Vive la national tour of ‘Les Misérables’ at Playhouse Square

By Bob Abelman

“Les Misérables” – the epic musical based on Victor Hugo’s novel about the Paris Uprising of 1823 – has been running in London for 33 years. It enjoyed 8,202 performances during its Broadway premiere and has been seen by over 70 million people in productions in 44 countries. The 2012 star-studded film version of this musical earned an extraordinary $442,169,052 worldwide.

If there is anyone who has not yet heard the people sing, singing the song of angry men, rest assured that the touring production currently taking up residency at Playhouse Square is as good as it gets. And frequent fliers, who belt “24601” in the shower and attended the 2011 and 2013 tours when they swept through Cleveland, will not be disappointed.

“Les Mis” begins in 1815 with Frenchman Jean Valjean being released from a chain gang, where he has spent the past 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. Seeking spiritual redemption, he changes his name, becomes a wealthy business owner and mayor of a town, and raises the young daughter of a fired employee, Fantine, who died after becoming a prostitute out of desperation.

Years later, the country is in a state of revolution and Valjean and his daughter Cosette’s fates become intertwined with the young students leading the rebellion. All the while, Valjean is hunted by the obsessive and self-righteous Inspector Javert.

A 16-piece orchestra under Brian Eads’ supervision and a sizable ensemble who seem to understand the collective power of their voices, as directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, fill the Connor Palace Theatre with Claude-Michel Schönberg’s operatic music and Herbert Kretzmer’s extraordinary lyrics. All this is complemented with producer Cameron Mackintosh’s emotionally devastating storytelling.

This production is blessed with Nick Cartell as Valjean, whose gorgeous interpretation of “Bring Him Home” from the barricades – one of many money songs that keep audiences coming back time and time again – captures the performer’s remarkable ability to balance theatricality with authenticity.

Javert must be Valjean’s equal, physically and vocally, in order for the drama between them to be realistic and sustainable. Josh Davis nearly bests Cartell in both regards and his rendition of “Stars” and the character’s suicidal “Soliloquy” nearly steal the show.

Jillian Butler as Cosette, Joshua Grosso as Cosette’s romantic love interest, Marius, Matt Shingledecker as Enjolras, Paige Smallwood as Eponine, and Mary Kate Moore as Fantine – whose rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is the best I’ve ever heard – give passionate performances with solid vocals that are consistently captivating.

J. Anthony Crane as Thenardier and Allison Guinn as Madame Thenardier offer darker-than-usual portrayals despite their comedic antics, which adds an unexpected turn and actually works quite well.

Since the show’s 25th Anniversary tour, the glorious illusion of movement once produced by actors dramatically marching in place on a rotating turntable has been replaced by actors dramatically marching in place in front of rear projections of shifting images inspired by Hugo’s paintings.

The animation gives additional depth to the action, which is effective, though it does offer too much contrast to the many moments in the production where projections are not employed.

Still, this is a lovely production of “Les Misérables.” The men are still angry. They are still singing. And hearing them for the first time or once again will most certainly be memorable. CV

Touring ‘Les Misérables’ at Playhouse Square
WHERE: Connor Palace Theatre, 1511 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through Nov. 18
TICKETS & INFO: $39-$149, 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 or visit cjn.org/Abelman. 2018 Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Nov. 9, 2018.

Lead image: Josh Davis, left, as Inspector Javert and Nick Cartell as Jean Valjean | Photo / Matthew Murphy

Less funny than it could be, Karamu’s ‘Day of Absence’ delivers heavy message

By Bob Abelman

The pre-vaudeville minstrel shows of the mid-19th century are considered the first theatrical art form that was distinctly American. They featured white entertainers in blackface makeup performing comedy and song-and-dance routines that caricaturized plantation slaves for white audiences.
God bless us.

As one would imagine, minstrel shows were particularly popular in the South before the Civil War, as a way of reinforcing widely held racist stereotypes and countering the abolitionist movement.

