A pensive Andrew Cruse as King Arthur. Photo / Scott Custer

OSF’s ‘Camelot’ offers too few brief shining moments

By Bob Abelman

On the surface, it does not seem that large a leap for the Ohio Shakespeare Festival to go from Lear to Lerner and Loewe.

With a wardrobe closet chockfull of chainmail and flowing gowns, an arsenal of medieval weaponry and a talented, seasoned ensemble with Old English accents ever at the ready, the OSF’s production of “Camelot” seems to have the necessary fixings for this classic musical. But, as it turns out, not all of them.

Based on the King Arthur legend as interpreted in T.H. White’s novel “The Once and Future King,” the show – which featured Golden Age of Musicals royalty the likes of Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet in its 1960 Broadway rendition – revolves around the love triangle between King Arthur, Guenevere and Sir Lancelot.  Together, they attempt to bring to an uncivilized 6th century world a new level of enlightenment, where “violence is not strength and compassion is not weakness.”

The story is brilliantly conveyed through Alan Jay Lerner’s magnificent lyrics and Frederick Loewe’s memorable music, particularly during the final song – a slow and dramatic reprise of the title song – where Arthur makes a request to all within earshot: “Don’t let it be forgot/that once there was a spot/for one brief shining moment/that was known as Camelot.”

It’s the “shining” – the grandeur, elegance and idealism that is forever associated with this Tony Award-winning musical and its place as the accepted sobriquet for the JFK presidency taking place during its original run – that is missing most from the OSF production.

It starts with the music, which is rented and prerecorded rather than live and dynamic.

You can’t blame the OSF for sidestepping the cost and inconvenience of an orchestra, but Loewe’s achievements are muted and distant as a result, which flattens out the emotionality of every song and comes across as if the company was singing along to a musical rather than actually performing one.

Staging the show in front of the same all-purpose set that is used during every production of the OSF’s outdoor season at Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens doesn’t help matters. There is nothing “shining” or imaginative about this purely functional house façade. Austerity might work for Elizabethan tragedies and most plays set during medieval times, but musical theater requires more.

One of the highlights of this production is the incorporation of the company’s signature swashbuckling, which is magnificently staged by fight choreographer Ryan Zarecki and expertly executed by Jason Leupold, Joe Pine, Tess Burgler, Zarecki and others. However, its excessiveness seems forced in a show like this and flies in the face of the Camelot credo that “violence is not strength.”

Director Terry Burgler and choreographer Katie Zarecki attempt to balance these scenes with graceful dance, but OSF regulars approach it with the same rhythms as sword play, which makes it look more athletic and strategic than effortless and spontaneous.

Only Andrew Cruse as Arthur and Natalie Green – a newcomer to the OSF – as Guenevere seem as if they are inhabiting a musical. They have the voices to find meaning and romance in songs woefully underserved by their musical accompaniment, possess the presence and virtuosity to shine on a stage that has little luster of its own, and would stand out even without the aide of the dazzling wardrobe supplied by costumer Marty LaConte. They are interesting, elegant and accessible all the time.

The talented Joe Pine is fine as Lancelot, but never finds the self-deprecating humor in his character’s unfaltering decency or the beauty in “If Ever I Would Leave You.” Meanwhile, Geoffrey Darling is a delight as Pellinore, the war-weary and eccentric knight, Leupold is a wonderfully villainous Mordred, Arthur’s bitter illegitimate son, and Pete Robinson is a convincing Merlin.

Crossing over from the Bard to Broadway is a bold move for the OSF that should be encouraged and repeated. But there are lessons to be learned here. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” some theater companies are born to do great musicals, some achieve greatness, but it is never a good idea to have a great musical thrust upon ’em.

On stage


WHERE: Greystone Hall, 103 South High Street, Akron

WHEN:  Through Dec. 17

TICKETS & INFO: $15- $33, call 1-888-718-4253 or go to ohioshakespearefestival.com


Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on December 2, 2017.

Lead image: A pensive Andrew Cruse as King Arthur. Photo / Scott Custer

The cast of “On Your Feet!” Photo / Matthew Murphy

Charisma and conga carry touring ‘On Your Feet!’

By Bob Abelman

Punctuation in a play’s title is more than just grammatically effective. It’s instructive.

The slash in “If/Then,” for instance, offers insight into the show’s narrative structure. The brackets and lowercasing in “[title of show]” embody the production’s impertinence. The question mark in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” suggests the very dramatic ambiguity that dominates Edward Albee’s play.

And then there is the exclamation point.

In “Oklahoma!” the punctuation turns the title into a definitive statement about the musical’s significance. The same exclamation point is intentionally sarcastic in “Something Rotten!”

In “On Your Feet!” — which is currently on tour and on stage at Playhouse Square — the punctuation is a demand that the audience breach theater protocol and get up and dance in the aisles.

No encouragement is necessary, for this biographical jukebox musical consists largely of Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine’s high-energy hits from the 1980s and 1990s, performed by superb entertainers under Jerry Mitchell’s direction. They are backed by an incredible on-stage band with plenty of brass and percussion, with Clay Ostwald on the keyboards and at the helm.

Unfortunately, all this music – which earned 26 Grammy awards – is wrapped in Alexander Dinelaris’ lightweight narrative that tracks the limited dramatic arc of Gloria and husband/producer Emilio’s life. The show establishes the strong relationship between the two, explores the impact of their Cuban roots on their music and world view, and paints such an idyllic portrait of the singer – perfect child, perfect wife, perfect performer – that she is almost unrelatable.

The dialogue and the ballads, including “Words Get in the Way,” “Don’t Wanna Lose You,” and the gorgeous “If I Never Got to Tell You” play out on stage with just enough furniture against a backdrop of projected imagery to establish a location. Scenic designer David Rockwell gives these parts of the show a rather understated quality that plays well against the bigger, brighter (designed by Kenneth Posner) and more beautifully costumed (designed by Emilio Sosa) production numbers.

Mostly, though, the show is one eye-popping production number after another, with so much strenuous salsa choreographed by Sergio Trujillo and performed by a gorgeous ensemble of movers and shakers that the people sitting in the first few rows will need to take some advil when they get home, just from the close exposure.

The show, which closed on Broadway this past August after 746 performances, has been on tour for just a few months, so the energy of the dancers and the truly spectacular voices of Christie Prades as Gloria, Mauricio Martinez as Emilio, Nancy Ticotin as Gloria’s strong-minded mother and Alma Cuervo as Gloria’s supportive abuela are at the their best. They and other cast members have Broadway credits to their names – including, for many, as understudies, stand-bys and ensemble members in the original production of “On Your Feet!” – which reinforces the quality of the talent on stage.

Because of the staging and the show’s approach to the subject matter, only those in attendance who have a personal connection with the artist and her music will likely feel emotionally engaged with this musical. But everyone will likely leave entertained. Exclamation point!

On stage

Touring “On Your Feet!” at Playhouse Square

WHERE: Connor Palace Theatre, 1511 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Through Dec. 23

TICKETS & INFO: $29-$109, call 216-241-6000or visit playhousesquare.com

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on December 7, 2017.

Lead image: The cast of “On Your Feet!” Photo / Matthew Murphy

Miranda Leeann (from left), David Gretchko, Adler Chefitz, Colin Frothingham, Elise Pakiela and Patrick Hensel. Photo / Steve Wagner Photography

Dobama offers an entertaining, exhausting ‘The Baker Street Irregulars’

By Bob Abelman

Just when you thought that every imaginable Sherlock Holmes mystery had been conceived and resolved, local playwright Eric Coble has written a Holmes for the holidays, which is getting its regional premiere at Dobama Theatre.

Once a mere collection of 12 stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, serialized in 1891 and 1892 in The Strand Magazine, the exploits of the fictional detective as retold by his sidekick Dr. Watson were expanded by the author into 44 more short stories and four novels.  

Holmes’ adventures were turned into 46 feature films including 14 starring Basil Rathbone and two neo-noir action films starring Robert Downey Jr., brought into the 21st century in the BBC series “Sherlock” and the CBS series “Elementary,” and adapted for the stage by Ken Ludwig as the madcap parody “Baskerville,” among other incarnations.  

In 2010, four graphic novels written by Tony Lee and illustrated by Dan Boultwood featured the exploits of the Baker Street Irregulars, characters mentioned in the original Sherlock Holmes books “A Study in Scarlet” and “The Sign of Four.” 

Coble’s “The Baker Street Irregulars” is based on those graphic novels.

It’s December on the streets of London and, after a run in with arch villain Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes is missing.  So is a young girl’s grandmother. Who will save the day? Why, the Baker Street Irregulars – a small group of street urchins hired and trained by Holmes himself to help solve cases. Can these misfit kids find Holmes, unravel a mystery from their past, defeat a masked villain and teach us a lesson about the meaning of family?  You bet they can.

Though the game’s afoot, Coble’s play trips over itself upon occasion in its valiant effort to be true to the arcane tropes that define this dated genre.  

“The Baker Street Irregulars” is as exposition-heavy and melodramatic as anything written by Doyle, and comes complete with the requisite short scenes taking place in too many different locations, an excess of clues strategically laid out and deductively unveiled, and a sweeping undercurrent of Victorian morality. 

In short, the show is a highly entertaining but exhausting evening for the young families it is obviously targeting.

To compensate, Coble has infused his play with comedy. Wonderful adult actors – including Christopher M. Bohan as Doctor Watson, Ray Caspio as the evil Morris Wiggins, Ananias J. Dixon as Inspector Lestrade, Laura Starnik as the missing Grandmother Mayhew, and Neda Spears as Mrs. Hudson, the landlady of 221B Baker St. – take on multiple characters and play each of them broadly for the laugh.  

And the Baker Street Irregulars – Colin Frothingham as Wiggins, Miranda Leeann as Eliza, Elise Pakiela as Pockets, Patrick Hensel as Chen, David Gretchko as Tiny, and Adler Chefitz as Ash – are defined as much by their funny foibles as the skills they possess to solve crimes.  These roles have been double-cast with other young actors who perform during the Saturday matinees of the run.

Director Nathan Motta has augmented the script with astounding production values, including T. Paul Lowry’s animated projections that help establish the industrial era ambience of 19th century London and sound design by Jeremy T. Dobbins that conjures a connection with the Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” films best known to younger audiences. Ben Needham’s clever scenic design includes tracking walls on which the animated images are projected as well as an under-used turntable embedded in the flooring.

Part of what makes the evening exhausting are the distractions created by adorable but relatively inexperienced child-actors who pull focus by watching the audience, fading in and out of character, and scratching where Colleen Bloom’s period-perfect costuming creates an itch. Many of their lines are inaudible as well, requiring the audience to piece together the plot amidst the missing dialogue.  

But this is easily outweighed by the commanding performances turned in by Frothingham, Leeann, Pakiela and Gretchko, the breakneck speed that Motta pushes Coble’s script, and all the sensory bells and whistles the designers put on display. Ryan Zarecki’s fight choreography is also a treat.

As a holiday show, “The Baker Street Irregulars” is certainly irregular but it is a most welcome alternative to the numbingly familiar and obligatorily festive theater offerings found elsewhere at this time of year. 

On stage

“Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars”

WHERE: Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Hts.

WHEN: Through Dec. 30

TICKETS & INFO: $20–$38, call 216-932-3396 or visit dobama.org

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on December 2, 2017.

Lead image: Miranda Leeann (from left), David Gretchko, Adler Chefitz, Colin Frothingham, Elise Pakiela and Patrick Hensel. Photo / Steve Wagner Photography

Daryl Kelley as Bobby Strong, center, and the “Urinetown” ensemble. Photo / Andy Dudik

Blank Canvas Theatre’s ‘Urinetown’ flush with talent, determination

By Bob Abelman

“Urinetown” at Blank Canvas Theatre, is not your father’s musical. That is, unless your father likes his theater marvelously askew, wonderfully irreverent and with a terrible title. 

Written by Greg Kotis and composed by Mark Hollman, “Urinetown” is about corporate greed, political corruption and social revolution – you know, typical musical comedy fare – and makes fun of the very theatrical conventions it so cleverly employs.  

After an apocalyptic drought in the very near future, water is scarce, federally regulated, and controlled by the Urine Good Company and its greedy CEO Caldwell B. Cladwell (John J. Polk).  Relieving oneself for free is a crime punishable by death.  Everyone must count their pennies, wait in line at the public facility, and take care of business in an orderly and corporately-controlled fashion or else.  

A young everyman, Bobby Strong (Daryl Kelley), starts a revolt, falls in love with and holds hostage the CEO’s wide-eyed and innocent daughter, Hope (Stephanie Harden), and leads his band of nitrogren-crazed and impoverished revolutionaries toward a most unhappy ending.

The story is narrated by omnipresent police officer Lockstock (Rob Albrecht), who adds a thick layer of caustic humor to the social commentary. Along with Little Sally (Dayshawnda Ash), the two make sure to remind the audience that this is only a musical. And an odd one at that.   

Odd and brilliantly performed, for everyone on and behind the stage understands and appreciates the show’s acerbic wit and theater-insider references. They deliver the goods straight-faced and with the perfect level of earnest intent required of good satire.

The featured performers, particularly Kelley, Harden and Bernadette Hisey as Penelope Pennywise – who runs the poorest, filthiest public toilet in town – bring to the table astonishing voices.  And Albrecht and Polk were born to play the roles of Lockstock and Cladwell, respectively.

But it’s the ensemble members who carry this production. They are given the funniest lines in the show, are called upon to deliver wonderful harmonies and Katie Zarecki’s energetic and close-quarter choreography in production numbers like “Look at the Sky,” “Run, Freedom Run,” and “Why Did I Listen to That Man,” and stop the show with the incredible “Snuff That Girl,” led by the hilarious Trey Gilpin and Kristy Cruz.  

Director Patrick Ciamacco spreads himself thin by also serving as lighting, sound and set designer.  But he only comes up short in the lighting department – where everything is late, off-center and uncomplimentary – and manages to find every humorous beat in the script and the cast to play them. He also gives players like Kevin Kelly, as Caldwell confidant Mr. McQueen, the freedom to add subtle pieces of business that are comedic genius. 

Thin also describes the music, what with only five musicians to deliver the show’s score.  But the band, under Matthew Dolan’s direction, certainly do the most with what they have.  

As hilarious as this show is, its underlining theme of self-induced, environmentally-based catastrophe is a nightmare.  In fact, the show’s final line pays homage to Thomas Malthus, an 18th century economist who theorized that the world population would grow beyond the earth’s ability to support it. 

“Urinetown” is a disturbing story wrapped in an escapist, candy-coated shell. And it is performed to perfection by the good folks at Blank Canvas Theatre. 

On stage


WHERE: Blank Canvas Theatre, 1305 W. 78th St., Cleveland

WHEN: Through Dec. 16

TICKETS & INFO: $18, call 440-941-0458 or visit blankcanvastheatre.com

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

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

Lead image: Joseph Mian as Yank. Photo / Celeste Cosentino

Joseph Mian as Yank. Photo / Celeste Cosentino

Ensemble Theatre’s ‘The Hairy Ape’ powerful but not poetic

By the time he wrote “The Hairy Ape” in 1921, Eugene O’Neill had tired of the literary naturalism of his earlier work. He was now venturing into a form of expressionism that inflates human pathos by layering characters’ speech with visceral and vivid poetry.

It’s this poetry that an otherwise solid Ensemble Theatre production of this play mismanages.

The poetry written for the play’s main protagonist Yank (Joseph Milan) – a musclebound, belligerent and bullying stoker working in the bowels of a transatlantic ocean liner – is primal. It references steel, sweat and fire, is uttered in violent bursts of short sentences, and reinforces the wealthy class’s belief that the working class is comprised of primitives, more simian than human.

Yank’s sense of self-worth is tied to his status as the toughest, strongest and most confident stoker on the ship, which is shaken by Mildred Douglas (Brittany Ganser), the bored daughter of a steel tycoon whose poetry is bloated and flowery. She ventures down into the dark stokehole in her white finery, curious about the men who toil there, but is startled at the sight of the brutish Yank. She calls him a “filthy beast” and leaves in a fit of fear and revulsion.

Among other stokehole denizens is Paddy (Allen Branstein), an Irish boiler room worker who is the antithesis of Yank. Weak, drunken and romantic, he lyrically bemoans the loss of the days of yore on the high seas, when “ships were clippers and the sea was a part of the ship and the ship was us.”

Another is Long (James Rankin), a proselytizing socialist whose wide-eyed skepticism is a perfect counterpoint to Yank’s thick-skulled world-view and whose poetry is grounded in the party line.

Mildred’s outburst shatters, embarrasses and infuriates Yank, and leads him on a journey through the wealthy neighborhoods and back alleys of New York City. Searching for revenge, he soon finds that men like him don’t belong in the modern world. Not even in its zoos where, late in the play, he has a sobering heart-to-heart with a caged ape.

This play is as powerful if not as socially relevant as the day it was written, and director Ian Wolfgang Hinz serves it up on an appropriately minimalist set devised by Walter Boswell with shadowy lighting and dramatic backlighting by Andrew Eckert.

Thankfully, there’s no modernization or artsy reinterpretation – as was done in the controversial 2015 staging at London’s Old Vic and in this year’s production at the Park Avenue Armory in New York – to deviate from the playwright’s detailed stage directions. At Ensemble Theatre, the action takes place on and around a metallic platform from which a steel arch that serves as the ship’s furnace and a New York jail cell protrudes, suggesting the starkness of the human experience.

On this platform struts the square-headed, jut-jawed and solidly built Milan as Yank, who moves like a man convinced that nothing and no one in the world moves without his say-so. Milan’s mastery of his character’s crude poetry and arrogant demeanor is impressive, but the defiance and intensity he exudes only goes so far. There is never a sense of its erosion when Yank is confronted with a world that rejects him or in the final scene where he is lying on the ground after being beaten and broken. This makes it difficult to be sympathetic to his tragedy. He needs to break our hearts, but doesn’t.

More perfect in their portrayals are Rankin as Long and Keith Kornajcik as the head of Industrial Workers of the World who, leery of infiltration, rebuffs Yank’s desperate effort to join the organization. Whit Lowell, Santino Montanez, Kyle Huff, Aziz Ghrabat and August Scarpelli as fellow stokers and Mary Alice Beck as Mildred’s Aunt also do nice work.

Sadly, Branstein as Paddy never quite finds his footing or his accent, and so stumbles through much of O’Neill’s best writing. As Mildred, Ganser’s persistent overacting keeps her character from ever being interesting. Both actors seem to find O’Neill’s dialect, poetry and lengthy monologues way too much of a challenge.

So does Hinz, whose direction doesn’t discover a proper rhythm for this work. It shifts from scene to scene without any ebb and flow. There’s no opportunity in this production’s propulsive momentum to savor moments or absorb what O’Neill has to say.

O’Neill’s writing and Milan’s work in this staging are certainly enough to make this production of “The Hairy Ape” worthwhile. But there is more to be mined from this play. CV

On Stage

“The Hairy Ape”

WHERE: Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Hts.

WHEN: Through Dec. 10

TICKETS & INFO$12-$25, call 216-321-2930 or visit ensembletheatrecle.org

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on November 19, 2017.

Lead image: Joseph Mian as Yank. Photo / Celeste Cosentino

Ginna Claire Mason as Glinda, with the "Wicked" ensemble. Photo / Joan Marcus

Touring ‘Wicked’ continues to be pop-u-lar at Playhouse Square

By Bob Abelman

There’s no place like home. And the touring production of “Wicked” has apparently found one in Cleveland.

It may not come with quite the same regularity as the holiday season airing of the 1939 MGM movie “The Wizard of Oz” on the TBS cable television network, but the 2006, 2008, 2009, 2013 and current Cleveland visitation of the national tour of “Wicked” has certainly been met with the same enthusiasm.  And for very good reason.

The mega-hit musical, which premiered on Broadway in 2003, is based on the best-selling novel by Gregory Maguire and offers an unauthorized prequel to Frank Baum’s classic work. It provides an intriguing back-story of the green-hued Elphaba, who eventually becomes the Wicked Witch of the West, and the very blond Glinda, who is destined to become the Good Witch and guardian of Oz. It also offers insight into the making of the Wizard, the flying monkeys, the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion.

Since Dorothy gets plenty of face-time in the film, it is only fitting that she makes little more than a token cameo appearance in this musical.

The show boasts Stephen Schwartz’s clever music and lyrics, including the spellbinding “Defying Gravity” and the touching “For Good,” as well as Winnie Holzman’s witty dialogue peppered with recognizable “Wizard of Oz” references.

It also has phenomenal production values. The tour, like the show still-running on Broadway, fills the stage with Eugene Lee’s gorgeous scenery that seamlessly flies in and out, Kenneth Posner’s elaborate and dramatic lighting, and wonderfully surreal costuming and wigs by Susan Hilferty and Tom Watson. There’s eye-candy and huge production numbers galore, complemented by rich sound from a 10-member local orchestra spearheaded by four touring musicians and conducted by the hard-working Dan Micciche.

The talent in the current cast is as exceptional as ever. Ginna Claire Mason, as Glinda, and Mary Kate Morrissey, as Elphaba, come fully equipped with world-class voices, astounding stage presence and plenty of previous “Wicked” experience. Morrissey toured in 2016 as the Elphaba standby and just recently took over the role. Mason has only been with the tour since March, but earned her stripes as Glinda’s standby on Broadway.

Other featured players, including Robin De Jesus as the lovable Munchkin Boq, Tom McGowan as The Wizard, Catherine Charlesbois as Elphaba’s sister Nessarose, and Isabel Keathing as the Wizard’s assistant Madame Morrible – are touring veterans while Jon Robert Hall as Ozian stud muffin Fiyero and plenty of ensemble players are relatively new to the tour.  This results in performances that are fresh and enthusiastic, which makes everything on stage seem spontaneous and new even for repeat customers.

Fresh and enthusiastic yet polished and professional is exactly what you want in a touring production of a hit musical. CV

On Stage

National Tour of “Wicked”

WHERE: KeyBank State Theatre, 1519 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Through Dec. 3

TICKETS & INFO: $49-$169, call 216-241-6000 or visit playhousesquare.com

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on November 10, 2017.

Lead image: Ginna Claire Mason as Glinda, with the “Wicked” ensemble. Photo / Joan Marcus

Tania Benites and Jason Estremere in Tlaloc Rivas’ “Johanna Facing Forward,” which was part of Cleveland Public Theatre’s Teatro Publico de Cleveland. The play was based on the story of Johanna Orozco, a Cleveland teenager who survived a gunshot wound to the face from her abusive boyfriend. Photo | Steve Wagner

Several Northeast Ohio theater artists are using their stages to tackle issues such as racial discrimination, mental health and the opioid crisis

By Bob Abelman

Throughout history, artists have created work that does more than entertain. Art can call attention to causes, give voice to sociopolitical injustices, provide a catalyst for protest and serve as an agent for change.

Playwright Aristophanes may well have been the first theater activist. Weary of the Peloponnesian War that had been raging for years, his “Lysistrata,” first performed in 411 BCE, encouraged a sex-strike by all of the women of Greece as a demonstration of their dissent and solidarity.

This past summer, New York’s Public Theatre, Shakespeare Dallas, the Washington, D.C.-based Shakespeare Theatre Company, and other troupes across the country staged provocative productions of “Julius Caesar” intended to stimulate discussion about modern-day populist leaders with a fondness for executive power.

Feminist street theater performers in New York publically called out art galleries and museums for their lack of female artists.

In Spain, performance artist flash mobs staged unannounced Flamenco dances in bank lobbies and the Andalusian parliament to passionately denounce the banking crisis and the austerity measures resulting from European bailouts.

Here in Northeast Ohio, activism by theater artists ranges from overt to incidental and from political to very personal.

Raising consciousness:
Cleveland Public Theatre’s Raymond Bobgan

Nonprofit theaters perform a balancing act when reacting to politics. They can’t hold rallies and they can’t make endorsements without endangering their tax-exempt status. But they most certainly can tell stories.

Raymond Bobgan – who is celebrating his 11th season as executive artistic director of the Cleveland Public Theatre – is all about the storytelling.

Bobgan received the 2017 Governor’s Award for the Arts in Ohio for his “sustained, impactful and visionary leadership” while championing the diverse voices of local playwrights and the minority communities they represent.

In CPT’s multi-theater complex in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood, Bobgan launched Teatro Publico de Cleveland, a 35-member ensemble of Cleveland’s Latinx theater artists, and is laying the groundwork for a similar initiative with Cleveland’s Middle-Eastern and Arabic communities.

