particularly heavy in a play like this, where everything — such as a faulty busser that admits patients to Ian’s office — has significance.

In “Shining City,” and all of McPherson’s plays, the devil is very much in the details. CV

On Stage

WHAT: “Shining City”

WHERE: Beck Center for the Arts, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood

WHEN: Through May 1

TICKETS & INFO: $12-$31, call 216-521-2540 or visit beckcenter.org


Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on April 3, 2016.

Lead image: Robert Hawkes, left, as John and Adam Heffernan as Ian. PHOTO | Kathy Sandham

Ellis C. Dawson III, center, with the cast of “In the Heights.” PHOTO | Roger Mastroianni

Phenomenal storytellers help raise up Beck Center’s ‘In the Heights’

By Bob Abelman

The Upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights has gone through many changes since the early 1900s, when it was largely populated by Jewish and Irish immigrants from Europe.

By midcentury, Soviet refugees were the dominant demographic, who were then replaced by families from the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico. By the 1980s, gang activity infiltrated Washington Heights, resulting in a crime rate that rivaled nearby Harlem. In the 1990s, the neighborhood became the largest drug distribution center in the five boroughs and beyond.

This is not quite the welcoming world that’s been created by Lin-Manuel Miranda (music/lyrics) and Quiara Alegria Hudes (book) for their 2008 Tony Award-winning musical “In the Heights.” Their Washington Heights is a highly romanticized and thoroughly sanitized celebration of three generations of Hispanic families who are just trying to carve out a living and make this piece of the island their home.

And it is on display at the Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood.

Like the cups of cafe caliente, liviano y dulce that the Latin-American locals purchase each morning from the corner stop-n-shop, this musical’s hip-hop-and salsa-based score is hot, its slice-of-life storytelling is light and easy, and it is told by abundantly sweet and absolutely endearing characters with sentimental simplicity.

Even the spray-painted images that cover the buildings in this little neighborhood, courtesy of Graffiti Pete (Warren Egypt Franklin), are art rather than an artifact of gang activity, delinquency or territoriality.

This delightful, feel-good musical explores small problems of the heart rather than anything overtly serious or dramatic. We are invited into the Heights to observe the budding romance between a shy Usnavi (Ellis C. Dawson III) — the show’s lovable, rap-happy narrator — and the gorgeous Vanessa (Christiana Perrault), experience the elderly Abuela Claudia (Jessie Cope Miller) winning the lottery, and share the hardship of Camila and Kevin Rosario (Kelsey Baehrens and Jared Leal) selling their struggling gypsy cab company to pay for their proud daughter’s college tuition.

But there is also an undercurrent of urban renewal and gentrification, which is threatening to change the area’s complexion once again as locals discuss moving to more affordable Bronx and Queens.

The threat is very real in this particular production of “In The Heights,” for director Victoria Bussert singlehandedly advances the neighborhood’s urban renewal ahead of schedule by casting African-American and Caucasian actors in roles built specifically for Latinos.

This is not intended to make a statement of any kind. The production is a collaboration with Baldwin Wallace University’s music theater program and at the mercy of the existing talent pool and the school’s recruitment efforts.

Still, such ethnic-insensitive casting is so counterintuitive in a show like this — with songs like “Inutil,” “No Me Diga” and “Siempre” in Act I and “Hundreds of Stories” in Act II — that it unavoidably undermines Lin-Manuel Miranda’s efforts to showcase Latino talent and culture, albeit within Broadway musical theater parameters and with Broadway musical theater sensibilities. And it is impossible to ignore.

Fortunately for us, BW’s recruitment efforts attract some of the best and hardest- working actors, singers and dancers in the country. These young, talented performers understand full well Broadway musicals and, under Bussert’s creative vision and supervision, fill the stage with energy and remarkable execution. The result is an immensely entertaining production.

The adorable Dawson is an immediately accessible, always interesting Usnavi. He handles all the character’s freestyling wordplay and narrative responsibilities with ease and notable grace.

Other standout performers in an ensemble where everyone delivers include Livvy Marcus as Nina, the Rosarios’ daughter, whose beautiful and heartfelt rendition of “Breathe” is breathtaking; Michael Canada as Sonny, Usnavi’s hustling cousin; Malik Victorian’ as Benny, who is Nina’s earnest love interest; and Isabel Plana and MacKenzie Wright, as the gossiping beauty shop owner Daniela and her sidekick Carla, who deliver much of the show’s comic relief with enormous charm.

Scenic and lighting designers Jordan Janota and Jeff Herrmann beautifully replicate the busy corner of Washington Heights found in the original and touring productions, while adding conductor David Pepin and his incredible nine-piece band on stage in the shadows of the George Washington Bridge. Pepin’s efforts, and those of hip-hop/merengue choreographer Gregory Daniels, drive this music-centric show and are the sources of its much-needed Latin soul.

Not long ago, this column revealed how a Semitic-lite community theater production of “Fiddler on the Roof” managed to thrive on the brilliance of the music and the merits of the story. This Latino-lite “In the Heights” soars because of its phenomenal storytellers. CV

On Stage

WHAT: “In the Heights”

WHERE: Beck Center for the Arts, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood

WHEN: Through Feb. 28

TICKETS & INFO: $12-$31, call 216-521-2540 or go to beckcenter.org


Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Feb. 15, 2016.

Lead image: Ellis C. Dawson III, center, with the cast of “In the Heights.” PHOTO | Roger Mastroianni