A century later, in 1965, playwright Douglas Turner Ward borrowed this art form to shed light on the state of racism that was inspiring the civil rights movement. In his satirical fantasy play “Day of Absence,” which served to launch the pioneering Negro Ensemble Company in New York City, Southern whites were caricaturized by black actors appearing in whiteface and behaving as broadly as their old minstrel show counterparts.

The play takes place in a rural town somewhere below the Mason-Dixon Line. On a random Tuesday, the white residents wake up to find that all the people of color have mysteriously disappeared. As shoes go unshined, white-only public restrooms go uncleaned and babies are left uncared-for, the municipality devolves into stunned disarray and then utter chaos. There’s talk of a police officer going crazy when he has no black men to assault. A Klu Klux Klan member expresses his disappointment that he wasn’t the one to drive “The Blacks” out of town and hopes that they will return so he can do so.

“Day of Absence” is a light entertainment with a heavy message, the kind that finds you laughing and feeling peculiar doing so. It is an important play – a gateway play – that would eventually give rise to works like George C. Wolfe’s 1986 take-no-prisoners satire “The Colored Museum,” which says the unthinkable and says it with uncompromising wit and leaves its audience an emotional wreck.

Karamu has resurrected Ward’s one-act for reasons best left to the audience’s sense of social awareness.

Nathan A. Lilly directs a solid production housed within a red, white and blue performance space cleverly designed by Prophet D. Seay to resemble a minstrel show stage. Inda Blatch-Geib has dressed the performers in clownishly clashing costuming that denotes the satire that drives this play.

The one problem with this production is that most of the members of this talented ensemble (Lachaka A. Askew, Jeannine Gaskin, Jailyn Sherell Harris, Robert Hunter, Maya T. Jones, Austin Black Sasser, Prophet D. Seay, Nate Summers and Sherrie Tolliver) fail to find a rural stereotype to call their own and make it sufficiently whitewashed. Only Hunter as the corrupt and incompetent Mayor, Seay as a variety of red necked yokels and bumpkins, and Jones playing an assortment of male and female locals get what the playwright was going after.

As a result, this play is less funny than it could be. More importantly, it makes white audience members like me less uncomfortable than we should be and has black audience members laughing at caricatures that more closely resemble those of the old blackface minstrelsy. For research, the cast should watch TV reruns of “The Dukes of Hazzard” and use Boss Hogg, his idiot son Cletus Hogg, and Sheriff Rosco for inspiration. Ernest T. Bass from “The Andy Griffith Show” is also up for grabs.

“Dying is easy,” said famed 1940s performer Edmund Gwenn on his deathbed. “Comedy is hard.” Satire in whiteface is even harder. CV

‘Day of Absence’ at Karamu
WHERE: Arena Theatre, 2355 E. 89th St., Cleveland
WHEN: Through Nov. 18
TICKETS & INFO: $25-$40, Call 216-795-7077 or visit karamuhouse.org

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3 or visit cjn.org/Abelman. 2018 Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Nov. 15, 2018.

Lead image: Jailyn Sherell Harris and Robert Hunter | Photo / Vince Robinson

Great Lakes Theater treats Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ with austerity

By Bob Abelman

“In an innovative, tradition-defying rethinking of one of the greatest comedies in the English language,” begins a satirical article in a recent posting on theonion.com, “Morristown Community Players director Kevin Hiles announced Monday his bold intention to set his theater’s production of Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ in 16th century Venice.”

“I know when most people hear ‘The Merchant Of Venice,’ they think 1960s Las Vegas, a high-powered Manhattan stock brokerage or an 18th century Georgia slave plantation, but I think it’s high time to shake things up a bit,” Hiles said.

Despite Great Lakes Theater’s propensity for re-envisioning classic works, it too has gone the risky route of staging the theater version of Jane Austen’s novel “Pride and Prejudice” in the time, place and spirit in which it was penned and published more than 200 years ago.

The play, like the novel, tells the story of the five British Bennet sisters, whose mother is driven to marry them off to affluent suitors in the hope of assuring their financial security. This is a scenario dutifully accepted by each of the girls save Elizabeth, the second eldest. When the headstrong Lizzy meets the wealthy and handsome Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, she finds him arrogant and unattractive, and he is equally unimpressed with her. They bicker, they throw elegant barbs at one another, and of course, they fall in love by the end of the final act.