He brought “Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays” to the CPT stage to open hearts and minds to marriage equality when the issue was before the Supreme Court. And CPT’s Station Hope – an annual one-night performing arts event in April or May that celebrates the Underground Railroad and explores contemporary issues of social justice – is perhaps the best example of this theater company’s brand of activism. 

“Social justice is about empowering marginalized and minority groups to tell their own stories,” Bobgan says.

Sparking connections:
Interplay Jewish Theatre’s Faye Sholiton

Tom Fulton and Laura Perrotta in Anat Gov’s “Oh God” by Interplay Jewish Theatre. Photo | Elaine Siegel

Tom Fulton and Laura Perrotta in Anat Gov’s “Oh God” by Interplay Jewish Theatre. Photo by Elaine Siegel

Founded in 2011 by Beachwood playwright Faye Sholiton, Interplay Jewish Theatre offers free staged readings of plays that view the contemporary world through a Jewish lens.

Interplay’s first performance was a reading of Deborah Margolin’s drama “Imagining Madoff,” which examined the human capacity for greed. Since then, Sholiton has produced a series of works by a range of living Jewish artists who explore the Middle East conflict, racism and Holocaust denial, among other hot-button topics.

“We don’t choose scripts specifically meant to spark action,” Sholiton says. “It’s more to spark a connection. We want to touch people, provide new insights into the human condition. As playwright/director Aaron Posner told a group of theatermakers a few years ago, ‘The days of sit back, relax and enjoy a show are over. It’s now sit up, lean in and engage.’”

Early on, the company was itinerant. But since 2013, Interplay’s primary partners are Dobama Theatre in Cleveland Heights and Beachwood’s Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage.

“Whether audiences are moved to social, political or religious action, I don’t know,” Sholiton says. “But they certainly become more aware of their own fragility, and we make these discoveries together in a safe and welcoming space.”

Reflecting the good intentions of many other local theater artists, Sholiton adds, “I like to think the work makes us more thoughtful citizens and more compassionate neighbors. Turning those values into action is icing on the cake.”

Denting stigmas:
improvisational comedian Deena Nyer Mendlowitz

Improvisational comedian Deena Nyer Mendlowitz, whose experiences led her to create and perform a monthly live show called “Mental Illness and Friends.” Photo | Deena Nyer Mendlowitz

Improvisational comedian Deena Nyer Mendlowitz, whose experiences led her to create and perform a monthly live show called “Mental Illness and Friends.” Photo by Deena Nyer Mendlowitz

If academic credit could be earned through real-life experience with suicidal depression and electro-convulsive therapy, then comedian/improv artist Deena Nyer Mendlowitz has a master’s in mental illness – and her thesis is the one-woman show “Funnel Cakes Not Included.”

The comedy is a deeply personal excavation of how depression colors a person’s day-to-day existence and serves to distinguish between sadness and depression in the hope of putting a dent in mental health stigma and discrimination.

It was first performed to sold-out houses in 2014 at the Cleveland Public Theatre and has since been staged at the Dobama Theatre’s Playwrights’ Gym, Miami University in Oxford, Arcade Comedy Theater in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. 

The positive response to this production launched a live show called “Mental Illness and Friends,” which takes place every month at Bar Louie on West Sixth Street in downtown Cleveland. Mendlowitz, who was trained at The Second City and Annoyance Theater in Chicago, begins each performance with a new opening monologue, seamlessly weaving together mental illness, real life and laughter. Guest comedians, improv artists, actors and the occasional musical guest perform and share a bit of their own mental health history.

The evening ends with an improv session based on topics from that evening’s discussion, resulting in hilarious, healing and – hopefully – attitude-changing entertainment.

“When life is rough,” says Mendlowitz, “create new stuff.”

Raising awareness:
none too fragile’s Sean Derry and Alanna Romansky

Sean Derry and his daughter, Seá, who has Rett Syndrome and inspired her parents to stage one performance per production that caters to those who have sensitivity to loud sounds or strobe lights or who can’t sit or sit still for long periods of time. Photo by Sean Derry

Sean Derry and his daughter, Seá, who has Rett Syndrome and inspired her parents to stage one performance per production that caters to those who have sensitivity to loud sounds or strobe lights or who can’t sit or sit still for long periods of time. Photo by Sean Derry

Co-artistic directors Sean Derry and Alanna Romansky are performing a very personal form of activism by initiating “relaxed” performances at their Akron-based none too fragile theater.

“Seá’s Night,” named after their 18-year-old daughter with Rett Syndrome, caters one performance per production to those who have sensitivity to loud sounds or strobe lights or who can’t sit or sit still for long periods of time.

“Our other children enjoy attending shows as well as helping backstage or on stage,” says Derry, “but Seá has not been able to do so. Until now.”

By opening the door to special needs attendees and making their theater more inclusive, Derry and Romansky are spreading awareness of Rett Syndrome – a rare non-inherited neurological disorder that occurs almost exclusively in girls and leads to their inability to speak, walk, eat and breathe easily – and other debilitating diseases to their patrons. And all profits from “Seá’s Night” performances are donated to the Rett Syndrome Research Trust.

Confronting the devil:
playwrights on the front line of opioid addiction

Christopher Bohan in Greg Vovos’ “How to be a Respectable Junkie” at Dobama Theatre. Photo by Steve Wagner

Christopher Bohan in Greg Vovos’ “How to be a Respectable Junkie” at Dobama Theatre. Photo by Steve Wagner

Following in the footsteps of activist-minded theatermakers who penned heartbreaking plays about the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, including Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” and Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” several local playwrights have been tackling the state’s surging opioid crisis.

Emily Sherin and Zach Manthey are students at Kent State University who co-wrote “(In)dependent: The Heroin Project” in response to the much-publicized news photo of an East Liverpool woman and her boyfriend slumped in the front seat of an SUV after overdosing on heroin. The woman’s 4-year-old grandson was in the backseat.

The drama – based on some 50 interviews with heroin users and family members, counselors and paramedics, and written in the powerful first-person style of Moisés Kaufman’s “The Laramie Project” – recently premiered at the Akron Civic Theater. On stage, “when you have someone in front of you showing you the effect this epidemic has, it opens your eyes,” said Sherin in a recent article in The New York Times (nyti.ms/2hgXcB8). “Confrontation is key to communication.”

Premiering at Cuyahoga Community College’s Western Campus in Parma, Greg Vovos’ one-man, 90-minute play “How to be a Respectable Junkie” follows a similar path. It is based on extensive interviews with a recovering white-collar heroin user.

“I was blown away by his sense of humor, intelligence and how engaging he was,” says Vovos. “It made me realize that our communities were losing so many great people, and I needed to write about that.”

The play unfolds as stream of consciousness commentary by 30-something Brian. According to a Plain Dealer review (bit.ly/2hagp3S) of its recent Dobama Theatre production, “How to be a Respectable Junkie” prescribes empathy as an antidote and “speaks to addicts, their parents and loved ones numbed by disappointment … and those lucky enough to have watched the numbers of (overdoses) rise and rise without ever having to attend a funeral.”

“A person approached me after one show,” recalls Vovos, “and said I’ll never write a more important play in my life.”

As a grassroots initiative, theater can bring communities together, give voice to the marginalized, articulate issues and push to the forefront problems we otherwise choose to ignore. Every time theater artists like these challenge the powers that be and established ways of thinking, they prove that art and activism are more powerful together than apart. CV

Anne McEvoy contributed to this story.

Lead image: Tania Benites and Jason Estremere in Tlaloc Rivas’ “Johanna Facing Forward,” which was part of Cleveland Public Theatre’s Teatro Publico de Cleveland. The play was based on the story of Johanna Orozco, a Cleveland teenager who survived a gunshot wound to the face from her abusive boyfriend. Photo by Steve Wagner

Ammen T. Suleiman (from left), Natalie El Dabh and LaShawn Little. Photo / Michelle Berki

Karamu’s ‘The Lake Effect’ more bluster than blizzard

By Bob Abelman

One of the hardest things about being a playwright must be coming up with a clever script, handing it over to a theater company, and hoping that there is some resemblance between what is on the page and what is on the stage.

Considering that Rajiv Joseph penned the 2010 Pulitzer Prize nominated “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” received the 2013 Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award, and earned the 2015 Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award for “Guards at the Taj,” surely his one-act “The Lake Effect” is more fascinating, funnier and faster than the version of it being performed in its Ohio premiere at Karamu House.

The play takes place during a few frigid nights in Cleveland, amidst a lake effect snow storm. Bernard (LaShawn Little), a bookie, stops by the Indian restaurant he regularly visits, hungry for a plate of lamb biryani and some conversation with his close friend Vinnie, the restaurant’s owner. Instead, he finds Vinnie’s angry and estranged son (Ammen T. Suleiman), who has returned from New York upon receiving word that his father is bankrupt and selling the restaurant and who is reunited with his sister (Natalie El Dabh) upon their father’s sudden death.

The trio examine the past, learning about Vinnie and each other’s relationship with him through a piecemeal conversation filled with intimate revelations, exposed secrets and unsettling facts. And they each consider a future influenced by this newfound knowledge as they struggle to find a place in the world.

But in this production, in collaboration with Ensemble Theatre and under Celeste Cosentino’s meagre direction, the play lacks tension, intrigue and the humor embedded deep within Joseph’s dialogue.

Rather pedestrian performances turned in by Suleiman as Vijay and El Fabh as Priya make it so. Their acting is artificial and set at two speeds – idle and irate – and when the performers are not speaking, the acting is nonexistent. What should be played as relatable comes across as unlikable. Little, on the other hand, is a delight as Bernard – affable, vulnerable, always interesting but sadly outnumbered on stage.

The pacing in this production is off as well. Flat moments kill the play’s subtle humor and tender moments. And in the intimate Concert Hall performance space where designers Walter Boswell and Steven Barton have retrofitted a nicely rendered restaurant dining area, the performers move tentatively and always as if instructed to do so.

“The Lake Effect” is an intelligent and nuanced work, but not so you’d know it from this Karamu production.

On stage

“The Lake Effect”

WHERE: Karamu House, 2355 E. 89th St., Cleveland

WHEN: Through Nov. 26

TICKETS & INFO: $15-$37, Call 216-795-7070 or visit karamuhouse.org

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 Ohio AP Media Editor’s best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on November 5, 2017.

Lead image: Ammen T. Suleiman (from left), Natalie El Dabh and LaShawn Little. Photo / Michelle Berki

Annie Fox as Anne Frank. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

CPH’s ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ so much more than a memorial

By Bob Abelman

It’s not often that we go to the theater to feel anguish, futility and the sorrow that stems from inconceivable inhumanity. We typically go to the theater to escape those feelings.

But Francis Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s dramatization of the writings of a 13-year-old diarist is built for that very purpose. “The Diary of Anne Frank” offers a first-person account of how Anne, her family and a handful of acquaintances survived in hiding for two years in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam before their capture. And it asks us to never forget.

By rediscovering and publishing her now-famous diary after the war, Anne’s father lifted the young girl from among the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis and turned her, for many, into the innocent face and hopeful voice of the Holocaust.

The play opened on Broadway in 1955 and won a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award. In 1959, the play was turned into an Oscar-winning film.

In 1997, for a Broadway revival, “The Diary of Anne Frank” was adapted by Wendy Kesselman, who removed much of the pandering sentimentality and placating melodrama of the original work and reasserted the historic Anne’s darker vision, unflattering disclosures, budding sexuality, as well as the diary’s overt Jewishness.

And in the Cleveland Play House’s revisiting of this play – having staged the earlier incarnation during its 1958-1959 and 1996-1997 seasons – director Laura Kepley finds all its dramatic beats and very human moments, and turns what could easily be an historical re-creation or revered testimonial into a resonating piece of theater.

To do this, the play is being staged in ¾-round with the first row of seats so close to the action that audience members are nearly co-inhabitants of the dusty, oppressive annex. And scenic designer Robert Mark Morgan wraps the entire outer circumference of the Outcalt Theatre arena in barbed wire to create that sensation for the rest of us.

Because of this staging, the walls and doors that separate the narrow living quarters of the annex have been removed, sacrificing a degree of realism for the sake of sightlines. This is only a momentary distraction, for it is one of many artistic choices made to add theatricality to the dramatic story being told.

Another is surround-sound designer Daniel Perelstein’s super-saturation of the space with the occasional blare of a passing police siren, the chiming of the bell from the Westerkerk church’s clock tower, the roar of planes flying by overhead and the exploding bombs they leave in their wake and, most poignantly, trains leaving the station.

When the script calls for Anne to read aloud from her diary, the actress is coated in bright, isolating overhead lighting courtesy of designer Mary Louise Geiger, as the other occupants of the annex stand in shadow, momentarily frozen in time and space.

Between scenes, we are reminded of the world outside by the dramatically lit Nazis ominously patrolling the perimeter above our seats.

Kepley pays particularly close attention to how tempers fray, trivialities and personality quirks become all-consuming aggravations, and hope and strength dissipates as weeks in hiding turn into months and months become years.

And Kesselman’s script gives added depth and richness to Anne’s romanticized vision of each character, which the CPH performers feast upon.

As Anne’s father Otto, Rick D. Wasserman walks that fine line between saint and survivor with perfect balance and distinction.  The same is true for Amy Fritsche and Tom Woodward’s portrayal of Miep Gies and Mr. Kraler, who heroically but humbly provide provisions.

As Anne’s mother, Lisa Bruneau bares the weight of Anne’s disdain and what the script suggests is a heightened sense of fatalism with remarkable grace.  And as Anne’s meek and nearly invisible sister, Margot, Sarah Cuneo bestows on her a quiet integrity that keeps her always present.

Anne’s diary and the original play paint Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan as relative caricatures, but Bruce Winant and Laura Perrotta turn them into fully fleshed people, which complements Yaron Lotan’s brilliantly nuanced and very realistic portrayal of their awkward teenage son Peter.  Lee Wilkof, as dentist Mr. Dussel, is similarly well-rounded and interesting to watch.

Best of all is NYU graduate Annie Fox as Anne Frank, who brilliantly captures the quicksilver quality that Anne recognized in herself.  In Fox’s portrayal, we get a glimpse of the actual Anne – the optimist, the agitator and the living, breathing young woman at the center of this heart-breaking story.

The only moment in this production that falls short is the Nazis’ (Paul Bugallo, Randy Merrill and Peter Hargrave) 11th-hour invasion of the annex. They arrive with unexpected stealth that manages to suck the air out of the audience, but then they linger, pushing and pillaging before slowly extracting the annex’s extended family. How much more effective it would have been if everyone was quickly whisked off the stage and, in the immediate emptiness and immense silence, out of existence.

Playwright Kesselman’s final addition to the script comes to the rescue. Here we find Otto returning to the attic, retrieving the diary, and recounting – one by one – the horrific fates of the others. It is a moment of unbearable grief that is all too familiar to many in attendance and, thanks to Wasserman’s sensitive portrayal, immediately comprehendible to everyone else. CV

On stage

“The Diary of Anne Frank”

WHERE: Cleveland Play House, Outcalt Theatre, 1501 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Oct. 21 – Nov. 19

TICKETS & INFO: $25 – $105, call 216-241-6000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.com

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.  2017 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on October 28, 2017.

Lead image: Annie Fox as Anne Frank. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Members of the ensemble of "Hunchback of Notre Dame." Courtesy of Idaho Shakespeare Festival

Great Lakes stages polished, stirringly rendered ‘Hunchback’

By Bob Abelman

There’s something so 1980s about the musical “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” currently in production by Great Lakes Theater.

Set in Paris during the Late Middle Ages and based on Victor Hugo’s gothic 1831 novel, this play tells the epic tale of a beautiful gypsy (Keri Rene Fuller as Esmeralda), who captures the hearts of the physically deformed bell-ringer of Notre Dame (Corey Mach as Quasimodo), the morally misshapen archdeacon of Notre Dame (Tom Ford as Dom Claude Frollo), and the remorseful Captain of the Cathedral Guard (Jon Loya as Phoebus de Martin).

The musical was adapted for the stage by Peter Parnell with an augmented score from the 1996 animated Disney movie written by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz. Of the show’s many songs, the lyrics from “God Help the Outcasts” best captures what lies at the heart of Hugo’s dark portrait of Man’s inhumanity to Man that even the hopeless romantics at Disney could not squelch: “God help the outcasts/Hungry from birth/Show them the mercy/They don’t find on earth.”

Although a new musical – it made its debut as a co-production of San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse in 2014 and New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse in 2015 – “Hunchback’s” defining features make it very much a throwback to the heyday of 1980’s mega-musicals like “Les Misérables” and “The Phantom of the Opera.”

“Hunchback” shares the same furrowed-brow earnestness, overwrought vibrato and weighty pathos.

There are the same hallmark leitmotifs – those hummable melodies that represent key elements of the storytelling that keep repeating throughout the musical.

And though performers do not sing every word in this musical, they sing most of them, which gives this show the austere grandeur of an opera that serves to dramatically punctuate all of the above.

In short, “Hunchback” breathes the same portentous air as these long-running Broadway titans, though it never made it to Broadway.

One reason is the music. While “Les Misérables” and “The Phantom of the Opera” have their share of gut-wrenching songs that conclude with a spectacularly prolonged high-note, they appear too early and too often in “Hunchback.” Characters are left with nowhere to go, emotionally, from that point on and audiences are left anesthetized rather than exhilarated for much of the production.

Director Victoria Bussert does everything in her power to compensate.

She has cast the astonishingly gifted Fuller, Mach, Ford and Loya in the featured roles, who find the deep meaning that resides in every lyric and sing every note in their signature songs “God Help The Outcasts,” “Out There,” “Hellfire” and “Someday,” respectively, as if it was their last on earth.

The ruggedly handsome Mach’s first moments on stage find him standing straight and shirtless before slowly taking on the facial deformity and painful posture that define the title character. This seamless transformation from man to monster resonates each time townsfolk respond to Quasimodo’s physical appearance without seeing what lies within. And we are reminded of this when his slurred and tortured speaking voice, which he cannot hear due to deafness from the bells, gives way to pure and unrestricted tones while singing.

Fuller’s soaring angelic voice, established upon her entrance during “Rhythm of the Tambourine,” has the same dramatic effect in the face of the archdeacon’s accusations of thievery, witchcraft and whoring.

These performers are surrounded with an equally remarkable ensemble. Chief among them is Alex Syiek as Clopin Trouillefou, the head gypsy who is tasked with delivering the play’s excessive, energy-sapping narration but is so interesting while doing so that he nearly steals the show. Another scene-stealer is the petite Michelle Pauker, whose stunning production-ending soprano solo leaves a lasting final impression.

Throughout this production, the theater is flooded with a wall of music that includes the symphonic richness of music director Joel Mercier’s nine-piece orchestra, the harmonies provided by the sizable on-stage choir from Baldwin Wallace University’s Choral Studies Program, and the subtle reverberating echo of clerical chants courtesy of sound designer David Gotwald.

All this takes place on scenic designer Jeff Herrmann’s impressive set, which is dominated by a suspended 20-foot-tall bell that stands between two-tier French Gothic towers that house the choir’s pew. The stage is beautifully lit by Mary Jo Dondlinger, who enhances every dramatic moment.  The actors are in colorful period costuming designed by Martha Bromelmeier.

This production comes fully formed and polished after an initial opening at Great Lakes Theater’s sister venue, the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. But for all its admirable qualities, it never quite takes your breath away like its 1980s counterparts. But it is not for want of trying.

On Stage

“Hunchback of Notre Dame” 

WHERE: The Hanna Theatre, 14th St. and Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Through Nov. 4

TICKETS & INFO: $13-$80, call 216-241-6000 or visit greatlakestheater.org

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 Ohio AP Media Editor’s best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Oct. 2, 2017.

Lead image: Members of the ensemble of “Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Courtesy of Idaho Shakespeare Festival

Charity Angel Dawson (from left), Desi Oakley and Leene Klingaman. Photo / Joan Marcus

Touring ‘Waitress’ a blue-plate special with a side of extraordinary

By Bob Abelman

There’s an old adage from the days of Rodgers and Hart that a sign of a great musical is audience members humming a show tune on their way out of the theater.

While leaving the Connor Palace Theatre after witnessing “Waitress,” several show tunes – with their close-knit harmonies, coffee house/country bar sensibilities and poignant lyrics – fight for supremacy.

It can even be argued that “Waitress” is all about the music, for playwright Jessie Nelson’s faithful adaptation of Adrienne Shelly’s low-budget 2007 movie of the same name is a rather formulaic confection about the hopes and dreams of small-town waitress Jenna, who helps run Joe’s Pie Diner somewhere in the South.

Jenna is a working-class woman in a loveless and abusive marriage who finds herself predictably pregnant. Baking has been her lifelong escape, form of self-expression and only connection to her mother during seemingly simpler times. Sex with married gynecologist Dr. Pomatter, who is transparently built to be adorable, serves as temporary escape from her loser husband Earl, who is transparently built to be deplorable, and results in the inevitable romantic complications.

Jenna is surrounded by supportive sidekicks – outgoing Becky and woefully insecure Dawn – who are fellow waitresses tasked, as sidekicks tend to be, with providing much of the show’s comic relief.

In short, the story that drives “Waitress” is a blue-plate special – marginally nutritious fare doled out in pre-measured portions that are hardly out of the ordinary.

But the gorgeous songs by Grammy-winning composer and lyricist Sara Bareilles give personal insight into the hopes and dreams of the show’s central characters and, by doing so, offer pitch-perfect voice and a gorgeous melody to our own expectations and aspirations. From the show-opening “What’s Inside” to the finale “Everything Changes,” the songs air lift the storytelling that surrounds them.

So does director Diane Paulus’ remarkable staging, which adds a palpable heightened sense of reality to everything.

Scenic designer Scott Pask’s picturesque rendering of the diner comes with a perpetual sunrise out the windows and an outstanding six-piece band (Jenny Cartney, Lilli Wosk, Elena Bonomo, Alexandria Bodick Nick Anton, Ed Hamilton) in the corner.

Choreographer Lorin Latarro orchestrates the emergence of baking products, paraphernalia and pies out of nowhere that seamlessly end up in and then out of the hands of performers.

Songs are softly lit interior monologues that are interrupted by brief moments of brightly illuminated flashback or fantasy, courtesy of Ken Billington’s lighting design, during which the surrounding ensemble rhythmically leans into the featured singer as if riding the invisible tide of the melody.

The songs and the staging are sufficient to turn a blue plate special into a theatrical experience that is something truly extraordinary, but Broadway-caliber performers are inserted into the mix of this touring production. The characters they create aren’t just relatable, they are lovable. And the songs they sing aren’t just hummable; they are memorable.

As Jenna, Desi Oakley lives in the moment of every moment of this production and is able to communicate astounding intimacy in a playhouse as cavernous as our Connor Palace Theatre. She simultaneously blows the roof off with her powerful and perfectly nuanced vocals and turns Jenna’s 11 o’clock self-reflection, “She Used to Be Mine,” into a heart-pounding show-stopper.

An absolutely charming Leene Klingaman and endearing Charity Angel Dawson play Dawn and Becky, respectively, and bring dimension to what could easily be cardboard caricatures. And their gorgeous voices blend beautifully with Oakley’s, particularly in “A Soft Place to Land.” Their love interests – the perfectly elfin Jeremy Morse as Ogie, who nearly steals the show with “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me,” and the terrific Ryan G. Dunkin as the diner’s sardonic cook Cal – are delightful.

Bryan Fenkart brings all the endearing idiosyncrasies required of

Dr. Pomatter to the table and his beautiful voice helps turn “You Matter to Me” into one of those tunes that are hummed once the show is over. Nick Bailey, in the thankless role of husband Earl, well manages the balancing act of portraying damaged goods while offering the hauntingly beautiful “You Will Still Be Mine.”

This touring production – which is launching in Cleveland – also boasts of a remarkable ensemble. Its members, including recent Baldwin Wallace University graduate Kyra Kennedy, don’t just complement what the creators, director and designers provide, they accentuate it.

The opening number in this musical suggests that what’s inside of a pie is more than just a little flour, eggs and sugar. There’s heart. This touring musical puts that on display.

On Stage

Touring “Waitress” at Playhouse Square

WHERE: Connor Palace Theatre, 1511 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Through Nov. 5

TICKETS & INFO: $29-$109, call 216-241-6000 or visit playhousesquare.com

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Oct. 22, 2017.

Lead image: Charity Angel Dawson (from left), Desi Oakley and Leene Klingaman. Photo / Joan Marcus

M.A. Taylor, center, as Puck. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Great Lakes offers modern, amusing but muddled ‘Midsummer’

By Bob Abelman

According to Puck, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s” most impish of fairies, “If we shadows have offended/Think but this and all is mended/That you have but slumber’d here/While these visions did appear.”

Shakespeare’s play is, by nature, a dreamy charade that allows for mortals to mingle with pixies and for all sorts of absurdities to seem commonplace. Among its assorted subplots, this absolutely delightful diversion revolves about two young couples (Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Demetrius) in love with the wrong partners, who venture into the woods and fall prey to mischievous fairies and their manipulations of the human heart.

Past productions of this play by Great Lakes Theater – and there have been six others, mostly when the company went by the title Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival – tend to take Puck at his word for they were truly hypnagogic affairs.

For its 2003 and 2010 productions, for instance, the play was transported from the 1590s to the hallucinogenic 1960s, complete with surreal landscapes, period costuming, a Volkswagen Beetle on stage and the interweaving of Beatles music to facilitate the storytelling.

Its current incarnation, under Joseph Hanreddy’s artistic vision and direction, is similarly surreal but it places the story and all its lyrical Shakespeare-speak in modern times.

The four young lovers – played by Michelle Pauker, Corey Mach, Keri Rene Fuller and Jon Loya – brandish fist bumps and cellphones, display the same phonetic rhythms and physicality as any millennial, and strut and fret their 2 1/2 hours upon the stage in modern-day garb courtesy of Rachel Laritz. They are surrounded by scenic designer Scott Bradley’s cosmic library, where nature seems to be taking over human invention and reality and fantasy have morphed into an imaginative amalgamation of colors and shapes.

On subplot features the “rude mechanicals” – the skilled laborers from Athens who want to put on a play for the city’s royalty, Theseus (Nick Steen) and Hippolyta (Jillian Kates) – who are made of the same modern cloth.  They consist of Peter Quince the carpenter (Tom Ford), Snug the joiner (Aled Davies), Nick Bottom the weaver (David Anthony Smith, who played the same role in the 2010 showing), Francis Flute the bellows-mender (Mack Shirilla), Tom Snout the tinker (Alex Syiek), and Robin Starveling the tailor (Jodi Dominick).

Hearing Shakespeare’s elevated language and iambic pentameter spoken with today’s casual cadence is an extraordinary thing, particularly since these performers have had significant classic training to keep that very thing from happening by accident.  It lands strangely on the ear, which not only accentuates the comedy written in the script but gives way to additional opportunities for humor by the lovers and the motley crew of mechanicals.

All this showcases a remarkable discipline and skill-set possessed by every performer on stage, made even more remarkable with the realization that they are also performing the large-scale musical “Hunchback of Notre Dame” in repertory.

Still, not everything works in this production.

The modern-day staging concept gets a bit muddled in M.A. Taylor’s portrayal of Puck as a head-banging rocker ala Mötley Crüe, which is chronologically at odds with other goings on.

Assorted fairies (Olivia Kaufmann, Mackenzie Wright) and elves (Dan Hoy, Andrew Kotzen, Mickey Patrick Ryan), as well as some of the music choices by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, seem similarly out of sync.

And, of course, some theater purists may balk at this reconstruction’s insertion of contemporary phrases and gender-correcting terminology into Shakespeare’s sacrosanct prose and poetry.

But Puck’s play-ending apology accounts for most of these occurrences.  And his earlier observation – “What fools these mortals be” – seems to cover for the rest.

On Stage

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” 

WHERE: The Hanna Theatre, 2067 E 14th St., Cleveland

WHEN: Through Nov. 5

TICKETS & INFO: $13-$75, call 216-241-6000 or visit to greatlakestheater.org

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Oct. 10, 2017.

Lead image: M.A. Taylor, center, as Puck. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Jeffrey Siegel during a 2010 PBS special. Photo / Steve Purcell

Siegel’s latest ‘Keyboard Conversation’ a Bernstein birthday bash

By Bob Abelman

Internationally acclaimed pianist Jeffrey Siegel, labeled the “Leonard Bernstein of the keyboard” by the Chicago Tribune, celebrates his 30th season of “Keyboard Conversations” at Cleveland State University by celebrating Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday.

Bernstein’s legacy revolves around his brilliant work as a composer, conductor and humanitarian, as well as his role as an educator through the popular Young People’s Concerts he performed with the New York Philharmonic from Lincoln Center.

These concerts and conversation, which aired on CBS television from 1958 to 1972, inspired generations of musicians and music lovers, including a young Jeffrey Siegel who attended some of the events while a student at The Juilliard School in New York. They serve as the model for Siegel’s “Keyboard Conversations” series.

“Keyboard Conversations” is a unique, concert-with-commentary format in which Siegel’s storytelling informs listeners of the passions, pressures and historical proceedings that influenced the composers and compositions he is about to play. A question-and-answer period follows each concert.

“In 1982. Jeffrey was a piano soloist with the Cleveland Orchestra,” said Kay Shames, director of the Center for Arts and Innovation at CSU, who for the past 18 years has spearheaded Siegel’s concerts.

“While at an after-party, he met Henry Goodman, the chair of the university’s board of trustees. By the end of the evening, there was an arrangement for Jeffrey to bring his popular concerts, which had been performed elsewhere (in Chicago, Phoenix, Dallas, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Milwaukee) to Cleveland as well.”

The Birthday Bash program includes piano arrangements of songs from “West Side Story,” which Bernstein wrote around 1956, and the intimate “Anniversaries,” which Bernstein composed in 1948 and consists of four movements, each written for a different person in his life.

Siegel also will perform a solo piano version of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” which Bernstein famously played on piano when he conducted the New York Philharmonic at the Royal Albert Hall in 1976, a Bernstein-transcribed version of Copland’s “El Salon Mexico,” as well as a short, unpublished Bernstein work.

“Perhaps the most interesting work on the program will be the unpublished ‘Meditation on a Wedding’ – a sweet, lyrical piece that charms the ear,” Siegel said. “It shows an intimate, tender side of Bernstein that one does not normally associate with a composer of extrovert Broadway musicals and powerful symphonic scores.”

The four-part Kulas Series of “Keyboard Conversations” at CSU continues Jan. 21, 2018, when Siegel features “Keys to the Classics:  Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn.” It will be followed by a March 18, 2018, concert focusing on the work of Frederick Chopin, Felix Mendelssohn, Claude Debussy, Alexander Scriabin and Jean Sibelius.  Siegel closes the series on Sunday, May 6 with a concert showing how Frederick Chopin, Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt – born only months apart – influenced one another’s works.

“More than anything,” adds Siegel, “these concerts offer listeners the transformative powers of great music.”

On stage

“Bernstein Birthday Bash”

WHERE: Cleveland State University’s Waetjen Auditorium, 2001 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: 3 p.m. Oct. 29

TICKETS & INFO: $25, call 216-687-5018 or visit csuohio.edu/cai

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 Ohio AP Media Editor’s best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News October 17, 2017

Lead image: Jeffrey Siegel during a 2010 PBS special. Photo / Steve Purcell

Anne Frank

‘The Diary of Anne Frank’

By Bob Abelman

“I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone . . . and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support. …”

And so begins, on June 12, 1942, young Anne Frank’s diary, which remains one of the most widely read and powerful testimonies to the horrors endured by Jewish people in World War II.

By rediscovering and publishing her now-famous diary after the war, Anne’s father lifted the 13-year-old girl from among the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis and turned her, for many, into the face and voice of the Holocaust.

First published in 1947, the book has sold more than 25 million copies and has been translated into more than 50 languages. The play, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” a dramatization by Francis Goodch and Albert Hackett, opened on Broadway in 1955.  It won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award. In 1959, the play was turned into an Oscar-winning film.

When the play was first produced, the war against Nazi Germany had been over only 10 years. Adolf Eichmann was alive and the magnitude of the Holocaust was still being revealed. It remained incomprehensible for many and so the play was both powerful and placating.

In 1997, for a Broadway revival, the play was revisited by Wendy Kesselman, who removed much of the sentimentality and melodrama and reasserted the historic Anne’s darker vision as well as the diary’s overt Jewishness.

Although the Cleveland Play House has staged “The Diary of Anne Frank” twice before – during the 1958-59 and 1996-97 seasons – the upcoming production will be the first to use Kesselman’s adaptation.

Laura Kepley

Laura Kepley

The Cleveland Jewish News interviewed director Laura Kepley the day before cast members met for a first reading of the script, to discuss what she has in store for all of us.

CJN:  As the artistic director of the CPH, why select this play for the current season?  

Kepley: This story is always important to tell. But there are a lot of things going on in the world right now where stories like this can offer perspective and inspiration.

CJN:  The play has become so iconic for many people.  How does this impact your approach to the work?

Kepley:  We need to tell this story as truthfully as we can. You can’t play a symbol. It is important to find the truth in these characters and in their relationships. We need to make the on-stage family dynamics as nuanced as the real thing.

CJN: Is that easier to do with Kesselman’s adaptation of the play? Rather than being the torchbearer for the collective experience of victims of the Holocaust, this Anne seems actual.

Kepley: Absolutely. This adaptation is so compelling because it doesn’t sugarcoat or smooth out Anne’s rough edges. It lets Anne be a teenaged young woman who is vivacious, precocious and has a fierce intelligence. And everyone in the attic needs to deal with that, among so many other things.

CJN: Given this portrayal of Anne, what key qualities were you looking for in an actor to play her?

Kepley: In re-reading the diary, I recall Anne’s description of herself as “quicksilver” – something that moves or changes very quickly, something that is difficult to hold or contain. We found this quality in Annie Fox, a New York-based actor. I have to say, she blew me away during auditions. She made the language in the script seem visceral and managed to put on display all the changes Anne Frank goes through during her two years in captivity. Also, this is a tour de force role, and Annie has the professional training and experience to handle all the language and the vocal demands of the show.

CJN: Tell us about your staging of the work.  

Kepley: We are doing this in the intimate Outcalt Theatre space, which allows us to stage it almost in the round.  And when Anne is in her room on her bed, there will be audience members no further than three feet from her. When Mrs. Van Daan is in the kitchen, there will be audience members 2 feet away. When people leave for intermission, the actors stay put. In this play, we are watching people live under extraordinary circumstances. We want the audience to feel as if it is living them as well.

On stage

“The Diary of Anne Frank”

WHERE: Cleveland Play House, Outcalt Theatre, 1501 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Oct. 21 – Nov. 19

TICKETS & INFO: $25 – $105, call 216-241-6000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.com

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News October 11, 2017.

Lead image: Anne Frank

Maurice Cole (from left), Jeremy Gladen, Steve Oleksa, Tony Zanoni, George Roth, Bryant Carroll, Katherine DeBoer and Bevan Haynes. Photo / Kathy Sandham

Beck refreshes mildewed melodrama ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’

By Bob Abelman

Dale Wasserman’s 1963 stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is a celebration of a counterculture anarchy and rebelliousness that no longer exists in this country. Nor does much of the psychological symbolism that drives this drama.

But under William Roudebush’s astute direction and with an ensemble of superb performers, the Beck Center for the Arts’ production has mined and delivers all the many human moments this play has to offer.

Best known as a 1975 film directed by Miloš Forman, the story takes place in a mental institution where the charismatic, pathologically insubordinate Randle Patrick McMurphy (Bryant Carroll) gets transferred from a prison farm for evaluation. There he meets the imposing and uncompromising Nurse Ratched (Katherine DeBoer), who runs the psychiatric ward and keeps her patients under control through intimidation, medication and the threat of electroconvulsive therapy.

The play boils down to a battle of wills between McMurphy and Ratched, with the ward’s featured patients (George Roth, Jeremy Gladen, Bevan Michael Haynes, Steve Oleksa, Tony Zanoni) and employees (Jarod Mariani, Minor Cline, Daniel Mckinnon, Leonard Goff) serving as their foot soldiers.

The battlefield is the authentic and oppressively antiseptic ward, coated in soul-sucking, mind-numbing shades of metallic grey and rendered with high ceilings, linoleum flooring, exposed air vents, and gated doors by scenic designer Aaron Benson. The jagged edges of the stage, where even Trad Burns’ institutional overhead lighting is hesitant to intrude, serve as a foreboding yet precarious barrier between inmate and audience.

Now 55 years old, the play’s portrayal of McMurphy as a martyred, messianic anti-hero, Nurse Ratched as a castrating mother figure, and giant Native American Chief Bromden (Maurice Cole) – a patient who has lost his sense of size and self, and serves as an allegory for our nation’s many indiscretions – are a tad tired and have lost much of their resonance.

So what matters most in this production, seen during its Thursday preview, are the performances. Each actor brings layers of emotional truth and all sorts of interesting physicality to their defining brand of mental and emotional illness.

As the lanky Billy Bibbit – with his low self-esteem, mother issues and resultant stutter – Gladen is wonderfully accessible and so very affecting. Both he and Roth as patient Dale Harding, who puts on display an absolutely intriguing assortment of spasmodic tics and disturbing tendencies while working hard at feigning normalcy, have marvelously written moments of mental melt-down that are delivered brilliantly.

As Nurse Ratched, DeBoer wears a frosty stare and condescending smile that doesn’t crack under duress or while emasculating a patient or staff member. Her presence is chilling, controlling and immediately impacts the atmosphere in the room upon entrance.

That is, until the introduction of Carroll’s happy-go-lucky rapscallion McMurphy. His contrasting heat, humor and energy cause minor shifts in the tectonic plates that support the ward that sends welcome ripples of theatricality through this production.

Lurking amidst the well-integrated ensemble loitering on stage as assorted acute and chronic patients is Ben Gregg as Ruckly, the victim of a botched lobotomy. Subtle and fully vested, Gregg adds ambient insanity and an additional layer of psychological pain to the proceedings without the aid of dialogue. His work is remarkable.

This production rarely loses momentum (the transitions between scenes are creatively orchestrated affairs), only occasionally engages in questionable choices (the jagged edges of the stage are breached, which compromises the illusion of confinement), and it never fails to engage our emotions.

Most importantly, the play’s most telling scenes – the first-act climax when McMurphy convinces his fellow inmates to engage in rebellion and the anarchic party in the second-act when girls (Dayni Mahar and Kara Kennelly) invade the premises – are honest, entertaining and completely void of mildew. CV

On Stage

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” 

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

WHEN: Through Oct. 8

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. 2017 Ohio AP Media Editor’s best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Sept. 16, 2017.

Lead image: Maurice Cole (from left), Jeremy Gladen, Steve Oleksa, Tony Zanoni, George Roth, Bryant Carroll, Katherine DeBoer and Bevan Haynes. Photo / Kathy Sandham


Apollo’s Fire season opener goes from darkness into light

By Bob Abelman

Apollo’s Fire Baroque Orchestra, one of the world’s pre-eminent period-instrument ensembles, opens its season with the Cleveland premiere of Handel’s “Israel in Egypt.”

The oratorio, edited down to two hours, tells the epic tale of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt and is, according to award-winning harpsichordist, conductor and Apollo’s Fire founder Jeannette Sorrell, “as gripping as the old Charlton Heston movie.”

“Israel in Egypt” is almost entirely a choral piece, with only a few arias for soloists interspersed among the choruses. It was originally performed in London in 1739, where it and Handel’s other Old Testament oratorios were poorly received because popular taste was not yet accustomed to works void of star soloists and popular prejudices caused Handel’s heroic portrayals of ancient Israelites – including Solomon, Esther, Joseph, Saul, and Judas Maccabeus – to fall on deaf ears.

His “Messiah,” composed in 1741, fared much better.

One of the earliest recordings of “Israel in Egypt,” performed at the Handel Festival at the Crystal Palace in London in 1888, included a 4,000-voice chorus.

The Apollo’s Fire presentation is of a much smaller scale, although it has had to double-up on some brass instruments to best capture the triumphant nature of the work. It features soprano Erica Schuller, counter tenor Daniel Moody, tenor Ross Hauck, as well as Jewish baritone Jeffrey Strauss.

Strauss’ primary solo takes place during the third part of the oratorio, when the Israelites celebrate their deliverance from Egypt. “It is accompanied by trumpet and oboe, which is magnificent,” he notes in a telephone interview from his home in Chicago.

Strauss has been affiliated with Apollo’s Fire since 1995 and regularly serves as a soloist. He has also worked closely on the company’s “Sephardic Journey,” a program that interweaves Sephardic folk song with chanting and the Monteverdi-like Hebrew choral work of Jewish composer Salamone Rossi.

“Jeannette has long been interested in work with Jewish themes and was drawn for years to do something about Sephardic Jews,” says Strauss, “but only recently discovered through a DNA test that she is half-Jewish. This might explain her fascination with Jewish culture.”

The season opening consists of four performances of “Israel in Egypt,” with Rabbi Roger C. Klein of The Temple Tifereth-Israel in Beachwood offering a pre-concert talk at each. He will focus on Handel’s genius, the genre of oratorio, and the biblical context of this particular work.

One of the performances will take place in Klein’s synagogue.

“We’ve had Apollo’s Fire perform here several times, before our recent renovation and when the acoustics in the sanctuary were really problematic,” he said. “Now the sound is absolutely spectacular. This is a great piece taking place in a great space.” CV

On Stage

‘Israel in Egypt’ performed by Apollo’s Fire

WHEN: Oct. 12-15

WHERE: St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Akron, 7:30 p.m., Oct. 12; First Baptist Church, Shaker Heights, 8 p.m. Oct. 13; The Temple-Tifereth Israel, Beachwood, 8 p.m. Oct. 14; United Church of Christ, Avon Lake, 4 p.m. Oct. 15

TICKETS & INFO: $10-$72, call 216-320-0012, ext. 1 or visit apollosfire.org

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Sept. 27, 2017.

Lead image: Apollo’s Fire. Photo | Roger Mastrioianni



Charlie Thurston (Will Shakespeare) and the cast of “Shakespeare in Love.” Photo / Roger Mastroianni

CPH’s ‘Shakespeare in Love’ finds its muse, and then some

By Bob Abelman

Turning a screenplay into a stage play is an iffy enterprise. 

One need only have seen the touring production of “Dirty Dancing” at Playhouse Square, the musical “Bring It On” at the Beck Center or last year’s “Disney’s Freaky Friday” at the Cleveland Play House to understand the truth in this understatement.

CPH’s current staging of “Shakespeare in Love” suggests that the company has not shied away from screen-to-stage projects.  But it has also learned a lesson from all that went wrong with “Freaky Friday,” resulting in all that goes right in this gorgeous, thoroughly entertaining, hopelessly romantic and absolutely engrossing production.

One of the things done right is placing Laura Kepley at the helm, for her creative vision, sense of humor and ability to hire top-tier designers the likes of Lex Liang (scenic and costume), Russell H. Champa (lighting), Drew Francher and David Shimotakahara (stage combat and choreography, respectively) and Jane Shaw (sound), is unparalleled. 

She and her team manage to turn cinematic moments into remarkable stage magic and the Allen Theatre performance space into a London playhouse with the kinds of artistic bells and whistles they wish they had in 1593.   

The play, adapted for the stage by Lee Hall from Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s film, was first produced in London in 2014 and by-passed Broadway on its way to the Stratford Festival in Canada for its North American premier. 

While there, critics commented that this work would have worked better as a musical.

This CPH production nearly is, thanks to the infusion of Elizabethan ditties beautifully sung by the cast and accompanied by on-stage performers (Drew Bastian, Mariah Burks and Peter Hargrave) under Nathan Motta’s superb direction.

The play opens with Will Shakespeare (a charming and immediately accessible Charlie Thursto) struggling with writers’ block and paupers’ lament.

His latest commission is a month behind schedule and he can’t even finish his latest sonnet (“Shall I compare thee to a … to a …?”) without fellow poet Kit Marlowe (the delightful Andhy Mendez) serving as his personal thesaurus and fan base. Cajoled by his desperate producer Henslowe (Donald Carrier, milking every comic moment in the script, of which they are many), young Shakespeare holds auditions for his as-yet-unwritten comedy, “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter.”

A wealthy merchant’s daughter, Viola de Lesseps (the deliciously feisty Marina Shay), is in love with Shakespeare’s plays and dons a male disguise in order to audition. Shakespeare is impressed and casts “him” as Romeo, unaware that “he” is a woman who would otherwise be banned by law from the Elizabethan stage.

When Shakespeare eventually lays eyes on Viola in her true form, his writers’ block is vanished and work on the comedy moves forward.  Numerous obstacles hinder the star-crossed lovers, including Viola’s engagement to the disdainful Lord Wessex (a perfectly repugnant Peter Hargrave), as sanctioned by Queen Elizabeth (the magnificent Tina Stafford, who also doubles as Nurse).

As the magnetic attraction and love between Shakespeare and Viola grows complicated, arguably sexier and more playful than the film version, and then impossible to sustain, the play being written similarly shifts from comedy to tragedy and takes on the title “Romeo and Juliet.”

This stage production embraces the same play-within-a-play structure as the film, but it is significantly funnier thanks to Kepley’s ability to push a running gag to the point of gagging without ever going over the edge.  It is abetted by a gifted ensemble with impeccable comic timing – particularly Grant Goodman as larger-than-life player Ned Alleyn, Brian Owen as the flamboyant Burbage, and Evan Zes as producer Fennyman.

Taking full advantage of the live nature of this theatrical production, Kepley invades the personal space of the audience by staging chases and assorted acts of rowdiness in front of the stage and into the Allen Theater aisles.   

The play, like the film, makes glancing reference to the much-debated notion that Shakespeare may not have written all his own plays, something that is explored in greater depth and detail in the 2011 political thriller “Anonymous.” But, mostly, it suggests the collaborative nature of art at the time and is clearly an unapologetic love letter to the Bard.

It is also loaded with enough historical inaccuracies to cause Shakespeare purists, who know that the referenced Sonnet 18 and comedy “Twelfth Night” were written long after the time of this play, to revolt. If they do, they are missing the point of this play.  It is, above all else, a wonderfully romantic romp. 

As such, this play and this CPH production of it are not to be missed. CV

On stage

“Shakespeare in Love”

WHERE:  Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN:  Through Oct. 1

TICKETS & INFO:  $25 – $90, call 216-241-6000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.com

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Sept. 18, 2017.

Lead image: Charlie Thurston (Will Shakespeare) and the cast of “Shakespeare in Love.” Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Cleveland Orchestra Music Director, Franz Welser-Möst, leads the Orchestra in the 2014 production of Janáček’s opera, “The Cunning Little Vixen” at Severance Hall. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Cleveland Orchestra begins 100th season with ‘The Cunning Little Vixen’

By Bob Abelman

The 2014 Cleveland Orchestra’s premiere of Leoš Janáček’s opera, “The Cunning Little Vixen,” – the innovative made-for-Severance Hall opera described by The New York Times as “ingenious” – is being revived to open the orchestra’s 100th season.

Created and directed by Yuval Sharon in collaboration with music director Franz Welser-Möst, the limited-run encore production will once again juxtapose state-of-the-art digital animation by Walter Robot Studios with live performance from featured singers, the Cleveland Orchestra chorus and the children’s chorus. 

The performance will be sung in Czech, with projected English supertitles.

The opera details the adventures of a clever fox cub. She’s captured by the local forester, grows up on his farm, and then escapes back to the woods to raise a family. This tale has much to say about the cyclical nature of life and death.  

On the rare occasions when the highly theatrical “Vixen” has been mounted since its world premiere in 1924, the cast dons full-body costumes to portray the animals. As he did with the 2014 production, Sharon follows suit but has dispensed with sets in favor of digital animation.

All that will be seen of the Vixen (Martina Janková), the mezzo-soprano fox, woodpecker and rooster (Jennifer Johnson Cano, Sandra Ross and Clarissa Lyons, respectively), the soprano hen, grasshopper and frog (Marian Vogel, Miranda Scholl and Caroline Bergan, respectively), the tenor mosquito (David Cangelosi) and the bass-baritone badger (Dashon Burton) when the spaces they inhabit are depicted on screens are their faces.

Making her Cleveland Orchestra debut in this production is Daryl Freedman, a Jewish mezzo-soprano who will be playing Lapák the dog. 

“‘The Cunning Little Vixen’ is such an ensemble show,” Freedman said. “I am so excited for us all to develop our characters together in this captivating and beautiful production and to discover how my Lapák can incorporate both the playful, frisky qualities of a pup and the seriousness of the artist he believes himself to be.

Under Welser-Möst’s direction, the Cleveland Orchestra has been re-establishing itself as an important operatic ensemble, beginning in 2008 with five sold-out performances of a staged production of Dvorák’s opera “Rusalka.”

“We take risks, we don’t shy away from being creative, we actually go for it,” he said in a news release.  “The city of Cleveland and The Cleveland Orchestra especially are places for innovation and creativity, and our production of Janáček’s ‘The Cunning Little Vixen’ is one of the most outstanding examples of what we have done.”  

In October, the groundbreaking “Vixen” will be performed as part of the Orchestra’s upcoming European tour to Hamburg, Linz, Luxembourg, Paris, and Vienna. At Vienna’s Musikverein, the performance will make history as the first fully-staged opera presented there since the concert hall opened in 1870. 

On stage

Janacek’s ‘The Cunning Little Vixen’

WHEN: 8 pm, Sept. 23, Sept. 24 and Sept. 26

WHERE: Severance Hall, 11001 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

TICKETS & INFO: $41-$165, go to clevelandorchestra.com or call 216-231-1111

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 Ohio AP Media Editor’s best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on September 15, 2017.

Lead image: Cleveland Orchestra Music Director, Franz Welser-Möst, leads the Orchestra in the 2014 production of Janáček’s opera, “The Cunning Little Vixen” at Severance Hall. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Jabri Little as Tray and Lisa Langford as Lena. Photo / Steve Wagner Photography

Dobama’s ‘brownsville song’ a poignant play about love and resilience

By Bob Abelman

“There’s some / thing / Got a / a uh weight to it / Dig into my ribcage every breath I take every hour of the day / Drippin scratchin on my skin with its red saliva / Writin his name over and over / Those letters just burnin through to my bones / burning me with why / and he knew better / and didn’t I say to him.”

So begins playwright Kimber Lee’s lyrical, heartfelt and heart-wrenching tale about deep loss and senseless death, and Dobama Theatre’s remarkable telling of it.

“brownsville song (b-side for tray)” takes place in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., where a young black life with infinite potential on the verge of endless possibilities is tragically cut short in a street shooting. That is where this story, which seamlessly time-shifts between the past and the present, both begins and ends.

In between, we meet the teenager Tray (Jabri Little), the adoring 9-year-old sister (Logan Dior Williams) who sees his apparition everywhere, his remorseful step-mother who abandoned them (Cindy Chang), the loving grandmother who raises them (Lisa Louise Langford), and a fatalistic best friend (Kalim Hill) who is all the things that Tray is not.

Despite a story that balances precariously on the tenterhook of tragic loss, director Jimmie Woody keeps his talented performers and their textured performances from sinking into and getting lost in that emotion. The heartbreak is obvious, omnipresent and all-encompassing, but by bearing the pain and moving forward, the survivors’ resilience and the harsh reality of the street are made even more poignant.

While Langford’s portrayal of the grandmother Lena stands out for its remarkable honesty and painful vulnerability, Little – a senior at the Cleveland School of the Arts – gives us a young man to cheer for and a professional debut to remember.

When paired with others, who deliver fully-fleshed characters, his charisma and virtuosity makes the tiny Williams’ Devine all the sweeter, Chang’s Merrell all the more remorseful (particularly at the end of the play, when Chang’s mastery of this challenging character solidifies), and Hill’s Junior all the more tragic.

All this is set against a brick wall scarred with ghetto graffiti that comes to life during scene transitions thanks to T. Paul Lowry’s eye-candy animated projections and the pulsating backbeat of hip-hop and jazz courtesy of sound designer Cyrus O. Taylor.

The few set pieces ushered in and out of the performance space – the apartment where Tray lived, the gym where he trained for the Golden Gloves, and the Starbucks where he worked to save up money for college – are realistically rendered by Laura Carlson Tarantowski and dramatically lit by Marcus Dana, and define the finite boundaries of Tray’s existence.

This play premiered in 2014 at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky., the same year as the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by Cleveland police. Cleveland’s Playwrights Local recently told that tale in the original play “Objectively/Reasonable” and did so through a dramatization of documented reactions by anonymous neighbors, friends and community leaders. This made the senseless shooting particularly personal, political and parochial.

Although “brownsville song (b-side for tray)” is similarly inspired by the shooting death of a young man named Tray Franklin in Brownsville, turning fact into fiction side-steps the political science of senseless acts of violence and allows for poetry to take the place of testimony and news reports. As such, this play transcends eulogy, broadens the conversation, and places it squarely in the lap of the audience, where it belongs.

As Lena says in that opening monologue: “Same Old Story so you gon feel bad and move on / Cuz he just another / Ain’t he / To you. / He was not.” cv

On stage

“brownsville song (b-side for tray)”

WHERE: Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Rd., Cleveland Hts.

WHEN: Through Sept. 24

TICKETS & INFO: $30–$32, call 216-932-3396 or visit dobama.org

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 Ohio AP Media Editor’s best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on September 2, 2017.

Lead image: Jabri Little as Tray and Lisa Langford as Lena. Photo / Steve Wagner Photography

The cast of "Rhinoceros." Photo / Evan Kondilas

Convergence-continuum’s ‘Rhinoceros’ as ungainly as its title characters

By Bob Abelman

“Dying is easy,” said famed 1940s performer Edmund Gwenn on his deathbed. “Comedy is hard.”

Tragifarcical absurdism may be even harder judging from convergence-continuum’s well-intended but ultimately ungainly production of Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros.”

Inspired by the playwright’s experiences with fascism in Paris during World War II, “Rhinoceros” depicts the struggle of an everyman named Bérenger (Tom Kondilas) to maintain his identity and morality while those around him succumb to the allure of conformity and brutality.

The action takes place in a provincial French town suddenly overrun with a mysterious plague that is causing ordinary citizens to turn into rampaging and destructive pachyderms.

Written in 1959, the three-act play tests one’s pain and pleasure threshold for the playwright’s exaggeration of the ordinary and having his characters speak in non-sequiturs to reveal the strangeness of what’s commonplace.

“Rhinoceros” is more laborious than Ionesco’s earlier, short-form plays like “The Bald Soprano” and lacks the fluidity he would eventually find in later works like “Exit the King,” but it is still an intriguing piece of theater.

Director Jonathan Wilhelm keeps this play moving at lightning speed, which thankfully keeps the production at well under its usual three-hour run-time but manages to miss some of the play’s more poignant beats.

He also foregoes the dark and stark realism embraced by most productions of this play and adds a touch of surrealism to emphasize and expand the moments of comedy. He places his characters in a bright and completely white-washed environment, adorns them in white and black costuming and makeshift headgear when they transform into rhinos, and gives the actors who play the characters that surround Bérenger the license to clown.

They (Kayla Gray, Joseph Milan, Natalyn Baisden, Rocky Encalada, David L. Munnell, Jeanne Task and Kim Woodworth) do so with incompatible degrees of exaggeration, with Milan, Woodworth and Munnell being the most effective.

While this waters down some of the metaphorical potency and political relevance of the play (though some lines of dialogue resonate without any need of assistance), it nicely emphasizes Ionesco’s commentary on the state of humanity as embodied in his central characters Bérenger and Jean (Mike Frye), the first of Bérenger’s colleagues to turn

The mop-headed Kondilas does a wonderful job of capturing Bérenger’s hungover, unheroic ordinariness. His efforts to both avoid and address the madness around him is a pleasure to watch, as is his ability to engage his fellow players and the audience throughout the production

His moral and physical counterpoint is the prim and self-absorbed Jean, a role that Frye seems to relish, particularly during his snorting moments of transformation. Although much of Jean’s shapeshifting takes place behind a curtain – resulting in disappointingly few prosthetics and only a few smears of green paint when he returns – Frye’s fine acting does the heavy lifting before Jean joins the growing herd we hear stampeding (aided by Beau Reinker’s sound design) behind the theater’s stadium seating.

Because of the play’s timely political commentary, this is the first con-con production since its first season 16 years ago to breach its mission statement by featuring a nonliving playwright. Short of adorning the rhinos in red baseball caps that read “Make France Great Again,” one would think that more creative risk-taking would take place to better underscore Ionesco’s bullet points.

In short, this production is more amusing than it is provocative, which is not necessarily what Ionesco was going for. CV

On stage

WHERE:  Liminis Theatre, 2438 Scranton Rd., Tremont

WHEN:  Through Sept. 16

TICKETS & INFO:  $10 – $20.  Call 216-687-0074 or visit convergence-continuum.org

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 Ohio AP Media Editor’s best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on August 26, 2017.

Lead image: The cast of “Rhinoceros.” Photo / Evan Kondilas

Anjanette Hall as Nora and Abraham Adams as Thorwald. Photo / Bob Perkoski

Mamai’s ‘A Doll’s House’ a quietly gripping production

By Bob Abelman

Currently playing on Broadway is Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” an imagined sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s landmark 1879 melodrama.

It begins 15 years after the original play ended, with Nora Helmer returning home after her famous – and, in the 19th century, infamous – door slam that left in its wake her husband and three young children and set into motion her epiphanous quest to forge an identity other than dutiful wife and doting mother.  

Nora’s play-ending exit startled audiences with its brazen defiance of societal norms and theatrical conventions, which back in the day, afforded the female protagonist but two options: dramatic death or placating reconciliation. The humorous sequel to “A Doll’s House” is an attempt to answer the questions raised by Ibsen’s stone-cold sober third option.

Mamai Theatre’s revisiting of the original work – a smart and stirring turn under Christine McBurney’s fast-paced and quietly gripping direction – serves to remind us what all the fuss was about in the first place.

Prior to the door slam we see Nora (Anjanette Hall) as the petted and pampered creature envisioned by her controlling husband Thorwald (Abraham Adams). We learn that in order to save him from illness and debt, and to spare his masculine pride, she arranged a loan without his knowledge and by forging a signature. When the crime is inevitably revealed, Thorwald’s selfish response awakens Nora’s sense of self-worth and sets into motion her final act of defiance.

The Mamai production is based on a 1937 adaptation of the play by Thornton Wilder. Wilder’s version neatly strips the work to its substantive essentials, which designers Don McBride (scenic), Kristine Davies (costume), Marcus Dana (lighting) and Richard Ingraham (sound) do as well with their simple but elegant staging against a black backdrop.

Wilder also provides clarifying, conversational and contemporary dialogue that replaces much of the original script’s melodrama with nuanced emotion. This is appealing to modern sensibilities and presents Nora as less of a victimized heroine and her husband as less of a chauvinistic heel. 

The other key characters – Nora’s childhood friend Christina Linden (Rachel Lee Kolis), Thorwald’s best friend Dr. Rank (Tim Keo) and Nils Krogstad (John Busser), who holds a subordinate position at the bank in which Thorwald serves as manager – are given greater clarity, gravity and dimension as well. They are shipwrecked souls and the personification of life’s harsh realities – poverty, mortality and immorality, respectively – but Wilder’s writing as well as some truly fine acting keeps these characters from being mere placeholders for the play’s pathos.

In fact, Kolis, Keo and Busser play their characters with such aching complexity and sympathy that Hnath should seriously consider additional “A Doll’s House” sequels with them as the focal points.

Though Thorwald is very much a man of his time and far from sympathetic, Adams allows his character to connect with others from time to time which makes him a bit more accessible. And toward the end of the play, when a drunk Thorwald learns of Nora’s deception, he is vulnerable as well.

This production gives Ibsen’s play even greater focus by stripping Wilder’s adaptation of its extraneous characters by rolling the maid and the nurse into one servant, Anna (Mary Alice Beck), and eliminating the scenes that require the presence of the Helmer children.   

Keeping Nora from interacting with her children on stage impacts more than just the production budget. It places greater responsibility on the actor playing Nora to establish, through virtuosity and conviction, the strength and elasticity of the emotional bonds that she will eventually break.

Hall handles this marvelously. Her girlish giggles when appeasing Thorwald, her intriguing reactions to Dr. Rank’s advances and Krogstad’s threats, and her small and delicate acts of rebellion are also hallmarks of Hall’s remarkable performance. All this turns Nora’s final act into a more believable and interesting accumulative realization than an overly theatrical moment of revelation.

This play, as performed by Mamai, still pulsates with life 138 years after it was written. It is more than a prequel to “A Doll’s House, Part 2;” it’s an iconic piece of theater not to be missed. CV

On stage

“A Doll’s House”

WHERE: Helen Rosenfeld Lewis Bialosky Lab Theatre,1501 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Through Aug. 27

TICKETS & INFO: $32, call 216-241-6000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.com

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 Ohio AP Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on August 12, 2017.

Lead image: Anjanette Hall as Nora and Abraham Adams as Thorwald. Photo / Bob Perkoski

From left, Russell Kunz as Martin Dysart and Antonio DeJesus as Alan Strang. Photo / Andy D

Blank Canvas’ ‘Equus’ reins in pyrotechnics to reveal raw emotion

By Bob Abelman

Peter Shaffer’s 1975 Tony Award-winning “Equus,” at Blank Canvas, focuses on a single, inexplicable and horrific crime: the blinding of six horses with a metal spike by a 17-year-old boy.  

The play largely unfolds through a series of lengthy confessional monologues by psychiatrist Dr. Martin Dysart (Russell Kunz) and – through flashbacks, dream sequences or under hypnosis – by the boy, Alan Strang (Antonio DeJesus), his distraught and devoutly religious mother (Claudia Esposito), and his strict and socialist father (Andrew Narten).

Throughout the play, Dysart is attempting to discover the deeply rooted reason for this violent act, find the cause of the boy’s psychosexual fixation on horses, and rid him of his emotional and mental anguish. While doing so, he reveals his own personal and professional crises. He lives in a loveless marriage. He is unable to experience the same passion expressed by his young patient. And he fears that by stripping Alan Strang of his fantasies and immense pain, his cure will be removing the very things that make the boy human.   

Given the wordy, thematically complex and often erotic nature of this play (there is nudity), productions of “Equus” are often painted with broad strokes that embellish the boy’s fantasies and capture his psychosis with belching smoke machines, assaulting video projections and loud soundtracks.

Director Patrick Ciamacco’s staging does not.   

His light, sound and scenic designs are simple and – by serving to merely isolate and dramatize individual performances – they are very effective. Luke Scattergood and Noah Hrbek’s costuming includes the creation of six horse heads sculpted from wire and leather that are worn by bare-chested performers (Daryl Kelley, Jason Falkofsky, Zac Hudak, Evan Martin, Anthony Salatino and David Turner) when horses appear in reality and fantasy.

By placing performances front and center rather than theatrical pyrotechnics, we are able to marvel at the astoundingly natural ones turned in during this production by Esposito and Narten as the parents, Chris Bizub as Harry Dalton, the owner of the mangled horses, and Sarah Blaubaugh as Jill Mason, Alan’s one and only friend. Even Amiee Collier as the magistrate and Katie Wells as the nurse humanize rather one-dimensional roles created to help set up and move along the story. 

As Alan Stran, DeJesus is remarkable. Though a tad inaudible at times, and often at crucial times, he bares his soul, musters raw emotion, and does so unflinchingly. The boy’s youth and delusion seem so authentic that it is tempting to call Juvenile and Family Services during intermission. 

Only Kunz as Dysart fails to deliver, in large part due to an insecurity with his lines.  Inappropriate hesitations and second-guessing undermines this character’s conviction, keeps the actor disengaged with fellow performers, and disrupts the important rhythms essential to this intense play. Several pages in the script may have been skipped as well.

Still, Blank Canvas’ production of “Equus” is a good one and should a more effective Dysart show up in subsequent performances, this will be a great one. CV

On stage


WHERE: Blank Canvas Theatre, 1305 W. 78th St., Cleveland

WHEN: Through Aug. 26

TICKETS & INFO: $18, call 440-941-0458 or visit blankcanvastheatre.com

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 Ohio AP Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Aug. 14, 2017.

Lead image: From left, Russell Kunz as Martin Dysart and Antonio DeJesus as Alan Strang. Photo / Andy D


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


The newsies take flight. Photo | Paul Silla

Porthouse’s ‘Newsies’ performs above the fold

By Bob Abelman

Disney musicals tend to be eye-catching, toe-tapping and crowd-pleasing affairs, and Disney’s “Newsies” –at Porthouse Theatre in Cuyahoga Falls – is no exception.

Set in New York City in the late-1800s, the musical tells the tale of charismatic Jack Kelly (Matt Gittins), the leader of a ragged band of teenaged newsies, who dreams of a better life far from the hardship of the streets. 

But when publishing titan Joseph Pulitzer (Stephen Paul Cramer) raises distribution prices at the newsboys’ expense, Jack finds a cause to fight for. With the help of his self-actualizing sidekick Davey (Bryce Baxter) and Katherine (Katelyn Cassidy), a renegade reporter and second act love interest, they rally newsies from the five boroughs to strike for what’s right.  

Disney’s “Newsies” is ever-so loosely based on a true story, which was first turned into a popular 1992 Disney live-action film and, later, a stage production with revised music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman and book by Harvey Fierstein. The show premiered on Broadway in 2012, where it won Tony Awards for best choreography and best original score.

Those awards – and the lack of others – speak volumes, for the show’s explosive dancing, dynamic anthems like “Seize the Day,” “The World Will Know” and “Carrying the Banner,” and hummable numbers like “King of New York” are its most defining and entertaining features.  

This reality has been recognized by Porthouse director Terri Kent and fully realized by musical director Jonathan Swoboda’s wonderful 11-piece orchestra and MaryAnn Black’s athletic, ballet-based choreography, which pays homage to Christopher Gattelli’s original staging. The show’s production numbers are outstanding. 

They co-exist with a highly predictable storyline, cliché-driven dialogue, and an abundance of Disneyesque theatricality, where every situation facing the newsies is dramatic and dire. Nearly every dire situation leads to a speech about brotherhood and unity made by Jack, seconded by Davey and reported by Katherine. And every inspiring speech builds to a rousing song and an extended dance break.  

Even local politician Teddy Roosevelt (Marvis Jennings), who makes an entrance toward the end of the show to put an end to the newspaper strike, says to Pulitzer: “Don’t just stand there letting these children sing. Endlessly.”  

In addition to the truly outstanding dancing and singing, this Porthouse production boasts fine acting – particularly by Gittins as Kelly, Cassidy as Katherine, and Morgan Thomas-Mills as Crutchie – and possesses a quality for which there is no specific Tony Award – unbridled passion.   

Nearly every newsie is a distinctive, thoroughly endearing character and every actor playing one radiates energy and enthusiasm, which drives this musical.  

Only Baxter, who plays Davey as a dandy, and Finn O’Hara, who is unconvincing and disengaged as his precocious kid brother Les, fail to deliver.

Scenic designer Nolan O’Dell forgoes the rear projections employed in the Broadway and touring shows, relying instead on faux-brick flooring, a reproduction of these production’s metal scaffolding centerpiece, and little else. The simplicity serves this production well and helps showcase the fine performances.  

Brittney Harrell’s costuming is also serviceable, although Katherine’s puffy-sleeve dresses – pulled, it seems, from the “Hello Dolly” wardrobe closet – is a bit too musical comedy for this character.   

The area’s premiere production of Disney’s “Newsies” does this piece proud. As a result, Porthouse’s summer season of musicals ends on a resounding high note. cv

On Stage

WHERE:  Porthouse Theatre, 3143 O’Neil Rd., Cuyahoga Falls 

WHEN:  Through Aug. 13

TICKETS & INFO:  $22 – $40, call 330-672-3884 or visit porthousetheatre.com

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 Ohio AP Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on July 30, 2017.

Lead image: The newsies take flight. Photo | Paul Silla

From left, Jim Weaver, Tina D. Stump, Aveena Sawyer, Channy Lewis, and Eugene Sumlin. Photo | Bob Christy

Porthouse offers transportive  ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’

By Bob Abelman

Porthouse Theatre has found the perfect formula for a delightful evening’s escapism: take 30 of the best 1920s and 1930s jazz and swing compositions by Harlem nightclub legend “Fats” Waller, divide them among five extraordinarily entertaining performers, add a tight three-piece band, and subtract any semblance of a storyline.

The Tony Award-winning “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” conceived by Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz, is a foot-tapping revue that celebrates the music of a man who lived life large. The production, under Eric van Baars’ superb direction, features the immense talents of Tina Stump, Jim Weaver, Chantrell Lewis, Aveena Sawyer and Eugene Sumlin.

The song list is heavy with classic tunes like “The Joint is Jumpin’” and “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around” that involve the entire ensemble and are imbued with the bawdy, raucous frivolity that helped lift listeners from the doldrums of the Great Depression. They are uplifting still.

Some songs, like “Fat and Greasy” and “Lounging at the Waldorf,” show off the humor, ad-libs and playful mugging Waller was known for, while others serve as a showcase for individual performers.

The lithe Jim Weaver offers a remarkably provocative rendition of “The Viper Drag/The Reefer Song” while Eugene Sumlin seduces the audience with his rather naughty rendition of “Honeysuckle Rose.” Tina Stump and Aveena Sawyer demonstrate their incredible versatility as singers throughout the evening, but never more than in “Squeeze Me” and “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling,” respectively. The gifted Chantrell Lewis does the same in the sweet “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.”

The production occasionally down-shifts into soulful tunes like “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue,” a beautifully arranged and solemn reflection on life during the Jim Crow era that takes full advantage of the tight harmonies this corps of performers is capable of achieving.

Scenic designer Patrick Ulrich transforms the Porthouse Theatre performance space into a swanky ballroom, complete with a two-tier parquet floor with piano key inlays around the edges, an enormous illuminated clamshell centerpiece, and art deco pillars at each end. On the top tier resides the band – Edward Ridley Jr. on piano, James Alexander II on drums, and Jeremey Poparad on upright bass – whose exuberant playing more than makes up for their lack of stage presence.

When the sun sets, the stage is flooded with Jakyung Seo’s gorgeous lighting design and the sound of stride piano playing fills the air, it is all too easy to give into “Fats” Waller’s tunes and let your troubles slip away. The only thing missing is a bootleg highball served tableside. cv

On Stage

WHERE: Porthouse Theatre, 3143 O’Neil Road, Cuyahoga Falls

WHEN: Through July 22

TICKETS & INFO: $27-$38, call 330-672-3884 or visit porthousetheatre.com

Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 Ohio AP Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on July 9, 2017.

Lead image: From left, Jim Weaver, Tina D. Stump, Aveena Sawyer, Channy Lewis, and Eugene Sumlin. Photo | Bob Christy

Photo / Courtesy of the Shaw Festival

The Shaw Festival

By Bob Abelman

Theater critic Bob Abelman has returned from Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario, Canada to report on this season’s offerings at the Shaw Festival. Here are his reviews-in-brief of five of the shows that have opened thus far and are running through October.

“Saint Joan”

The cast of "Saint Joan". Photo | Emily Cooper

The cast of “Saint Joan”. Photo | Emily Cooper

The 2017 production of Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan” marks two milestones and one millstone for in-coming artistic director Tim Carroll.

It is his Shaw Festival directorial debut, his first undertaking of a work by the Festival’s namesake, and his obligation to follow the tradition of former artistic directors Christopher Newton and Jackie Maxwell, who staged “Saint Joan” in 1981 and 2007, respectively.

The play examines the exploits of French military visionary Joan of Arc (Sara Topham in her Festival debut) – a 15th-century peasant girl proclaiming herself to be on a divine mission to save France from England.

Shaw made a conscious choice to focus on the private moments in her story rather than the big public events. We witness the prelude to but never see Joan’s siege of Orleans. Charles is crowned King in Rheims Cathedral, but we only overhear a conversation in a side chapel afterwards. We sit in on Joan’s trial but never observe her capture, imprisonment or execution. As a result, Shaw’s prose and poetry take center stage, which draw attention to the humanity behind the history and the ideas behind the idolatry.

Shaw also intended the play to be produced with simple staging, plain clothes and contemporary language to release the tale from its medieval moorings.

In response, scenic designer Judith Bowden and lighting designer Kevin Lamotte have created a dark, stark and wonderfully abstract performance space occupied by just a few hollow geometric objects that drop from the rafters. A narrow, vertical and translucent rectangle, for example, serves as Joan’s prison.

The action on stage seems untethered to any particular time or place, with only Claudio Vena’s sound design – which includes occasional medieval chanting from the cast members – hinting at the play’s historical context.

The performers are as comfortable with the rapid rhythms of Shaw-speak as classically trained actors would be with iambic pentameter at a Shakespeare festival. Everyone, particularly Topham as Joan and Festival mainstay Benedict Campbell as the Archbishop of Rheims, is interesting, engaging and adds the final ingredient to the production that turns “Saint Joan” into a show that should not be missed when visiting Niagara-on-the-Lake.

“Me and My Girl”

Kristi Frank as Sally Smith and Michael Therriault as Bill Snibson in "Me and My Girl". Photo | David Cooper

Kristi Frank as Sally Smith and Michael Therriault as Bill Snibson in “Me and My Girl”. Photo | David Cooper

“Bernard Shaw’s first impulse was to entertain,” notes Tim Carroll in his online Artistic Directors’ Message. “And that is the drive behind this whole season.” It is certainly the end-result of this season’s absolutely delightful showcase musical “Me and My Girl,” which was inspired by Shaw’s “Pygmalion.”

This frothy 1937 confection, with music by Noel Gay and book and lyrics by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber, is set in England where a family of snooty aristocrats discovers that the legitimate heir to the title of Earl of Hareford is a smooth-talking cockney hustler named Bill Snibson (Michael Therriault). Before the estate can be passed to young Bill, he must be made into a proper gentleman and deemed worthy by the Duchess of Dene (Sharry Flett) and Sir John Tremayne (Ric Reid) of marrying Lady Jacqueline Carstone (Elodie Gillett).

In the end, Bill and his girl Sally (Kristi Frank) – like Eliza Doolittle before them – learn that becoming gentrified has its advantages and the upper-crust discover the simple joys of regular people.

As is the case with so many of the musical comedy romps of the 1930s, “Me and My Girl” is a thoroughly enjoyable compilation of fast-paced dialogue laced with rapier one-liners (Lady Jacquie: “I am not one to be simply tossed aside.” Bill: “No, you are to be thrown with great force.”), saccharine-sweet ballads, and huge madcap ensemble numbers that seem to surface out of nowhere and with little provocation.

And like so many of the musicals staged at the Festival, this show’s Broadway quality choreography (Parker Esse), sizable and stellar orchestra (directed by Paul Sportelli), eye candy design (set by Drew Facey and costumes by Sue LePage), and high-energy performances are nothing short of spectacular. “Me and My Girl” is certainly one of the highlights of the season’s offerings.

“1837: The Farmer’s Revolt”

The cast of "1837: The Farmers' Revolt". Photo | David Cooper

The cast of “1837: The Farmers’ Revolt”. Photo | David Cooper

And then there’s “1837: The Farmer’s Revolt,” a dramatized history lesson where attendance is the due diligence one pays for shows like “Me and My Girl” and “Saint Joan.”

First performed by Toronto’s upstart Theatre Passe Muraille in 1973, the play tells the story of the Upper Canadian resistance against British imperialism and the unsuccessful 1837 rebellion that was fueled by American frontier democracy and led by a Toronto-based newspaperman William Lyon Mackenzie (Ric Reid).

It was originally told through simple folk art storytelling with an ensemble of six male and female actors playing dozens of characters regardless of gender. It is told here in a similar vein with eight actors, but is adapted by director Philip Akin to include color-blind casting and meet the high performance standards of the Festival.

After many seasons of watching the Shaw ensemble putting on accents to portray Dubliners, Brits and Americans, it is only right that a company of English-speaking Canadian actors play English-speaking Canadian characters in a patriotic drama by a Toronto-born – albeit Hebrew University of Jerusalem-educated – playwright, Rick Salutin.

Still, with a 2 hour and 15 minute run time, sitting through “1837: The Farmer’s Revolt” feels like homework.

“Dancing at Lughnasa”

The cast of "Dancing at Lughnasa". Photo | David Cooper

The cast of “Dancing at Lughnasa”. Photo | David Cooper

Brian Friel’s deeply personal, Tony Award-winning memory play takes place in the summer of 1936 when the now-adult narrator, Michael (Patrick Galligan), was just 7 years old.

It revolves around five unforgettable women – his aunts Kate (Fiona Byrne), Rose (Diana Donnelly), Agnes (Claire Jullien) and Maggie (Tara Rosling) and his unwed mother Christina (Sarena Parmar) – who try but fail to eke out an existence in a small village in Ireland.

The elements that have slowly but efficiently eroded these women’s lives – their deep-rooted heartache and isolation, the hurtful gossip of the unseen community, and the advancing industrial revolution – are relayed through an undercurrent of longing and melancholy provided by the playwright’s novelistic and economic storytelling.

It is given physical form in Sue LePage’s simple scenic design that decorates the Royal George stage with the dull dark wood furnishings and serviceable artifacts of a modest home against a dramatic gray backdrop.

So thick is the sadness in this production, as directed by Krista Jackson, that it keeps the women’s intuitive and healing spirit of the dance from welling up as it should in the play’s most memorable and powerful scene. It also keeps the play at a bit of a distance despite the best efforts of the actors playing the Mundy sisters to be engaging and walk that fine line found in memory plays between what is actual and what is illusory.

“Wilde Tales”

Kelly Wong as Swallow, Marion Day as Happy Prince and Jonathan Tan as Worker in "Wilde Tales". Photo | David Cooper

Kelly Wong as Swallow, Marion Day as Happy Prince and Jonathan Tan as Worker in “Wilde Tales”. Photo | David Cooper

Oscar Wilde’s genius never blazed more brightly or in such short-form as his 1888 collection of children’s stories. Incoming associate artistic director Kate Hennig has cleverly adapted four of these stories – “The Happy Prince,” “The Nightingale and the Rose,” “The Remarkable Rocket” and “The Selfish Giant” – for the stage, featuring actors Marion Day, Emily Lukasik, PR Prudat, Sanjay Talwar, Jonathan Tan and Kelly Wong.

But this is not a piece of children’s theater, not with Wilde’s acerbic wit and satiric tonality and the infusion of Victorian sensibilities and symbolism that adults will find intriguing. If anything, this production’s introduction of Mike Petersen’s puppets, enchanting audience participation, and John Gzowski’s charming music to the power of eloquent speech bestowed upon a caring statue, selfless bird, egotistical firework and selfish giant are necessary to make these stories more accessible to children. And it does so brilliantly.

Jennifer Goodman’s set and costume designs, inspired by Victorian-era illustrations and toys, transform the Court House Theatre’s intimate performance space into an inviting garden. And at 55 minutes in length, “Wilde Tales” will easily hold the attention and stir the imagination of young and old alike.

Since its inception in 1962, the Shaw Festival has offered theater for two circles of audience – the hardcore theatergoers who come to Niagara-on-the-Lake for professional productions of provocative plays and the cultural tourists who come for the water sports, the wineries and the shopping but are drawn to the musicals or the more populist and familiar fare. This season, like the ones before it, offers world-class storytelling and exceptional production values that will please everyone. cv

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 Ohio AP Media Editor’s best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on June 26, 2017.

Lead image: Photo / Courtesy of the Shaw Festival

From left, Fabio Polanco as Franklin Hart, Jr., Erin Diroll as Doralee, Amy Fritsche as Violet, and Courtney Elizabeth Brown as Judy. Photo | Paul Silla

Porthouse Theatre’s ‘9 to 5’ undermines as it entertains

By Bob Abelman

It is easy to understand why the 1980 film “9 to 5” was so popular.

Featuring three corporate female employees who were tired of hitting their heads on the low-hanging glass ceiling, the comedy tapped frustrations still felt by women in the years following the fledgling modern feminist movement. It offered the fantasy solution of a hostile takeover of the company’s “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” boss by way of female ingenuity and newly found sisterhood.

It also starred actors Lily Tomlin as Violet, Dolly Parton as Doralee and Jane Fonda as Judy.

It is disconcerting that the film was turned into a blatantly formulaic, eager-to-please Broadway musical in 2009, with a bloated book by Patricia Resnick and pop songs by Dolly Parton that generate an abundance of gimmicky and often lumbering production numbers.

Worse, the same year that the Broadway stage depicted undervalued office manager Violet losing promotions to under-qualified men, curvaceous southern-fried secretary Doralee being helplessly ogled and groped by CEO Franklin Hart, Jr., and the newly divorced secretary, Judy, searching for self-confidence, Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State, five women won Nobel prizes for medicine, literature, economics and chemistry, and conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan found American servicewomen leading raids, manning tank gunners and engaging the enemy on the front line.

If the movie felt like an artifact of the 1970s, “9 to 5: The Musical” comes across as an incidental self-parody – a work so woefully out of touch with its time that it must be making fun of the 1970s or itself. But it isn’t.

Its comedic portrayal of the sexism and sexual harassment facing women in the workplace undermine their real-world significance then and now. And its tasteless laughs at the expense of the alcoholism that plagues one of the other secretaries is appalling.

Not surprisingly, the show lasted a mere five months on Broadway.

So it is disheartening that Porthouse Theatre has resurrected this tunefully upbeat but brain-dead and out-of-step musical to kick off its 2017 season.

To her credit, director Terri Kent attempts to sugarcoat all that is egregious by staging this musical as if it were harebrained and harmless live-action animation.

The caricature that is the villainous CEO Franklin Hart, Jr. is so broadly drawn by the gifted Fabio Polanco that he seems cartoonish, as if steam might spew from his ears and his red head would explode when angry, which is often. If it weren’t for the toxicity of what passes as humorous banter, Polanco’s portrayal would be a hoot.

The same goes for the wonderful Sandra Emerick as Hart’s administrative assistant, Roz, who literally strips away her tightly buttoned-up demeanor to reveal her lust for her boss and let loose her inner Jessica Rabbit during the rousing “Heart to Hart.”

The talented ensemble’s manner is similarly cartoonish, playing everything with excessive enthusiasm and to the back of the house, and executing Kelly Meneer’s standard issue musical theater choreography as if they were loving it.

While Amy Fritsche, Erin Diroll and Courtney Elizabeth Brown are excellent as Violet, Doralee and Judy, respectively – possessing tremendous voices and incredible stage presence – they are given too much responsibility for the plot’s progression to forego authenticity to help offset the show’s implicit offensiveness.

As a result, Doralee’s cutesy, character-defining “Backwoods Barbie,” while beautifully sung by Diroll, leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

When Violet imagines herself as a corporate executive in the musical number “One of the Boys,” actor Fritsche strips down to short-shorts while her male counterparts are in business suits, which is insulting and dumbfounding.

And Judy’s anthem of empowerment, “Get Out and Stay Out,” is so outdated that the blatant invitation to boldly applaud girl-power at its conclusion is merely met by the rote response of polite clapping for Brown’s fine performance.

All this is supported by a wonderful 12-piece orchestra under Jennifer Korecki’s direction, which makes the mediocre score soar, and takes place in front of Terry Martin’s permanent set that embraces a 1970s-inspired color scheme and consists of multiple doors through which enthusiastic ensemble members speedily transport furnishings on wheels between the show’s short scenes.

This production is very well presented. It’s the work itself that is problematic. If you go, leave your brain and every progressive bone in your body at the door. CV

On Stage

WHERE:  Porthouse Theatre, 3143 O’Neil Rd., Cuyahoga Falls 

WHEN:  Through July 1

TICKETS & INFO:  $22 – $40, call 330-672-3884 or visit porthousetheatre.com

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman.3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on June 18, 2017.

Lead image: From left, Fabio Polanco as Franklin Hart, Jr., Erin Diroll as Doralee, Amy Fritsche as Violet, and Courtney Elizabeth Brown as Judy. Photo | Paul Silla

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

From left, Darius Stubbs, Adam Seeholzer, Faye Hargate, Holly Holsinger, Raymond Bobgan, and Colleen McCaughey. Photo | Steve Wagner

CPT’s haunting ‘Red Ash Mosaic’ takes a deep dive into poetic theater

By Bob Abelman

“Indelible and idiosyncratic.”

“A wide array of styles from vast corners of the globe, often intermingled together in ingenious ways.”

“A seamless fusion of the familiar and the exotic.”

“An expression of beauty, strength and endurance, despite the grim subject matter.”

These are quotes from reviews of Paul Simon’s quintuple-platinum album “Graceland” which, on the surface, have nothing whatsoever to do with Cleveland Public Theatre’s production of “Red Ash Mosaic” – a haunting, esoteric and original experiment in theatrical form that is targeted, according to a press release, for “the bold, the curious, the brave.”

But upon entering CPT’s Gordon Square Theatre, I overheard that Simon would soon be performing at Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica. And so my head was filled with the geographically disparate musical strains and vibrant tunes from my favorite album, “Graceland,” as the lights faded and the performance began.

Soon those words and melodies were replaced by the intriguing sights and sounds devised and performed by Raymond Bobgan and members of his Cleveland Core Ensemble – Darius Stubbs, Faye Hargate, Adam Seeholzer and Dionne Atchison – along with performers Holly Holsinger, Colleen McCaughey and Sarah Moore. Bobgan also directs the work.

At the center of “Red Ash Mosaic” is a scene that takes place in a video store as patrons go about their business as a storm builds and rages outside. One patron – a Muslim woman dressed in black, traditional garb – leaves a backpack in a corner of the store, which generates fear and hatred that mysteriously accesses alternative timelines, otherworldly dimensions and deeper states of being.

Inspired by ancient texts, such as “The Egyptian Book of the Dead,” as well as Henry Corbin’s “Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi” and the works of the mystical Persian poet Hafiz, Bobgan and crew explore what it means to live and what it means to die.

But rather than providing a running narrative, they do so by taking us on a sensory and sensuous journey filled with interweaving and contradictory narrative threads, riveting spasmodic movement, a cappella singing and chanting that is rhythmically, harmonically and melodically captivating, acrobatic flying and excerpts from poetic texts. All of which is accompanied by an evocative soundtrack composed by Matthew Ryals and dramatic lighting designed by Benjamin Gantose.

And so Paul Simon’s “Graceland” – though more mainstream and accessible – comes to mind, for it pushes the boundaries of storytelling by merging ’50s R&B with mbaqanga, township jive, shangaan music, zydeco and chicano rock, offering recognizable rhythms through unfamiliar vocalizations that are accompanied by unusual instruments. So does “Red Ash Mosaic,” which delivers “… a seamless fusion of the familiar and the exotic.”

Each song in “Graceland” creates a distinctive image that somehow connects to the work as a whole. So does each “… indelible and idiosyncratic” movement in “Red Ash Mosaic.”

While the album addresses apartheid, “Red Ash Mosaic” is “… an expression of beauty, strength and endurance, despite the grim subject matter” of death.

“Graceland” proved harder to love than any other Simon album, yet it managed to sell more than 10 million copies because of the artist involved and the quality of the work being offered.

In the world of collaboratively devised and exploratory theater, Raymond Bobgan is the artist of note. He is surrounded by exceptionally talented and fully committed performers. And the quality of “Red Ash Mosaic” is superb.

On Stage

WHERE:  Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., Cleveland

WHEN:  Through June 17

TICKETS & INFO:  $12 – $30.  Call 216-631-2727 or visit cptonline.org

Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on June 4, 2017.

Lead image: From left, Darius Stubbs, Adam Seeholzer, Faye Hargate, Holly Holsinger, Raymond Bobgan, and Colleen McCaughey. Photo | Steve Wagner

Back from left, Dennis Burby as Hector, Wesley Allen as Panama, and Beau Reinker as Eliseo. Front from left, Kelsey Rubenking as Janis, Jamal Davidson as Eric, and Hillary Wheelock as Lila. Photo | Cory Molner

‘Massacre’ is both the title of and commentary on con-con’s production

By Bob Abelman

At the core of José Rivera’s “Massacre (Sing to Your Children),” first staged in 2007 at the Goodman Theater in Chicago and currently in production by convergence-continuum, is an outlandish tale about oppression.

The oppressor is a fellow named Joe, whose powers include the mind control of children, the ability to look into the souls of adults, and making infertile the land and the women of the small town of Grandville. For five years, he has engaged in psychological torture, rampant rape and the killing of those who do not abide by his strict and strictly enforced curfews.

It is never clear whether Joe’s reign of terror represents a political dictatorship, a religious theocracy or the innate evil in the human animal – all of which are even-money bets considering Rivera’s other works (“Marisol,” “The Motorcycle Diaries”) and the themes they embrace. What is clear is that Joe’s hunger cannot be satiated, his charisma cannot be quenched, and his evil cannot be extinguished.

We know this because, at the start of the play, the seven townspeople brave enough to revolt against and brutally butcher Joe return, bloody and euphoric, to their leader’s humble apartment to revel in their victory and make plans for the future, only to have Joe – still alive, angry and vindictive – come a-knocking by intermission.

Some of the seven are willing to give the killing of Joe another go but after turning on each other and forsaking their leader in frustration, most regret their primitive acts of violence, repress their oppression by finding comfort in it, and return to their homes.

The play’s ambiguity – about what Joe represents, about what the revolt against him means, and about what the revolt’s failure signifies – is never addressed or resolved over the course of the evening, which is infuriating. This play is an allegory for something, but what is anyone’s guess.

The ambiguity is not nearly as infuriating as Rivera’s means of presenting it. Much of the play’s dialogue employs stilted, pretentious, heightened language that is as uncharacteristic of the ordinary folks who speak it as it is foreign to the kind of story in which they reside.

Imagine John Gielgud or Laurence Olivier reading and paraphrasing aloud a Steven King novel and you’ll get a sense of this highly stylized piece of storytelling.

While some performers in this production (Hillary Wheelock, Beau Reinker and Lucy Bredeson-Smith) have created distinctive characters who manage to speak this dialogue with a sense of authenticity and urgency, others (Wesley Allen, Kelsey Rubenking and Brian Westerley) only come close while a few (Dennis Burby and Jamal Davidson) never seem comfortable in the skin or with the words they’ve been assigned.

Other productions of this play have attempted to bypass its ample ambiguity and off-set its off-putting pretentiousness by throwing theatricality at it in the form of visceral intensity – an amplified soundtrack, an infusion of Latin-American magical realism, and gallons of gore. Some have set the play in an abandoned slaughterhouse, costumed the seven vigilantes in grotesque animal masks, and armed them with pick-axes and tire irons instead of weapons fashioned from household tools used for dicing and slicing.

But con-con’s production, under Clyde Simon’s direction, goes to the other extreme.

The setting is a low-budget rendering of a low-rent apartment. The staging is stark and comparatively realistic. The gore is limited to stains on clothes and dried blood sparingly smeared on hands and faces.

Such minimalism works well because it allows the powerful poetry that Rivera scatters throughout the script to be delivered without distraction.  But it calls attention to the play’s many imperfections as well.

It also turns the play’s drama into unfortunate melodrama on the occasions when Simon chooses to step up the production values. This happens when actors about to soliloquize step into the isolating illumination that lighting designer Cory Molner has waiting for them and when sound designer Beau Reinker’s gentle underscoring swells to signal a mood shift.

It’s admirable that Simon and company have taken on a play with such a high degree of difficulty, particularly since few productions have been able to turn it into something worthwhile. But we need to add con-con’s production to that list. CV

On Stage

WHERE: Liminis Theatre, 2438 Scranton Rd., Tremont

WHEN: Through June 10

TICKETS & INFO:  $10 – $20.  Call 216-687-0074 or visit convergence-continuum.org

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman.3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on May 21, 2017.

Lead image: Back from left, Dennis Burby as Hector, Wesley Allen as Panama, and Beau Reinker as Eliseo.  Front from left, Kelsey Rubenking as Janis, Jamal Davidson as Eric, and Hillary Wheelock as Lila. Photo | Cory Molner

The cast of "Me and My Girl". Photo | David Cooper

By Bob Abelman

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ontario, Canada – “We need theater more than ever – that wonderful alchemy that takes us out of ourselves and the world,” posts Shaw Festival’s in-coming artistic director Tim Carroll on the company’s website.

He ought to know, having recently served as associate director at London’s reconstructed Globe Theatre, where the tradition of offering theater – particularly the works of Shakespeare and other Elizabethan playwrights – dates back to the mid-16th century.

The Shaw Festival is not nearly as historic, though it has been offering plays that range from the provocative to the traditional and from musical to melodrama since 1962.

And with the Stratford Festival performing classical theater with special emphasis on the plays of Shakespeare just 116 miles to the west, the Shaw Festival has long set its sights on the works of George Bernard Shaw, his contemporaries and modern-day Shavians.

“Bernard Shaw’s first impulse was to entertain,” notes Carroll, “and that is the drive behind this whole season.”

With a staggering 11-play repertory that is built from scratch and performed by members of a residential 62-member ensemble from April to October, Carroll most certainly has his work cut out for him.

Designers William Schmuck and Kevin Lamotte lead teams that collaborate with each production’s director to create set, sound, costume and lighting designs that complement the play’s time and text. Meticulous historical and dramaturgical research is combined with creative instincts and artistic risk-taking. As a result, The Shaw’s production values are celebrated as among the best in the world.

Each production is further enhanced by the playhouse in which it is staged. The four theaters, which are a short walking distance from one another, include the modern 869 seat proscenium-arch Festival Theatre, which caters to large-scale productions; the 327 seat performance space in the Court House Theatre, which was built in the 1840s; the intimate 1913 vaudeville house, called the Royal George Theatre; and the 200 seat Studio Theatre with its flexible performance space.

All this takes place in the heart of the charming, historic town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, where the Niagara River meets Lake Ontario. The town – a mere four-hour drive from Cleveland – is filled with boutique shopping, fine dining and small hotels, and surrounded by bike paths, B&Bs and wineries best known for their world-class production of a luscious, intensely flavored dessert wine.

Here is a description of this season’s repertoire, which Carroll notes will not only take us out of ourselves but will be “bringing us together and reassuring us that we have each other’s backs.” Several productions will be reviewed in upcoming issues of the Cleveland Jewish News.

For tickets, call 1-800-511-SHAW or go to shawfest.com.

SAINT JOAN — Opens May 25 Closes October 15

By Bernard Shaw

Bernard Shaw’s lyrical and poetic play about the most remarkable teenage girl in history. Considered either a divinely-inspired savior of France or a pathetically deluded country girl, Joan is bound to become an embarrassment to the male-dominated world she has turned upside-down.

THE MADNESS OF GEORGE III — Opens May 26 Closes October 15

By Alan Bennett

A touching love story and political comedy. King George III may have been anointed by God, but when he starts to lose control of his speech and his bodily functions, it’s clear that he’s all too human.

ME AND MY GIRL — Opens May 27 Closes October 15

Book and Lyrics by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber

Music by Noel Gay

Downton Abbey meets Pygmalion in this toe-tapping musical. A delightful comic romp from the 1930s follows the fortunes of Bill Snibson, a proud cockney who is amazed to learn he’s actually the fourteenth Earl of Hareford. But if he wants to claim his title, he’ll have to shed his old life and his love for Sally Smith.

1837: THE FARMERS’ REVOLT — Opens May 27 Closes October 8

A play by Rick Salutin and Theatre Passe Muraille

A handful of immigrant farmers struggle for years to turn Upper Canada’s forests into farmland; now they are told that their land has been dished out to government cronies. With William Mackenzie as their leader, a band of desperate men and women march down Toronto’s Yonge Street in an uprising that paved the way for nationhood.

DANCING AT LUGHNASA — Opens June 23 Closes October 15

By Brian Friel

In the 1930s, five unforgettable women – Kate, Rose, Agnes, Christina and Maggie – try to eke out an existence in Ireland, the land where no tears are without laughter, and no laughter is without tears. Each woman is filled with passionate longing: and yet they deal with it in their own, different ways – except when they are all equally possessed by the spirit of the dance, welling up from the buried, ancient powers of their native land.

ANDROCLES AND THE LION — Opens June 24 Closes October 7

By Bernard Shaw

In ancient Rome, a group of early Christians wait to be thrown to the lions in the Colosseum. Some are more eager to be martyrs than others; the Romans just think they are all crazy. Shaw takes the fable of the man who pulled the thorn from the lion’s paw as the starting point for one of his funniest plays. This revival will be a daring theatre experiment: everyone in the room – actors and audience – will have to the chance to get involved in an experience that will be different every time.

WILDE TALES — Opens June 24 Closes October 7

By Oscar Wilde/Adapted by Kate Hennig

Oscar Wilde’s genius never blazed more brightly than in The Happy Prince, The Nightingale and the Rose, The Remarkable Rocket and The Selfish Giant. In these tales, created to delight and inspire the child in each of us, he conjures a fantastical world in which statues, birds and even fireworks have the power of eloquent speech. Before each performance children can participate in a one hour workshop to help the actors create the magic on stage.

1979 — Opens June 25 Closes October 14

By Michael Healey

One of Canada’s most celebrated playwrights takes on one of its least celebrated leaders. Joe Clark’s career as prime minister lasted barely longer than Michael Healey’s razor-sharp new comedy. 1979 is a touching portrait of a politician who really wants to serve his country, but isn’t willing to bend the rules to hold onto power.

AN OCTOROON — Opens July 28 Closes October 14

By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

When Dion Boucicault wrote The Octoroon in 1859 it was considered a masterpiece. Its story of a plantation owner falling for a woman of mixed race was taken as a bold plea for racial tolerance; now it seems embarrassingly racist. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ radical response compares attitudes to race then and now in the funniest and least comfortable theatre experience in years.

DRACULA — Opens July 29 Closes October 14

By Bram Stoker/Adapted by Liz Lochhead

Stunning, sexy, funny and scary, Bram Stoker’s Gothic classic is all about repressed erotic hunger: in Victorian England, men are as terrified of female desire as they are of blood-sucking vampires. Lochhead’s interpretation shifts the emphasis from the titular demon to the female characters: virtuous Mina, flirtatious Lucy and sensible Florrie. Attempting to protect the women from their blood-thirsty neighbor are the social-climbing Jonathan Harker and the well-meaning Arthur Seward.

MIDDLETOWN — Opens July 30 Closes September 10

By Will Eno

In the most average town in North America, a group of average people – including Mrs. Swanson and John Dodge – are living average lives of quiet desperation. And yet somehow, in the midst of all this isolation, the most basic human urge persists: the desire to matter to someone else. They may go about it in odd ways, but everyone in Middletown is looking for love. CV

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 20, 2017.

Lead image: The cast of “Me and My Girl”. Photo | David Cooper

The Chagrin Valley Little Theatre is a landmark in downtown Chagrin Falls. Submitted photo

Edelman has ‘scene’ it all as CVLT enters 87th season

By Bob Abelman

The Village of Chagrin Falls isn’t much on hyperbole.

Unlike other historic townships that attempt to capitalize on their charm by commercializing and calling attention to it, Chagrin Falls simply allows its early 19th-century appeal to speak for itself.

That is, except when it comes to the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre, which is one of the oldest, continuous community theaters in the nation and the source of much local pride.

A sign on the street that houses the unassuming red brick CVLT just off the main street square boasts the presence of a “theater district.” This hangs just below the sign that reads, “Not a through street.”

“The theater is an integral part of the thriving arts and culture scene of Chagrin Falls and our standing in the community serves as a foothold for newer arts organizations to thrive,” said Chris White, president of the CVLT board of directors.

CVLT emerged from humble beginnings in 1930, when the sleepy little town of Chagrin Falls had little in the way of culture. Alfred Hill, owner of a short-lived newspaper in the Valley, ran an article suggesting that interested residents meet and form a local group of players. They did, performing a series of one-act plays staged in the Federated Church gym several blocks from the theater’s current location. So successful the first season was that plans were laid for a second.

The Players opened its second season on the upper floor of Old Town Hall, which was built in 1848, and was its home until a fire in 1943 forced the Players to find makeshift accommodations in schools and other local buildings.

In fall 1948, following two fundraising drives, construction began on the present Little Theatre building on River Street. Architect Frank Draz, who also designed the Cleveland Play House and Karamu Theater, drew the final plans for the theater.

The new 262-seat facility opened in November 1949 with the world premiere of “How’s Your Hooper,” by Cleveland Heights playwright Everett Rhodes Castle. Going to the theater became the social thing to do in the Valley and was the first time a young man named Don Edelman stepped foot in CVLT.

In the late-1930s, Edelman grew up acting with Cleveland Play House’s Curtain Pullers, alongside Joel Grey, who lived one block away on East 152 Street.

“My Uncle played in the Palace Theatre pit band alongside Joel’s father, Mickey Katz. My mother and father and all the Katz’s played cards together and any time I auditioned against Joel, he always got the role,” Edelman recalled. “Talented kid.”

Although he performed in many local theaters, Edelman did not act at CVLT until a friend of his at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood, where Edelman was a congregant and worked with the youth theater, told him that CVLT was desperately looking for men to appear in its production of “Inherit the Wind.”

That was in 1965 and Edelman has directed or acted in nearly 100 CVLT productions since. It was also at this time that television drew people away from live theater and CVLT experienced serious financial difficulties. So Edelman joined the board of directors and within 1½ years, CVLT was back on its feet. He went on to become president of the board.

Last year, Edelman received a “Lifetime Achievement Award” for his contributions to theater.

Edelman said this too is hyperbole for neither his lifetime nor his achievements have come to a close. He recently played the title role in the CVLT production of “Visiting Mr. Green,” where he portrayed an old, grumpy devout Jew (“quite an artistic stretch” he quipped). He is also about to perform in the theater’s one-act play festival and is co-directing an original play, “Love, Honor and Other Complications,” with his wife, Cindee.

The 88-year old Edelman, who remains on the board, and the newly renovated building that houses the 87-year old CVLT have a history together. And they are not done yet. CV

Lead image: The Chagrin Valley Little Theatre is a landmark in downtown Chagrin Falls. Submitted photo


From left, Mickey Patrick Ryan, Andrew Kotzen, Mack Shirilla and James Penca. Photo | Roger Mastroianni

Great Lakes Theater’s brand equity sorely missing from doo-wop driven ‘Forever Plaid’

By Bob Abelman

A lightweight jukebox musical is the last thing one would expect from the same theater company that just dared to double-cast a female in the title role of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” And jukebox musicals don’t regularly appear on the resume of the director who recently staged the story of axe wielding double-murderess Lizzie Borden.

But currently on the Great Lakes Theater stage under Victoria Bussert’s direction is the corny and contrived “Forever Plaid,” sans the brand equity that typically accompanies productions by Cleveland’s classic company and without the ingenuity typical of its top-tier director.

Written and staged off-Broadway in 1989 by one-hit-wonder Stuart Ross, the show introduces us to Frankie, Jinx, Sparky and Smudge. The boys are members of the doo-wop group “The Plaids” who, in 1964 and not long out of high school, were killed in a car accident on the way to their first professional gig at an airport lounge.

They appear before us – resurrected in matching dinner jackets and cummerbunds by mysterious cosmic forces – to perform the show they never got to do and, hopefully, hit the elusive perfect harmony.

The boys sing renditions of 28 Top-40 tunes from the 1950s, including Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne’s “Three Coins in the Fountain” and Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’ “Rags to Riches,” which are set to era-specific synchronized dance moves courtesy of choreographer Gregory Daniels. They are accompanied on stage, just to the left of Jeff Herrmann’s glittery lounge-show set piece, by Matthew Webb on piano and Timothy Powell on bass.

In true jukebox musical fashion, the boys provide benign banter between songs that supplies the flimsy narrative that holds this production together and engage in gimmicky antics – such as an abbreviated version of “The Ed Sullivan Show,” a story about a close encounter with Perry Como, and the dragging of audience members on stage – to offer a bit of variety to what is essentially a 97-minute musical revue.

Played with immense charm by Mack Shirilla, Mickey Patrick Ryan, Andrew Kotzen and James Penca, the boys also lack the spontaneity that was evident, according to posted reviews, in their performances this past July and September at Great Lakes’ sister theaters in Lake Tahoe and Idaho, respectively. This pre-fabricated production is also missing one musician, a percussionist, which doesn’t help matters.

Fortunately, the singing by these Baldwin Wallace University trained performers is spot-on and a pleasure to listen to. And the elusive perfect harmony is nailed in the final song, Paul Francis Webster and Sammy Fain’s “Love is a Many Splendored Thing.”

“Forever Plaid” is clearly targeted at audiences old enough to have first experienced its song list at 45 rpm on vinyl. On the Wednesday matinee of my attendance, they were well represented by members of the Valley View Community Center, Federated Church Seniors, O’Neill Healthcare North Olmsted, Eastlake Senior Center, and Willowick Senior Center.

In addition to providing a joyful, unsolicited and somewhat precarious fifth part to every songs’ four-part harmony, they offered a slow but sincere standing ovation at the end of the production.

Should you come to this Great Lakes Theater production of “Forever Plaid,” it is highly recommended that you bring a septuagenarian as your plus-one. CV

On Stage

WHERE:  The Hanna Theatre, 14th St. and Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN:  Through May 21

TICKETS & INFO:  $13 – $80, call 216-241-6000 or visit to greatlakestheater.org

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman.3.

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

Lead image: From left, Mickey Patrick Ryan, Andrew Kotzen, Mack Shirilla and James Penca. Photo | Roger Mastroianni

From left, Amy Fritsche (Phyllis), Megan Medley (Meaghan), and Fabio Polanco (Earl). Photo | Michelle Berki

New Ground’s ‘These Mortal Hosts’ offers a fresh twist on an old tale

By Bob Abelman

In the New Testament, a messenger of God tells John the Baptist to go into the wilderness to prepare for the coming of a messianic figure greater than himself.

In 15th century France, Joan of Arc testified to hearing angels and saints tell her to lead the French Army in rescuing her country from English domination.

And in Dove Creek, Colorado, three unlikely and seemingly random locals – a self-absorbed high school senior named Meaghan, an anal-retentive bank manager named Phyllis, and a kind-hearted, straight-talking grocery store butcher named Earl – find themselves in the middle of a miracle in Cleveland playwright Eric Coble’s “These Mortal Hosts.”

The play – a psalm with a sense of humor – is receiving its world premiere in the 12th annual Cleveland Play House New Ground Theatre Festival, an event that has firmly established itself as a champion of intriguing art and emerging artists.

Everything in “These Mortal Hosts” is set in motion by a car crash that takes the lives of three teenage boys. While the small town mourns, Meaghan (a thoroughly delightful Megan Medley) hears voices telling her to prepare the world for a day of reckoning, Phyllis (an always engaging Amy Fritsche) finds herself pregnant without the aid of intercourse, and Earl (an absolutely charming Fabio Polanco) discovers his kind heart growing exponentially to the point of explosion.

As did the messengers of God before them, Meaghan, Phyllis, and Earl begin to question their sanity as these bizarre and socially isolating changes from within begin to alter their world view and turn their neighbors against them. But as their lives become increasingly linked, the meaning behind the madness takes on divine clarity, magnitude and urgency.

Anyone who has read about the apocalyptic prophecy in the Book of Revelation or, better yet, rented the supernatural thriller “The Seventh Sign” – where the apocalypse comes to Demi Moore in Venice, California – knows where “These Mortal Hosts” is heading.

But the journey that takes us there is paved with remarkable storytelling. In this production, the playwright’s idea, director Laley Lippard’s creative vision, the simple but effective stagecraft by Cameron Michalak (scenic design), Michael Bol (lighting design), Esther Haberlen (costume design) and Roc Lee (sound design), and the actors’ wonderfully textured performances join forces to create something greater than the sum of these extraordinary parts.

As he demonstrated in “My Barking Dog,” “The Velocity of Autumn” and other works, Coble’s writing is as entertaining as it is smart and engrossing. In “These Mortal Hosts,” direct-address monologues dominate the script and immediately relay the nature of each character and then set up the aforementioned magnitude and urgency of their newfound circumstances. The pacing of this play is guided by the length and rhythms of these monologues, while poignancy and punchlines emerge from their poetry.

And every so often Coble allows the play to linger on a moment – such as when these three mortal hosts sway to the music of their mysteriously synchronized heartbeats and harmonized breaths – which is absolutely mesmerizing.

Director Lippard knows just when to let Coble’s words speak for themselves and when to bolster their emotional impact with theatricality. Using only a desk and three chairs in the small trapezoid-shaped performance space, their well-orchestrated movement coupled with lighting and sound effects establish the play’s various locations and beautifully underscore its mood swings. Assorted props and costuming come from panels that open and close on the surrounding wall. The result is a fluid, seamless and always interesting 90-minute production.

Lippard also delivers an exceptional cast of local actors who not only capture the essence of their characters but manage to be thoroughly endearing throughout their respective trials and tribulations, which is essential in a short play with a big message about faith and hope.

You may recall that things didn’t end well for John the Baptist or Joan of Arc, though Demi Moore came out OK.  Finding out about the fate of Meaghan, Phyllis and Earl is just one of the many reasons to see this play. Another is to say you did before this work is released upon the world and the many accolades it will no doubt receive start pouring in. CV

On Stage

WHERE: Helen Rosenfeld Lewis Bialosky Lab Theatre, 1501 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Through May 20

TICKETS & INFO: $15 – $30, call 216-241-6000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.com

Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman.3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on May 13, 2017.

Lead image: From left, Amy Fritsche (Phyllis), Megan Medley (Meaghan), and Fabio Polanco (Earl). Photo | Michelle Berki

From left, David Jennings (Mike), Heidi Blickenstaff (Katherine), Jake Heston Miller (Fletcher), and Emma Hunton (Ellie). Photo | Jim Carmody

‘Freaky Friday’ causes Cleveland Play House and Playhouse Square to swap souls

By Bob Abelman

In 2011, the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Tom Kitt (“Next to Normal”) collaborated with Tony Award- and Grammy Award-winning Lin-Manuel Miranda (“In the Heights) to write the score and lyrics for “Bring it On.”

“Bring It On” loosely was based on a 2000 nonmusical film – a silly teen comedy with a formulaic storyline and cardboard cutout characters – that spawned sequels so bad they went direct-to-video. Kitt and Miranda’s exceptional’ talents were able to raise the musical version’s IQ a few points, but the mediocre film became a mediocre stage production.

And now Kitt is at it again, either out of White Knight Syndrome that drives him to rescue lesser works from their fates or as an opportunity to capitalize on the lucrative teen and pre-teen markets. Or both.

This time he convinced his “Next to Normal” colleague Brian Yorkey to write the lyrics for another fluffy screen-to-stage teen comedy based on the 1976 Disney film and 2003-remake, “Freaky Friday.”

The show, branded “Disney’s Freaky Friday,” was adapted and updated by Bridget Carpenter (“Friday Night Lights,” “Parenthood”) with music by Kitt and Yorkey. It features a warring control-freak mother and rebellious teenage daughter who accidently trade souls for a day courtesy of a pair of magical hourglasses.

The musical borrows heavily from Disney Channel tropes by offering highly improbable conflicts with highly predictable solutions, an ensemble of unidimensional adults and instantly recognizable archetypical teens – the mean girl, the cool guy and the insecure best friends – as well as an all-too-obvious show-ending moral about learning to love and appreciate one another.

First performed at the Signature Theatre in Arlington in 2016, “Disney’s Freaky Friday” is now a co-production between the Cleveland Play House, the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego (where it was staged prior to the current CPH run) and the Alley Theatre in Houston (where it will be going after the CPH run).

Unlike other CPH co-productions, this show comes pre-packaged from the Disney factory with much of the original cast, including the wonderful Heidi Blickenstaff and Emma Hunton as mother Katherine and daughter Ellie. Also included is the entire creative team of Broadway professionals, including director Christopher Ashley (“Rocky Horror Show” and “Memphis”) and choreographer Sergio Trujillo (“Jersey Boys” and “On Your Feet!”).

As a result, the show more closely resembles the high-gloss national tours found in the Palace Theatre next door than the homegrown artisan productions typically found in CPH’s Allen Theatre.

The upside is that everyone – from the leads to the ensemble (including the mean girl played by Jessie Hooker, the cool guy played by Chris Ramirez, and the insecure best friends played by Sumi Yu and Jennafer Newberry) – has Broadway and/or national tour credits, so everything pops with top-tier talent and professionalism.

While the many songs are stand-alone affairs that don’t serve to move along the storyline, enough of them are stellar – particularly “Parents Lie,” “Bring My (Baby) Brother Home” and “No More Fear” – and serve to remind us that the guys who wrote “Next to Normal” are in the room.

Although the show has all the inanity of the original work, everyone on stage embraces and has fun with it. And because the show already ran for several weeks at the Signature Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse, this production is as tight, polished and brazenly confident as a tour.

The downside is that the show has all the inanity of the original work and even though the cast has fun with it, the one-trick gimmick of a grown woman and a teenage girl swapping souls gets old in a hurry. So does the excess of vocal calisthenics in the delivery of nearly every song, which caters to the teens in the audience.

Beowulf Boritt’s scenic design is simplified and prefabricated, just like a touring show, so it can be easily dismantled and reconfigured on the CPH, La Jolla Playhouse and Alley Theatre stages. But this show’s design is simplified to a fault, relying on Howell Binkley’s superb lighting design and four four-sided pillars that rotate to establish the play’s locations. One side displays household appliances so we know we are in the house, and so on.

Behind the pillars is a permanent backdrop depicting a silhouette of homes in a typical Chicago neighborhood, which becomes askew when Katherine and Ellie’s souls are swapped and returns to normal when they do. A turntable has been inserted into the stage and there is the sense that it is used not so much to facilitate the storytelling as to give us rotating people to look at given the lack of more interesting production values.

The bottom line is that, like “Bring it On” before it, “Disney’s Freaky Friday” is so grounded in its source material that it can’t quite shed the weight. Despite Tom Kitt’s best efforts, there will be no rescuing this work. CV

On Stage

WHAT:  “Disney’s Freaky Friday

WHERE:  Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN:  Through May 20

TICKETS & INFO:  $25 – $110, call 216-241-6000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.com

Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman.3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on April 27, 2017.

Lead image: From left, David Jennings (Mike), Heidi Blickenstaff (Katherine), Jake Heston Miller (Fletcher), and Emma Hunton (Ellie). Photo | Jim Carmody

Photo / Jeremy Daniel

Touring ‘Something Rotten’ is an absolute treat

By Bob Abelman

“Something Rotten!” – which takes place in South London in 1595, opened on Broadway in 2015 and is currently on tour and on stage at Playhouse Square – puts to rest the long-standing debate about who actually wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare.

Rumors have long suggested that the author is either or a combination of playwright Christopher Marlowe, essayist Francis Bacon, dramatist George Peele, adventurer Walter Raleigh, William Stanley, the 6th Earl of Derby, or the cultured aristocrat Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

We now know that the plagiarizing Shakespeare got all of his best ideas from the Bottom Brothers, the two down-on-their-luck playwrights featured in the deceptively smart and absolutely shameless spoof written by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell.

Astoundingly hummable music and hilarious lyrics – starting with the opening number “Welcome to the Renaissance” – are written by Kirkpatrick and his brother Wayne.

“Something Rotten!” revolves around the earnest Nick Bottom (brilliantly handled by Rob McClure), who hates Shakespeare as much for his thievery as his rock star reputation among adoring theatergoers, and the pathologically naïve Nigel Bottom (a thoroughly endearing Josh Grisetti).

The two underdog playwrights hire a bargain-basement soothsayer named Thomas Nostradamus (an absolutely hysterical Blake Hammond) to look into the future so they can claim Shakespeare’s most popular play as their own. Nostradamus picks up pieces and parts of “Hamlet” but also discovers an art form that will take the world by storm – the musical – where singing and dancing replaces dialogue and overpriced drinks can be purchased in a lobby. His vision provides random insights into showgirls, chorus lines and pieces and parts of various hit musicals, all of which become part of their finished production, called “Omelette.”

The first act of “Something Rotten!” supplies the huge set up for the hilarious musical theater mash-up number from “Omelette,” performed in the second act.

As Will Shakespeare, Adam Pascal (of “Rent” fame) serves up his still-standing rock ‘n roll vocals with a Keith Richard’s ultra-cool demeanor and swollen sense of self. The contrived origins of Shakespeare’s most famous lines are ingenious.

The touring production also possesses the exceptional talents of Maggie Lakis as Bea, Nick’s headstrong wife; the adorable Autumn Hurlbert as Portia, Nigel’s puritan love interest; and Scott Cote as Portia’s father, who is also a closeted leader of a puritan sect. Some very funny one-liners are also provided by Jeff Brooks as Shylock.

An extraordinarily talented ensemble fills the stage and does so with the kind of unbridled enthusiasm and Monty Pythonian/Mel Brooksian flair necessary to support such enchanting inanity.

All this is directed/choreographed with witty and reckless abandon by Casey Nicholaw, who won a 2011 Tony Award for his work on the perfectly irreverent and hugely successful “The Book of Mormon.”

Broadway production designers Scott Pask (scenic), Gregg Barnes (costume), Jeff Croiter (lighting) and Peter Hylenski (sound) create a Stratford-on-Avon that looks like a colorful, overstuffed pop-up book, built for sight gags and jaw-dropping production numbers.

“Something Rotten!” is the kind of big, boisterous and brassy musical theatergoers think about when the word “Broadway” is mentioned. This tour meets all expectations and is an absolute treat to watch. CV

On Stage

WHAT:  “Something Rotten!”

WHERE:  Connor Palace Theatre, 1511 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN:  Through May 14

TICKETS & INFO:   $10 – $95, call 216-241-6000or visit playhousesquare.com

Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman.3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on April 28, 2017.

Lead image: From left front, Josh Grisetti as Nigel, Rob McClure as Nick, and the ensemble of “Something Rotten!” Photo / Jeremy Daniel

Photo / Steve Wagner

Dobama’s ‘Hand to God’ is demonically funny

By Bob Abelman

Hand puppets can get away with saying just about anything.

As innocent extensions of their handlers, Burr Tillstrom’s Kukla, Fran and Ollie, Sherri Lewis’ Lamb Chop and Jim Henson’s Muppets charmed and educated golden age TV audiences with their cheery dispositions, disarming naiveté and clandestine moral guidance.

More recent wood and fabric fabrications such as Jeff Dunham’s abusive Walter, Robert Smigel’s Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, and the ensemble in Broadway’s bawdy “Avenue Q” give voice to their creators’ progressive social commentary and particular political leanings.

And then there’s Tyrone, the profane and demonically possessed sock puppet who currently rants against religion on the Dobama Theater stage in Robert Askins’ outrageous comedy “Hand to God.”

The play begins in a church basement in Cypress, Texas, where young members of Pastor Greg’s (David Bugher) Christian ministry (played by adults) engage in puppet therapy to help the shy Jason (Luke Wehner) learn to express himself, help the sexually aggressive Timothy (Austin Gonser) find a more constructive creative outlet, and help Jessica (Molly Israel) – the secret object of Jason’s affections – find God.

The therapy is run by Jason’s mom, Margery (Tricia Bestic), who could use a bit of help herself as she struggles with guilt over her husband’s death-by-over-eating and the resultant emotional toll it has taken on Jason.

Soon Jason’s puppet Tyrone broadcasts the boy’s private thoughts, acts out his primitive impulses and base instincts, and eventually takes over the soul of the teen attached to the arm that is attached to him.

At first glance, this play seems to be little more than the stuff Tyrone is made of – a wad of impudence swaddled in slightly askew cuteness, bedazzled with blinding vulgarity, and built to shock and amuse with its malevolence and boldfaced blasphemy.

But the play’s 2011 Obie Award (off-Broadway), 2015 Tony nominations (Broadway) and 2016 Olivier nominations (London) suggest that this is more than just a perverse puppet show aimed at agnostic adults. There’s some deep thought just beneath the titillation that has made “Hand to God” one of most produced new plays in the country.

Look close and you’ll see that the play strips away normalcy so to showcase for our consideration a range of human foibles and frailties.

The debilitating and disorienting power of shame is on display, albeit in the form of Margery’s seduction of young Timothy, which is performed with superb comedic timing and clever choreography by Bestic and Gonser.

The lure of lust is also examined by way of simulated coitus between Israel’s hand puppet and Wehner’s Tyrone, an absurd act that takes its cue from “Avenue Q” but with heightened explicitness.

In Wehner’s magnificently violent, one-man wrestling match between Jason and Tyrone, we witness the human psyche’s perpetual battle between the id and the superego.

And the play suggests that hypocrisy exists in the heart of the super-devout, handled with immense grace by Bugher.

OK, this sounds like I’m over-intellectualizing all that is naughty in “Hand to God” in order to justify it. But everything Askins has to offer lands with resonance as well as audacity. And, under Matthew Wright’s sleight-of-hand direction, even the dropping of f-bombs is raised to an art form. His actors offer a master class in balancing horror with humor, vulnerability with vulgarity, and playing impertinence with a straight face.

All this is complemented by delightful stagecraft. Richard Ingraham and Marcus Dan’s haunting sound and lighting designs, Yesenia Real-Rivera’s playful prop design, and Ben Needham’s rotating scenic design that seamlessly and repeatedly swaps out the church basement with other locations feeds the frenzy that is “Hand to God.”

Puppets can most certainly get away with saying just about anything. And “Hand to God” pushes this notion awfully close to the breaking point. CV

On Stage

WHAT:  “Hand to God”

WHERE:  Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Rd., Cleveland Hts.

WHEN:  Through May 21

TICKETS & INFO:  $29 – $32.  Call 216-932-3396 or visit dobama.org

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 April 24, 2017.

Lead image: Luke Wehner as Jason/Tyrone. Photo / Steve Wagner

From left, Jeremy Webb, Marc Moritz and Georgia Cohen in a Cleveland Play House production of “Bell, Book and Candle.” Photo by Roger Mastroianni

Two veterans of Cleveland-area stages weigh in on what goes through an actor’s head while on stage

By Bob Abelman

“I pretty much try to stay in a constant state of confusion just because of the expression it leaves on my face.” – Actor Johnny Depp

Artistic expression and creative invention are such intuitive and emotional enterprises that even their most skillful practitioners can’t quite explain how they do what they do when they do it. 

Fortunately, a recent issue of the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience – a bedtime staple on most nightstands – reported on research and insight on the subject.   

Brain signals were measured using lightweight wireless sensors as professional dancers expressed themselves through ballet, jazz and modern dance movement. 

It was discovered that what appears so instinctive, effortless and fluid on stage is the result of vigorously snapping synapses in the sensory motor network as well as the prefrontal cortex kicking into overdrive. 

Dancers use multiple parts of the brain simultaneously and actively, including those involved in higher-order decision-making and a part of the frontal lobe with the fun-time name “infra parietal sulkus” that plays a key role in envisioning, controlling and initiating physical action.

Similar research involving musicians was performed at London University’s psychology department. It was found that musicians who have been trained to learn enormous sections of music by imaginative association, rather than by rote, tend to create and access during performance a complex, visual architectural space in their heads. 

“Acting is all about honesty. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” – Actor George Burns

So what’s going on inside the heads of actors?

Sure, acting requires memorization and a host of complex psychological skills, such as imagination and empathy, to evoke visceral emotions and create authentic characters. And actors carefully block out movements during rehearsal so their lines are always matched to the same physical motions, forming a kind of bodily mnemonic device.

But do actors actually think when they act? And what do they think about? 

“There’s no doubt that actors’ brains differ in important ways from the brains of accountants, cab drivers and neurosurgeons,” noted cognitive scientist Bruce McConachie in the latest issue of American Theatre magazine, “but exactly how and why, no one knows.” Most of the evidence is merely anecdotal rather than scientific. 

Broadway producers and agents, for instance, have long reported that actors are brainless, thoughtless creatures. Heartless and inconsiderate, too.   

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet noted in his book “Theatre” that an actor thinking only complicates matters: “They need only say their lines and get out of the way of the play.” Of course, Mamet believes that a director thinking is also unnecessary, suggesting that “they should make sure the actors don’t step on each other’s lines … and then get out of the way of the play.”

There are hundreds of books on acting technique, from Stanisklavsky’s time-honored tome “On Acting” to Stella Adler’s “The Art of Acting,” that offer advice about what to do to prepare for a performance. But they share little insight into what occurs in the mind during one.

“Acting is the expression of a neurotic impulse.” – Actor Marlon Brando

To help advance the state of neurological research, but without all the paperwork, two prominent, deep-thinking, Cleveland-based stage performers sat down at a local restaurant to discuss this issue. And to have a light snack.

One is long-time actor and improvisational guru Marc Moritz, who decided to forego a light snack and have the corned beef and fries. He is joined by popular standup comedian and voice-over actor Marc Jaffe, who went with a salad.

The results of this meeting are as insightful as they are scholarly, which means not very.

Marc Jaffe at a 2015 Shaking With Laughter fundraising event to benefit those with Parkinson’s disease. Photo by Michael Weil

Marc Jaffe at a 2015 Shaking With Laughter fundraising event to benefit those with Parkinson’s disease. Photo by Michael Weil

Moritz: What was the question?

Jaffe: He asked what we have in our head when we perform. I have the Garfield 1-2323 jingle for aluminum siding. It’s been there since 1967.

Canvas: Actor Spencer Tracy once said that the job of an actor was to “learn your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.” Is that all there is to it?

Moritz: “Don’t bump into the furniture” is good advice. In improv and standup, and many times in theater, there is no furniture. So there you have it.  Sorry. What was the question?

Jaffe: On stage, there’s a mental sweet spot between observation and oblivion called “being in the moment.” Instincts and preparation take over. But at the same time you are overly aware and hypercritical; analyzing and self-reporting everything you are doing and saying on stage. Actors seek that balance between spontaneity and self-reflection.   

Moritz: Wow.

Jaffe: I memorized that from a book, but it sounded like I just made it up. See, I was in the moment.

Moritz: What an audience may call a “bad performance” is often an actor being too self-conscious. A “great performance” is where all the training, technique and thinking are invisible to the eye – even though great actors are very self-reflective on stage. I should know. I’ve been told this by great actors.

Jaffe: There’s probably more actual thinking going on in standup than in regular acting. Although what you are performing is a well-rehearsed set of jokes, good comedians are aware of their audience’s responses and cleverly incorporate them into the performance.

Moritz: There’s even more quick thinking during improvisation. There is no script, so improv actors are constantly creating, making adjustments to the audience, and reacting. 

Canvas: Are there times when the brain simply doesn’t kick in, when that sweet spot you mentioned is elusive and “being in the moment” doesn’t occur?

Moritz: Sure. Sometimes the active mind wanders during a long scene in a long play where all you are is living scenery. 

Jaffe: As a comedian, there are Saturday nights when I do three shows.  I’ve been in the middle of a joke during the third show and in my head I ask “Did I do this joke already?” And then the audience laughs and I think, “Whew, I wonder if they’ll notice if I took a nap?” 

Moritz: Sometimes emotion takes over. I was once working at a playhouse I won’t identify called Great Lakes Theater in a production I can’t mention called “You Can’t Take It With You.” In it was an actor I will not name, so let’s just call him “Andrew May.” There was an emotional scene when Andrew’s character is wrestling and strangling another character. Of course, the actor is not really choking the other actor but in one performance Andrew was so lost in his character and so into the moment that he actually rendered the other actor unconscious. 

Canvas: So no infra parietal sulkus activity whatsoever.

Moritz: None to speak of.

Jaffe: Can you imagine what the understudy was thinking the next day, on stage, in that same scene and in the arms of an emotional Andrew May? Talk about snapping synapses.

Canvas: Any other insight to share with the folks at Frontiers in Human Neuroscience and London University?

Jaffe: Here is the true answer to your inquiry: My overriding thought while up on stage – and the focus of 98 percent of any actor’s concentration during each and every performance throughout the history of theater – is “Don’t fall off the end of the stage.” CV

“Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” – Actor Edmund Gwenn, on his deathbed

Jonathan Dyrud as Hamlet. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Great Lakes’ ‘Hamlet’ worth seeing twice

By Bob Abelman

God hath given you one face, and you make yourself another.    ~”Hamlet,” Act III, Scene I

By featuring male and female twins in two of his comedies, “The Comedy of Errors” and “Twelfth Night,” Shakespeare capitalized on the humor that comes from mistaken identity and misdirection and the provocation found in issues grounded in gender roles and social politics.

By double-casting the title character in “Hamlet” with a male (Jonathan Dyrud) and a female (Laura Welsh Berg) actor in alternating performances, the only thing Great Lakes Theater director Charlie Fee meant to capitalize on was his deep and diverse talent pool of performers.

Laura Welsh Berg as Hamlet. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Laura Welsh Berg as Hamlet. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Women have appeared in Shakespeare’s plays since 1660, once Charles II officially granted permission to do so for two theater companies in London. And women have been earning critical acclaim for their portrayal of Hamlet since 1775, when the young Sarah Siddons toured the British provinces in the Prince of Denmark’s codpiece and fine hosiery.

Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t, for casting Hamlet in the feminine allows the character to weep more unabashedly over the death of his father, reveal more emotion while plotting the revenge he seeks by killing his murderous uncle, and more boldly bare his vulnerabilities to the audience in splendidly penned soliloquies.

And such casting forces audiences to look at and listen to this classic play more closely and from a different vantage point, which may reveal a new understanding of the historic text as well as contemporary attitudes toward gender.

All this happens in the Great Lakes Theater production but, for Fee, the play’s the thing and his only concern about having a male and a female Hamlet is how well they manage to play him.

Still, there no getting around the fact that a female answering to “son,” “prince” and “my lord” is a distraction. But so are the many other realities this art form requires us to ignore when watching a play.

We are not, for instance, in Denmark and this is not the Elizabethan age. That is not actually Claudius (David Anthony Smith), Polonius (Dougfred Miller), or the ghost of the King (Lynn Robert Berg) we see before us. Many performers are called on to play two characters and no one on stage speaks in iambic pentameter when off it.

If we are able to suspend disbelief in these pretenses, than we can surely do the same regarding a female Hamlet and Fee makes this particularly easy to do by offering a production steeped in the simple staging traditions of Shakespeare’s Globe Playhouse.

There’s seating areas onstage and surrounding the thrust playing area, rich period costuming by Kim Krumm Sorenson, single-source lighting designed by Rick Martin to dramatically isolate the actors while keeping the surrounding area in darkness, and a majestic two-tier wood structure absent of scenery to enclose the action, designed by Russell Metheny. Subtle underscoring provided by Matthew Webb reinforces the emotion in key scenes, including Queen Gertrude’s (Laura Perrotta) announcement of Ophelia’s (Erin Partin) drowning and Hamlet’s final scene where he answers his earlier question “to be or not to be.”

All this allows us to keep our focus where it belongs: on the words, on the truly brilliant performances turned in by every member of the ensemble, and on the sweet prince who struts and frets his or her three hours upon the Hanna Theatre stage.

As Hamlet on opening night, Dyrud speaks his lines as if they had just come to mind and fully embraces the terrible melancholy, the feigned madness and the dark introspection they reflect. His brooding makes you listen closely, watch without blinking and marvel at the intensity he manifests. All this has his fellow actors responding in kind, resulting in a production that brims with passion and precision.

Berg brings ferocity to the role. Her Hamlet is more rebellious, wears his anger on his sleeve and offers words that are boldly expressed. Her interpretation of Hamlet’s distemper is overtly theatrical, which is particularly apparent when crossing swords with Laertes (Nick Steen).  Although the fight choreography is identical between productions, its execution is much more lavish in Berg’s hands.  Whereas Dyrud’s craft is concealed, Berg’s is unabashedly on display.

Early in the play, Hamlet remarks that “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” This applies to the two portrayals of Hamlet, which are marvelous in their own right and do the work justice. Preferring one over the other is simply a matter of personal preference – mine leans toward Dyrud – but neither should be missed. cv

On Stage

WHAT:  “Hamlet”

WHERE:  The Hanna Theatre, 14th St. and Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN:  Through April 15

TICKETS & INFO:  $13 – $75, call 216-241-6000 or visit to greatlakestheater.org

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman.3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on April 4, 2017.

Lead image: Jonathan Dyrud as Hamlet. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Adam Langdon as Christopher. Photo / Joan Marcus

Touring ‘The Curious Incident’ astounds more than it engages

By Bob Abelman

“On the spectrum.”

This is the term used to describe Christopher Boone, the teenage hero in Simon Stephens’ stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s 2003 best-selling novel “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”

The spectrum represents the range of symptoms and skills Christopher possesses that are associated with autism and Asperger’s syndrome. He has difficulty interacting with others. He is over-sensitive to stimuli, particularly touch. He finds comfort in repetitive behaviors, sees everything but has interest in very little, and possesses a remarkable affinity for mathematics.

And “The Curious Incident” affords us the opportunity to see the world through his unique perspective.

Just as the film “A Beautiful Mind” captured, through clever cinematography, the paranoid delusions associated with John Nash’s genius, “The Curious Incident” relies on high-quality high-tech stagecraft – and 234 sound and 373 light cues – to depict the barrage of stimuli that keeps Christopher in a heightened state of anxiety.

The performance space is surrounded by Bunny Christie’s Tony Award-winning scenic design that entails a huge black mathematical grid that explodes with the animated images that exist in Christopher’s mind – mathematical formulas, city maps, train stations and constellations – as designed by Finn Ross.

An exhilarating electric underscore by Adrian Sutton, intense pulsating lighting design by Paule Costable, amplified ambient sound design by Ian Dickinson, and modern ballet mob-scene movement by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett work in perfect balance to create an intriguing sense of Christopher’s consciousness.

Playing Christopher in Britain’s National Theatre touring production, which is currently on stage at Playhouse Square, is the magnificent Adam Langdon (who alternates with Benjamin Wheelwright for some performances). Langdon’s portrayal is authentically autistic, artistically risk taking, and always interesting.

And yet, this impressive, immersive theater experience is not particularly engaging. The reason is that this drama is also on the spectrum, exhibiting an excess of storytelling but not much story.

The play revolves around Christopher’s parents, who are estranged due to the pressures associated with looking after their high-maintenance son. In the first act, we and Christopher learn the details of their separation and in the second act we travel with Christopher on his Asperger’s odyssey to London to see his Mom.

Once the sheer novelty and unconventionality of the production values wears off, the thin story beneath it becomes exposed and the show grows tedious.

To cover, the playwright uses the same narrative devices as Haddon’s bestseller but they never quite click on stage.

Christopher’s special-education teacher, Siobhan – a delightful Maria Elena Ramirez – provides Christopher’s inner voice by reading aloud his journal about his family. Because this turns the play and the people in it into an extension of Christopher’s autism, it limits the range and depth with which the parents can be depicted.

The wonderful Gene Gillette and Felicity Jones Latta do what they can to add flesh to their characters, but there’s not much to work with. The talented ensemble, who are afforded moments as assorted neighbors and passersby, are similarly handcuffed.

Later in the play, Siobhan convinces Christopher to turn his journal into a play, which then gets enacted in this production and gives way to some meta-theatrical references that come across as cloying.

Director Marianne Elliott finds the humor and tenderness in this work, as she did when creating the first production of “War Horse” for the National Theatre.

But the heightened engagement she was able to generate from that production and from the London and Broadway productions of “The Curious Incident” get a bit lost amidst the bells and whistles of this touring production. cv

On stage

WHERE:  Connor Palace Theatre, 1511 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN:  Through April 9

TICKETS & INFO:   $10 – $90, call 216-241-6000 or visit playhousesquare.com

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 March 23, 2017.

Lead image: Adam Langdon as Christopher. Photo / Joan Marcus

From left to right: Karis Danish (Female Greek Chorus), Nick LaMedica (Male Greek Chorus), Remy Zaken (Teenage Greek Chorus), Madeleine Lambert (Li'l Bit), and Michael Brusasco (Uncle Peck). Photo / Roger Mastroianni

CPH’s ‘How I Learned to Drive’ boldly takes the road less traveled

By Bob Abelman

It has taken 20 years for Paula Vogel’s 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning “How I Learned to Drive” to appear on the Cleveland Play House stage. But as we learn from the predatory pedophile at the center of her disturbing story, patience has its rewards.

The play takes place in the mind of a young woman (Madeleine Lambert) nicknamed Li’l Bit by her southern family, who at the age of 11 and continuing through young adulthood, is sexually pursued by her Uncle Peck (Michael Brusasco).

“How I Learned to Drive” unfolds as traumatic memories do – scrambled, selective and surreal.

An older Li’l Bit narrates and then jumps into her recollections. A three-member Greek Chorus (Karis Danish, Nick LaMedica and Remy Zaken) phases in and out as assorted relatives and classmates. And fantastic, often incongruous scenic design serves up often unnerving and rapidly shifting imagery.

Scenes in this show are introduced as chapters in a driver’s education manual, reflective of Uncle Peck’s driving lessons and the seduction, disguised as life-lessons, that come with them. Driving serves as the metaphor that drives Li’l Bit’s storyline.

And everyday items, like eating utensils at mealtime and Uncle Peck’s car during driving lessons, are imagined to serve as subtle reminders of the dream world we’ve entered into.

The play’s unsettling taboo theme, unrelenting and intermission-less presentation, and immense theatricality purposefully challenge our comfort zone. And much of its unnerving dialogue is spoken directly at the audience, daring us to look away while simultaneously drawing us in with its southern-fried lyricism and bittersweet humor as delivered by richly drawn characters whose appeal belies the fire that burns within them.

Though a disturbing work, both the playwright and astute CPH director Laura Kepley succeed at never crossing the double yellow line that keeps this play from having head-on collisions with anything too difficult to sit through.

While touching on explicitly sexual themes, little touching and no nudity take place on stage so to quash the arousal of anything but sympathy for the victim. Even in the scene where middle-aged Uncle Peck is taking suggestive photographs of his 13-year-old niece for his private collection, the sexy lingerie used in other productions is replaced with less alluring garb here.

Although Uncle Peck’s incestuous instincts are couched in endearing charm, genuine affection and the influences of alcohol – and the sensational Brusasco’s immense charm is covered in thick sorghum molasses – nothing serves to rationalize his misguided attraction to Li’l Bit or romanticize his actions.

And while Li’l Bit’s curiosity and flirtatiousness are apparent to all – with Lambert brilliantly displaying the neglect, damage and vulnerability just beneath these desperate acts – we eventually come to understand the family dynamics, the social pressures of early maturation and the careful manipulation by Uncle Peck that inspired them.

Scenic and projection design by Collette Pollard and Caite Hevner, respectively, keep the play’s driving metaphor in the forefront by placing a two-lane strip of asphalt highway in the middle of the stage that runs from its edge to its rear, where the road cascades upward into the rafters. Wonderful images that establish a sense of time, place and surrealism are projected on a horizontal array of screens that surround the performance space.

“How I Learned to Drive” is an important and worthwhile part of Cleveland Play House’s season, and the spellbinding performances turned in by this cast should not be missed. And when you come, and come you must, buckle up.

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 March 12, 2017.

Lead image: From left to right: Karis Danish (Female Greek Chorus), Nick LaMedica (Male Greek Chorus), Remy Zaken (Teenage Greek Chorus), Madeleine Lambert (Li’l Bit), and Michael Brusasco (Uncle Peck). Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Christopher Bohan (from left) as Sam, Gordon Hinchen as Avery, and Nate Miller as Dreaming Man in "The Flick". Photo / Steve Wagner Photography

Two thumbs up and 5-stars for Dobama’s ‘The Flick’

By Bob Abelman

Annie Baker’s long, leisurely and 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning Off-Broadway ode to small, solitary lives is given the splendid treatment it deserves and we have come to expect from Dobama Theatre.

“The Flick” features three emotionally stinted, socially awkward and deeply lonely co-workers at one of the last remaining, independent movie theaters in Worchester County, Mass., to house a 35-millimeter projector. And its seemingly simple story is as sweet and sorrowful as it is masterfully constructed, clandestinely complex and beautifully penned.

Baker is a favorite of Dobama’s. You may remember “The Aliens,” which was performed at the Cleveland Heights theater in 2014 and featured the drug-addled ramblings of a pair of 30-something slackers. They offered terse reflections on the human condition that trailed off into unfinished thoughts, elongated sighs, and slow drags on cigarettes.

In the place of the dramatic arc typically found in theatrical storytelling were a series of subtle, fairly uneventful yet intriguing moments that were buffered by pauses that stretched to epic proportions.

What surfaced from Baker’s deliberate and disarming display of human wreckage was insight into the people we randomly encounter with eyes wide shut and exposure to the delicate albeit discordant rhythms of their street poetry.

The same goes for “The Flick.” Here, we observe the evolving friendship between veteran floor-mopper Sam, newbie employee Avery, and the projectionist Rose as they carry out their repetitive, brain-dead and soul-crushing manual labor for $8.50 an hour.

“The Aliens’” discordant rhythms of speech are replaced here by a wonderfully annoying regional accent that manages to belie the intelligence of the speaker (think Matt Damon in the film “Good Will Hunting,” who starred with Robert De Niro in “The Good Shepherd,” who starred with Kevin Bacon in “Sleepers”), even when Sam and Avery are playing a rousing round of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”

And the excruciating pauses found in “The Alien” are exchanged for silent moments of mopping in the empty movie house – which is accurately rendered by scenic designer Jill Davis – between screenings.

Each of the eight scenes in Act I and the eight scenes in Act II begins with the house lights dimming, blinding undecipherable images beaming from the film projector booth at the back of the movie theater, the sound of a generic movie soundtrack drawing to a close, and the house lights flickering to life as the screening comes to an end.

The play – with its existential insights into the human condition, its silent moments of mopping, its screening segues and its rounds of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” – clocks in at just over three hours.

Yes, Baker requires that the audience have skin in the game and ante-up patience and perseverance in order to be rewarded for her efforts. And rewarded you will be.

In addition to Baker providing an intriguing play, director Nathan Motta has found an exceptional group of actors to deliver it. Every one of them fits their respective character like a glove and, most remarkably, manages to manifest their character’s defining frailty in their physicality.

The 35-year-old Sam is stuck in a loop of living with his parents, working a dead-end job and secretly adoring Rose. And just as he has never learned how to operate the movie projector, he is incapable of changing the reels and moving forward in his own life.

As Sam, the incredible Christopher Bohan wears his character’s insecurities and lifetime of disappointment on his sleeve, in his shoulders and around his hips, and his ungainly lurch reveals just how uncomfortable Sam is in his own skin.

Twenty-something Rose is a bit of a free-spirit who uses her sexuality to compensate for her pathological self-doubt. This is best seen when she tries to seduce Avery with a wildly improvised and highly cathartic dance, while all that the inexperienced, deeply depressed and spiritually-broken Avery wants to do is escape into a movie.

Actress Paige Klopfenstein does not allow Rose’s physical displays of bravado to mask the character’s humanity. In fact, she does a remarkable job of always keeping it just below the surface of her performance. And Gordon Hinchen’s Avery – a walking, talking composite of phobias, self-consciousness and film-nerd eccentricities – is delightful.

During “The Flick,” Sam notes that “people always freak out when like, you know, when art forms move forward.” He was talking about motion pictures but he just as easily could have been talking about the long, leisurely, Pulitzer

Prize-winning play in which he resides.

“We’re lucky to be living in the era of Annie Baker,” wrote “The New Yorker” not long ago. She’s a playwright “who listens to people so carefully, who re-creates human speech with such amusement and care, that her characters feel startlingly familiar.”

That’s the reward that awaits you at the end of the third hour of this production.

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 March 5, 2017.

Lead image: Christopher Bohan (from left) as Sam, Gordon Hinchen as Avery, and Nate Miller as Dreaming Man in “The Flick”. Photo / Steve Wagner Photography

From left, Pamela Morton, Ashley Aquilla, Scott A. Campbell, Tonya Broach, Ray McNiece, Teresa DeBerry, Maryann Elder, and Sally Groth. Photo | Steve Wagner

Cleveland Public Theatre offers a savory, saucy ‘Barbecue’

By Bob Abelman

Playwright Robert O’Hara has an affinity for laying bare issues of race, class and culture in America by poking all kinds of audacious fun at them.

In “Bootycandy,” seen last year at convergence-continuum, O’Hara explored the stigmatization of homosexuality in African-American culture by presenting it as TV sketch comedy. And, by doing so, he managed to also call attention to the egregious portrayal of blacks in TV sketch comedy.

In “Barbecue,” which premiered Off-Broadway in 2015 and is on stage at the CPT, he showcases similarities in white and black lower-class family dysfunction by having it unfold in the familiar format of the Hollywood domestic comedy. And, by doing so, he manages to also call attention to the egregious portrayal of the lower class in domcoms.

In both plays, which are loaded with ferociously funny one-liners, the outrageousness sometimes gets the better of O’Hara’s good intentions and his efforts to cover so much ground occasionally hits a bump or two. “Barbecue” is particularly problematic in that its first act is rubbed with vinegar and char-grilled on an open flame while its second act is slow-cooked and basted with molasses.

Although this CPT production under Beth Woods’ direction has some difficulty reconciling these inconsistent stylings by being particularly plodding after intermission, it is nonetheless a savory and satisfying offering.

As the show opens, four O’Mallery siblings (Teresa DeBerry, Ray McNiece, Maryann Elder and Sally Groth) have gathered at the local park to share some barbecue and scared-straight talk with their youngest sister Barbara (Jill Levin). Barbara’s out of control drug and alcohol addiction and bad behavior have forced them to confront her in the hope that she will agree to a visit to rehab. Of course, this confrontation is backed up by a Taser set to medium-high. And their hope is bolstered by white-trash ignorance with a Jack Daniel’s chaser and addictions of their own.

The small patch of ill-kept park area (designed by Ryan T. Patterson) – with its dead tree and dying grass, no-frills grill and chain-link entrance – is the perfect place for this ill-planned, open-air intervention to occur.

Just as Barbara shows up at the park, the stage goes to blackout. When the lights return, the white O’Mallerys have been replaced by their black counterparts (Tonya Broach, Scott A. Campbell, Pamela Morton, Ashley Aquilla and Katrice Monee Headd), and the conversation continues where it left off.

Everything is the same – the tacky wardrobe (designed by Inda Blatch-Geib), the setting (lit by Benjamin Gantose), the comedic antagonism and the character-defining addictions – except for the characters’ culturally disparate dealings with their sister and the expletives they readily employ.

The acting – which flies just north of caricature – is magnificent and, when matched with the surreality of juxtaposed O’Mallerys, keeps the audience laughing nearly nonstop.

Watching DeBerry and Broach’s small yet significant tweaks in their respective white and black portrayals of Lillie Anne, the oldest sister who orchestrates the intervention, is a particular pleasure. They are wonderful.

And the price of admission is justified just from witnessing Groth and Aquilla out-do each other as the remarkably addled Marie.

If only a smattering of Cleveland’s own Hot Sauce Williams’ dry spice could have worked its way into the second act of “Barbecue,” which features an intriguing meeting between the two Barbaras. It could certainly use something to hasten its heartbeat and add some much needed heat before all the dysfunctional O’Mallerys take to the stage once more to make a final satirical statement.

O’Hara’s work is an acquired taste for sure, and one certainly worth sampling at the CPT.

On Stage

WHAT:  “Barbecue”

WHERE:  Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., Cleveland

WHEN:  Through March 11

TICKETS & INFO:  $12 – $30.  Call 216-631-2727 or visit cptonline.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. 25, 2017.

Lead image: From left, Pamela Morton, Ashley Aquilla, Scott A. Campbell, Tonya Broach, Ray McNiece, Teresa DeBerry, Maryann Elder, and Sally Groth. Photo | Steve Wagner

Jose Llana as the King of Siam and Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna. Photo | Matthew Murphy

Success of touring ‘The King and I’ is no puzzlement

By Bob Abelman

The double-edged sword associated with revivals of Golden Age musicals is that our overfamiliarity with the work – its score, its staging, its characters and the actors who defined them – cries out for change while simultaneously condemning it. Novelty and nostalgia are always at odds in theatrical re-productions.

This is particularly true for stage-to-screen musicals like “The King and I,” where our memories of the original work are cinematic. These perpetually preserved images are impossible to replicate in a live production and are reinforced with every viewing of the 1956 film, so each attempt at innovation is blatantly obvious and often underwhelming.

And yet, director Bartlett Sher’s production of this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, on tour and on stage at the Connor Palace Theatre, offers creative changes and new ways of tapping our emotions without ever detracting from why it was a classic in the first place.

True to the Tony-winning revival that closed last June at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, this touring production manages to be both novel and nostalgic, which is remarkable. The product on stage is breathtaking.

Set in 1860’s Bangkok, the musical tells the story of the unconventional relationship that develops between the King of Siam and Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher, whom the modernist King brings to imperialistic Siam to tutor his many wives and children.

This production is intentionally cinematic. It creates gorgeous pictures that fill the stage with Michael Yeargan’s visually dramatic and oversized sets that are color-saturated with Donald Holder and Catherine Zuber’s lighting and costuming, respectively, and animated by Scott Lehrer’s rich sound design. And once the action moves into the Royal Palace, everything on stage is cinematically framed within decorative pillars that are suspended from the ceiling.

During the extraordinary “Shall We Dance?” number in Act II, the pillars move in opposition to the choreography, as if the movement was captured through a roving camera, which also creates the illusion of a more expansive performance space. By doing so, the staging cleverly captures one of the most iconic moments from the film.

Christopher Gattelli’s hyper-precise, Asian-infused choreography pays homage to Jerome Robbins’ original movement from the film and the 1951 Broadway production but takes full advantage of the physical strength and dexterity of his modern dancers.

This touring troupe consists of exceptionally talented dancers, particularly Lamae Caparas, Stephanie Lo, Jeoffrey Watson and Yuki Ozeki. The ballet “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” performed before visiting British dignitaries to Siam, is one of this show’s many highlights.

While the production values are incredible, it is the performances of the featured actors that drive this show.

Following in Yul Brynner’s enduring footsteps is a difficult feat, so Jose Llana uses his youth as an asset to redefine the role. This King of Siam is more playful and more apt to reveal the insecurities that exist under the character’s outward displays of arrogance and entitlement. As such, he is boyishly charming and immediately endearing, which resets Anna’s response to him from romantic – the go-to-emotion in past productions – to a hard-fought and rather profound admiration.

This is only possible if the admiration is mutual, which is readily established by the earnest fearlessness Laura Michelle Kelly brings to the role of Anna. And, with a voice and stage presence that has graced the Broadway stage in “Finding Neverland, “Mary Poppins” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” she delivers “Hello, Young Lovers” and “Getting to Know You” as Rodgers and Hammerstein had intended.

While all this may result in fewer tears as the two part ways at the end of the storytelling, they are no less heartfelt. And there are more tears to be had in the heartbreak generated by the talented Joan Almedilla as the King’s Chief Wife, Lady Thiang, during her moving rendition of “Something Wonderful” and by Manna Nichols and Kavin Panmeechao, the doomed lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha, in “I Have Dreamed.”

These featured performers are surrounded by a fully committed, highly disciplined and always interesting ensemble. And everyone is accompanied by a large spot-on local orchestra steered by a core of touring musicians and effectively directed by Gerald Steichen.

It is impossible to ask for more out of a national tour or any production of “The King and I.” This is the one that future revivals will be compared to. CV

On Stage

WHAT:  “The King and I”

WHERE:  Connor Palace Theatre, 1511 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN:  Through Feb. 26

TICKETS & INFO:   $10 – $110, call 216-241-6000 or visit playhousesquare.com

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman.3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on February 9, 2017.

Lead image: Jose Llana as the King of Siam and Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna. Photo | Matthew Murphy

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

Rose Gabriele as Mary and Robert Ellis as Charlie. Photo | Brian Kenneth Armour

none too fragile’s ‘The Whale’ wallows in well-chartered waters

By Bob Abelman

In Samuel D. Hunter’s “The Whale” – initially found breaching off-Broadway in 2013 and currently on stage at none too fragile – Charlie’s death scene clocks in at 1-hour and 50-minutes.

For the entirety of this slow-moving but quietly affecting drama, the morbidly self-destructive, always-apologetic 600 pound Charlie sits on or precariously orbits around his couch in a small northern Idaho apartment awaiting his final, thin exhale.

Intermittently orbiting around Charlie (Robert Ellis), when he is not offering online tutoring on expository writing, are a handful of well-intended characters who are remarkably ill-equipped to follow through with their objectives.

There’s his devoted caretaker and only friend, Liz (played by a wonderfully intense Jen Klika).  She is forever insisting that Charlie go to the hospital to control his death by overeating but never manages to get him there.  Her visits are as much a lifeline for her as they are for him.

There’s his estranged teenage daughter Ellie (portrayed with intelligence and impenetrable goth gravitas by Ireland Derry), who hates everything and always chooses the path of most resistance.  She is repulsed by Charlie’s appearance, his life choices and his helplessness, but stays by his side nonetheless.  Good-hearted despite having congestive heart failure, Charlie finds wonder in her wrath, beauty in her bile, and evidence of good intentions in her bad behavior despite his ex-wife’s insistence that there are none.

A victim of Ellie’s passive-aggressive do-gooding is Elder Thomas (the delightful Jon Heus), a naïve young Mormon missionary who arrives at Charlie’s door to offer spiritual guidance but leaves an inadvertent recipient.

Also paying a visit is the ex-wife Mary (a poignant Rose Gabriele), whose resentment over Charlie leaving her for another man has softened over the years into an awkward, alcohol-assisted affection.

Hunter’s play serves up moments that are wonderfully surprising in what they reveal about these characters and in their tender rendering.  But, between those moments, “The Whale” lies beached in familiar territory about mending relationships and seeking redemption.

And the play’s modus operandi – its marginalized Idaho-bounded inhabitants, its many short scenes that create the rhythm of time passing painstakingly, and its disgraced religious zealot and emotionally damaged teenager – is pilfered from the playwright’s own “A Bright New Boise.”   

Clearly, the novelty of the protagonist’s size and the untimely death of his partner, Alan, are intended to offer commentary on how those of us with sensitive souls and big hearts are easily victimized, beaten down and broken by others.  And the play’s numerous references to Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” – Charlie’s favorite novel – run parallel with the damage and anger this whale of a man has inadvertently caused in those around him.

The codependent caretaker, the rebellious daughter, the fallen Mormon, and the alcoholic ex-wife are Ahabs all.

And yet, all the intended metaphoric meaning seems a bit too forced and, at times, too transparent to carry much weight.

It is fortunate that director Sean Derry’s finds all the small and often subtle bits of dark humor in the script that helps make these characters relatable and adds life to the death knell that drives this drama.  And he has pulled together exquisite actors who deliver this humor as if it was a natural extension of their characters’ anguish.

Authenticity is key at none too fragile, where the staging is so intimate that the first row of seats invades the fourth wall.  Any false pretense in the performances or in Derry’s simple set design is easily spied.  There is none of that here.

Ellis’ performance is particularly authentic.  His Charlie is a gentle and self-effacing giant, yet the deep psychological crisis that gnaws at him, the emotional pleasure and pain he suffers with each visit by Ellie, and the immense physical discomfort that accompanies his every movement is always visible.

Ellis’ feigned strain under the illusion of massive weight created by a plausible fat suit designed by Jackie Guerra is remarkable.  It seems so real that one fears that the performer expires at the end of the production and not just the character he plays.

Come to none too fragile to see an engaging if unexceptional work by MacArthur Foundation genius grant winner Samuel D. Hunter.  Stay to marvel at the eloquent performances it is provided.

On Stage

WHAT:  “The Whale”

WHERE:  none too fragile, 1835 Merriman Rd., Akron

WHEN:  Through Feb. 18

TICKETS & INFO:  $25, visit nonetoofragile.com

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. 5, 2017.

Lead image: Rose Gabriele as Mary and Robert Ellis as Charlie. Photo | Brian Kenneth Armour

Joel Hammer as Tommy, left, and David Peacock as Doc.  Photo | Steve Wagner Photography

Dobama’s ‘The Night Alive’ a wily morality play

By Bob Abelman

If you caught Ensemble Theatre’s recent production of Conor McPherson’s “St. Nicholas” or Beck Center’s more recent production of McPherson’s “Shining City,” then you know what you are in for when attending the master storyteller’s “The Night Alive” at Dobama Theater in Cleveland Heights. And attend you must.

McPherson’s plays – of which there are 15 – tend to be cleverly woven short stories that tell tall tales.

Many, including this one, are one-act productions that take place over a brief period of time, which generates a strong sense of urgency.

Much of the dialogue consists of confessional meditations on life by lonely characters who have given up on it, which overflow with so much lyrical prose and powerful imagery that they resemble poetry.

And lurking in dark corners of McPherson’s work is a quirky, other worldly element – vampires or ghosts – that bites at the heels of the play’s otherwise sober realism.

Conspicuously missing from the Drama Desk Award-winning “The Night Alive,” which premiered in London and then transferred to Off-Broadway in 2013, are those things that go bump in the night. In this play, life is scary enough.

This stark piece of storytelling opens with the defeated and despondent Tommy (Joel Hammer) entering his refuse-filled first floor living space in Dublin with Aimee (Anjanette Hall), a young prostitute, in tow. She has been rescued from her abusive boyfriend Kenneth (Val Kozlenko) after being beaten and bloodied, and takes up the offer to crash for a few days to hide, heal and dine on dog biscuits.

There she meets Tommy’s judgmental uncle Maurice (Robert Hawkes), who owns the house and lives alone upstairs. She is visited by Tommy’s odd-job business associate and only friend, the mentally slow but delightfully solicitous Doc (David Peacock). And, eventually, she is found by the psychotic Kenneth.

This play unfolds as if it were simply a dark drama about broken people who have become entangled, by circumstance and bad luck, in each other’s sad and messy lives. And yet, as the characters’ vulnerabilities are exposed, as tensions build and as Doc describes dreams that turn deep and dismal, there is the sense that this play is significantly more than it appears.

And then, midway through the storytelling, we hear Marvin Gaye’s 1971 hit song “What’s Going On?” on the radio.

The music momentarily rouses Tommy from his malaise, Aimee from her misery and Doc from his musings. The three break into a spontaneous dance that is at once awkward in its execution and awesome in its unadulterated jubilation. And the lyrics mimic the question on the lips of theatergoers who have become lost in this story’s idiosyncrasies, its characters’ eccentricities and the set design’s intriguing incongruities, including a stained glass window hanging above the squalor: what’s going on?

If you attempt to answer that question, be reminded that this play was penned by McPherson and that those idiosyncrasies, eccentricities and incongruities are evidence that the things that go bump in the night have been with us all along. In fact, the playwright has devised a cleverly disguised morality play grounded in his Irish Catholic upbringing and populated by a soul in limbo, a fallen angel, a prophet, a demon and a disapproving deity.

What is also going on are spot-on performances by exceptionally talented actors, who manage to keep one foot in reality and the other in the play’s marginalized mysticism without ever losing balance or their Dublin accents.

Director Leighann Delorenzo and her designers Cameron Caley Michalak (scenic), Marcus Dana (lighting), Jeremy Dobbins (sound), Inda Blatch-Geib (costume) and Ryan Zarecki (fight choreography) keep things real without ever tipping their hand until required to do so in the play’s final scene, which is beautifully executed.

“The Night Alive” is an intriguing play and risky enterprise. This is a remarkable production of it.

On Stage

WHAT:  “The Night Alive

WHERE:  Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Rd., Cleveland Hts.

WHEN:  Through Feb. 12

TICKETS & INFO:  $29 – $32.  Call 216-932-3396 or visit dobama.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 Jan. 23, 2017.

Lead image: Joel Hammer as Tommy, left, and David Peacock as Doc.  Photo | Steve Wagner Photography

Rafael Untalan as Sherlock Holmes, left, and Brian Owen as Actor One. Photo | Roger Mastroianni

Cleveland Play House offers a marvelously madcap ‘Baskerville’

By Bob Abelman

The Cleveland Play House has a long-term love affair with playwright Ken Ludwig.

After staging world premiere productions of his “Leading Ladies” in 2004, “The Game’s Afoot” in 2011 and “A Comedy of Tenors” to open its centennial season in 2015, the CPH’s is offering “Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” at its Allen Theatre.

It is easy to see the attraction. Ludwig has mastered the farce formula – the silly situations, the witty repartee delivered at lightning speed, and the hyper-dramatic and highly stylized funny-business – and now his plays are branded with his own name in their titles. It is enough to turn an artistic director’s head.

First staged in 2015 at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage, “Baskerville” is a farcical yet faithful send-up of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s somber piece of turn-of-the-20th century Sherlock Holmes fiction, “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”

In the Cleveland Play House production, Holmes (a fully-vested and perfectly intense Rafael Untalan) and Watson (a wonderfully accessible Jacob Jones) are visited by a Dr. John Mortimer (Brian Owen), who seeks out their services because of the recent death of his friend Sir Charles Baskerville outside the Baskerville Hall estate. According to locals (including Nisi Sturgis), the family is cursed by a supernatural hound that roams the moors and has been killing for centuries. Mortimer is concerned for the safety of the American heir to the family fortune, Sir Henry (Evan Alexander Smith), who has just arrived from Texas.

Once Holmes and Watson arrive at Baskerville Hall to investigate, they encounter a number of highly suspicious individuals, including the Baskerville servants Mr. and Mrs. Barrymore, neighbors Jack Stapleton and his sister Beryl, an escaped convict lurking in the moors, and the woman who last saw Sir Charles before his demise.

The storytelling requires an unfortunate amount of somnolent exposition, given its literary lineage, though ample fun is poked at Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s gothic plot points throughout. But what turns all this on its head is that the dozens of secondary characters are deftly handled by the same three energetic and exceptionally gifted comedic actors – Owen, Sturgis and Smith.

They employ an impressive array of accents, mannerisms and quick-change period costumes (by Lex Liang) and wigs (by Mary Schilling-Martin and Caitie Martin) to help distinguish one character from another, which are broadly based and often comically unconvincing members of the opposite sex. Several of these miraculous costume changes occur before our eyes.

These on-stage antics are perfectly accentuated by excesses of dry ice and dramatic lighting by Peter Maradudin, sound and music designer Victoria Deiorio’s melodramatic underscoring, and Timothy R. Mackabee’s scenic design that consists largely of stand-alone set pieces on wheels – windows and doors, mostly, and a framed portrait most remarkably – that double as slap-shtick props.

All this is surrounded by the dark brick exterior of an industrial building in London until it opens to reveal the English countryside that houses the Baskerville Hall estate.

Director Brendon Fox sets the action in perpetual motion from the get-go and his production is a thoroughly entertaining enterprise. But despite all the quick-change artistry and the actors’ very funny self-aware references to the changes’ absurdity, frequency and difficulty, too few risks are actually taken in this production. And too few self-aware references are spontaneous and genuine. This production is marvelously madcap but rarely is it as rollicking as, say, “A Comedy of Tenors.”

One reason may be that “Baskerville” lacks originality. The comedic device on display, and some of its specific gags, borrow heavily from Patrick Barlow’s 2007 four-person parody of the 1935 Hitchcock film “The 39 Steps,” which set the bar for quick-change comedy. And the humor that surrounds the Baskerville servants, Mr. and Mrs. Barrymore, seems inspired by Mel Brooks’ Igor and Frau Blucher in his “Young Frankenstein.”

Also, the application of this quick-change device to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles” was first done in John Nicholson and Steve Canny’s delightful 2007 adaptation of the same name.

Sometimes, in long-term affairs, love is simply taken for granted and less effort is made to keep it vibrant. That seems to be the case with “Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery.” Before the Cleveland Play House produces its next play, it may want to consider hiring Dr. Ruth Westheimer as the dramaturg.

On Stage

WHERE: Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Through Feb. 12

TICKETS & INFO: $15 – $115, call 216-241-6000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.com

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 Jan. 30, 2017.

Lead image: Rafael Untalan as Sherlock Holmes, left, and Brian Owen as Actor One. Photo | Roger Mastroianni

Amy Schwabauer. Photo | Dale Heinen

One-woman show at Playwrights Local howls at the moon

By Bob Abelman

Spoiler alert: Local actress Amy Schwabauer’s self-scribed one-woman show “This Is NOT About My Dead Dog,” receiving its world premiere production at Playwrights Local under Dale Heinen’s direction, is in fact about her dead dog.

It is also about her discovery of sex, her sordid affair with alcohol, and an assortment of tragicomic events that transpired during her childhood, adolescence and current state of young adulthood.

Three parts stream of consciousness confessional, two parts therapy and one part sketch comedy, these 75-minutes with Schwabauer are like watching a train wreck if that train contains a personal baggage car, a full-service bar car and a caboose comprised of mirrors that reflect our own faces as it passes us by on its precarious journey.

We’ve all had moments like those revealed by Schwabauer and see ourselves in her embarrassment and angst. But few of us are brave enough to put it on stage before an audience, bold or brilliant enough to perform it ourselves, and brazen enough to consider it theater.

“This is NOT About My Dead Dog” was developed in Playwrights Local’s new-work incubator in 2016, whose goal is to mold works-in-progress into pieces of performance art with the understanding that they are imperfect, incomplete and still evolving.

This production is in its Neanderthal stage of evolution. It shows positive signs of what it can become intellectually and artistically, but the work – in substance and in style – is still retaining its protruding brow and sloping forehead. As if it just discovered how to use tools, there is a cumbersome overreliance on props.

Raw (lots of stage-vomiting), redundant (every prop box gets stage-vomited into) and often random, too many of the musings that constitute Schwabauer’s collection of interpersonal misadventures are underdeveloped, lack direction and go nowhere.

There are times when the production, like the inebriated Schwabauer in many of the stories, merely howls at the moon.

And yet, her brutal honesty and all-encompassing investment in the telling of her tales, along with genuine moments of inspiration and creativity, make this production intriguing.

Schwabauer’s reenactments of being the center of attention at age 6, craving attention at age 11 and unable to get attention at age 18 are impressive pieces of performance. And she is so very charming and funny when her reactions to her own missteps channel Jack Black in terms of wide-eyed facial expressions and broad physicality.

The make-shift stage and very limited technical bells and whistles available in the back corner of the Waterloo Arts studio are used efficiently and effectively by lighting designer Stephanie Kahn, set designer Elaine Hullihen and sound designer James Kosmatka.

Like the portrait she paints of her relationships with men, Schwabauer’s one-woman show is often aimless and unsatisfying, but also quite infectious. CV

On Stage

WHAT: “This Is NOT About My Dead Dog:

WHERE: Waterloo Arts, 397 E. 156th St., Cleveland

WHEN: Through Jan. 28

TICKETS & INFO: $10 – $15, call 216-302-8856 or go to playwrightslocal.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 Jan. 16, 2016.

Lead image: Amy Schwabauer. Photo | Dale Heinen

Eleasha Gamble, from left, Laurie Veldheer, Anthony Chatmon II, and Vanessa Reseland. Photo | Joan Marcus

Stripped-down ‘Into the Woods’ makes Sondheim accessible

By Bob Abelman

It seems as if most theatergoers either have a love or hate relationship with composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

Since the 1970s, Sondheim has taken all that is simple, predictable and harmonious in the American musical and transformed it into something quite the opposite. His creations blur the line between lyric and dialogue, fill the air with a dense and steady stream of discordant sounds and images, and offer stories that are as complex as the people who populate them. Some get it; some don’t care to.

Regardless, patrons approach productions of Sondheim and librettist James Lapine’s “Into the Woods,” which opened on Broadway in 1987 and was recently turned into a star-studded film, as if it were children’s theater.

Because the Tony Award-winning “Into the Woods” intertwines the familiar plots of several well-known Brothers Grimm fairy tale characters – including Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of beanstalk fame), Rapunzel and Cinderella – parents often bring their wide-eyed tikes to the theater, who arrive expecting a coddling bedtime story but leave tearful and traumatized by intermission.

The show may revolve around a Baker and his wife venturing into the woods in an effort to reverse the magic spell that has kept them childless, but it bears all the foreboding theatrical trademarks typical of Sondheim musicals. Put Sweeney Todd in lederhosen and brightly colored socks and he is still the demon barber of Fleet Street.

But the significantly stripped-down Fiasco Theater version of “Into the Woods,” which originated at the McCarter Theater in New Jersey in 2013, had an Off-Broadway run, and is currently on national tour and at Playhouse Square, is different.

Although the story and score remain intact, they are delivered through delightfully inventive storytelling devised by co-directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld. Instead of characters, we are introduced to likable actors who are play-acting and whose playfulness tempers much of the show’s revelations about the dark underbelly of “once upon a time” and effectively blunts some of Sondheim’s sharp edges and keen intensity.

And playing pretend diminishes much of the play’s notorious pretention.

Scenic designer Derek McLane has fashioned a stage that is conducive to play-acting, for it resembles the cluttered storage attic of an eccentric Aunt, where set pieces, props and character-defining bits of costuming are fabricated from found objects and distressed artifacts compiled in corners.

Locations like the woods and off-stage characters like the Giant are imagined with the assistance of Christopher Akerlind’s clever lighting, Darron L. West and Charles Coes’ sound design, and the audience’s willingness to play along.

An inconsequential character (Cinderella’s father) in the original work is roguishly replaced with a framed portrait stand-in, a scary creature (the Wolf) is played by an actor holding up a piece of tepid taxidermy, and a comparatively dull character’s narrative dialogue (the Mysterious Man) is shared by more interesting characters.

And instead of an orchestra, the 11 players accompany each other on an up-right piano (masterly performed by understudy Sean Peter Forte), cello, oboe, trumpet and a range of make-shift percussion instruments that are scattered about the stage.

The show is so stripped-down that the actors – most of who play multiple medieval-era fairy tale characters – arrive in period underwear and chat with the audience before the play begins.

This “Into the Woods” is extremely enjoyable and it makes Sondheim’s work so very accessible. But that comes at a cost. Several in fact.

Though charming, musical accompaniment in the place of full orchestration dumbs down Sondheim’s rich compositions, particularly “Hello Little Girl” and “No One is Alone.”

In casting talented performers whose personality and stage presence take priority over the rarified vocal skills required to make the most of Sondheim’s difficult songs, those songs suffer.

Lisa Helmi Johanson as Little Red Riding Hood, Darick Pead as Milky White the cow, Eleasha Gamble as the Baker’s Wife, and Philippe Arroyo as Jack are wonderful. But only Laurie Veldheer’s “On the Steps of the Palace” as Cinderella, Vanessa Reseland’s “Last Midnight” as the Witch, and Evan Harrington’s “No More” as the Baker stand out.

Also, for the Sondheim aficionados among us, blunting Sondheim’s sharp edges, softening the show’s keen intensity, and side-stepping its pretentiousness sort of misses the point of performing a Sondheim musical.

The payoff is that the children and naysaying adults in attendance were actually at a Sondheim production they could fully appreciate. Bring on “Sweeney Todd” and “Company.” CV

Related: Former Clevelander Wolf backstage star in ‘Into the Woods’

On stage

WHAT:  “Into the Woods”

WHERE:  Connor Palace Theatre, 1511 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN:  Through Jan. 29

TICKETS & INFO:   $10 – $90, call 216-241-6000 or visit playhousesquare.com

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Jan. 12, 2017.

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

Lead image: Eleasha Gamble, from left, Laurie Veldheer, Anthony Chatmon II, and Vanessa Reseland. Photo | Joan Marcus