In the playbill, director/co-adapter Joseph Hanreddy calls “Pride and Prejudice” a “perfectly written novel” and treats it as a sacred text for this production. His and J.R. Sullivan’s script works hard at maintaining the work’s narrative voice and calls for fairly bare-boned staging so as not to detract from Austen’s precise prose.

Designers Linda Buchanan (scenic) and Paul Miller (lighting) have created one stationary set for all the play’s action, from which Laura Welsh Berg, as Lizzy, rarely leaves and never for long.

The set consists of a gorgeous half-circle of floor-to-ceiling wood panels divided by pillars across the rear of the thrust stage. Only a few period chairs and tables are brought in and out by servants to represent halls in luxurious estates while simple costume changes – many a matter of removing a frock designed by Martha Hally or putting on a shawl – occur onstage. Scenes change as effortlessly as the turning of pages.

Such economic staging keeps Austen’s words the focus of our attention but offers rather understated theatricality. Hanreddy’s quick pacing helps keep things lively, as do stellar performances turned in by this cast that have been refined during the show’s summer engagement at sister theater The Idaho Shakespeare Festival.

Stand-out performances include Andrew May as the ever-anguished patriarch of the Bennet clan, whose comic timing is impeccable. He is nicely matched by the over-the-top histrionics of Carole Healey’s Mrs. Bennet.

Daniel Millhouse as the carefree playboy Charles Bingley, Jodi Dominick as his snobbish sister Caroline and Eric Damon Smith as the ridiculously self-centered Mr. Collins give particularly impressive performances as well. While Berg as Lizzy and Nick Steen as Mr. Darcy are saddled with Austen’s unambiguous depictions, they do a wonderful job of letting the characters’ romantic arc take its course.

The show’s austerity may not be to everyone’s liking and, as Morristown Community Players director Kevin Hiles learned, “audiences may be taken aback initially by the lack of Creole accents.” But Jane Austen fans will likely be delighted by this production. CV

“Pride and Prejudice” by Great Lakes Theater
WHERE: The Hanna Theatre, East 14th Street and Euclid Avenue, Cleveland
WHEN: Through Nov. 4
TICKETS & INFO: $13 to $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 or visit cjn.org/Abelman. 2018 Ohio AP Media Editor’s best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Nov. 1, 2018.

Lead image: Jillian Kates (from left), Laura Welsh Berg, Courtney Hausman, Amy Keum and Kailey Boyle as the Bennet sisters, and Eric Damon Smith as Mr. Collins. | Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Beck Center for the Arts’ ‘Virginia Woolf’ serves schadenfreude on the rocks

By Bob Abelman

Edward Albee’s 1962 drama “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” invites audiences to be a collective fly on the wall of George and Martha’s modest home to witness their cruel psychological warfare, intense verbal abuse and what amounts to some of the best writing in the American theater.

By hosting the play in the intimate back room known as the Studio Theater rather than on its larger main stage, the Beck Center for the Arts puts the audience directly in the line of fire. So close are the performers – made even more so by director Donald Carrier’s tendency to push them to the edge of the performance space and the brink of sanity – that there should be a splash zone for the flying gin and soaring tempers.

The domestic battlefield that is “Virginia Woolf” is divided into three one-hour acts that George and Martha have labeled “Humiliate the Hosts,” “Get the Guests” and “Hump the Hostess.” It all amounts to schadenfreude, the pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others, of which there is plenty in this production for the characters and the audience.

The play begins as George, a professor at a small New England college, and his wife Martha return home at 2 a.m., familiarly drunk from a Saturday night party. Much to George’s displeasure, Martha has invited an opportunistic young professor and his clinging wife to their home for a night-cap. Over the course of the evening, George and Martha use Nick and Honey as pawns and props in increasingly punishing mind games.

Key to a successful “Virginia Woolf” is having a gritty, foul-mouthed Martha, who can unleash violent rants and merciless barbs, emasculate George and Nick while seducing them, and then earnestly bare her frailty and deep-rooted self-loathing. Derdriu Ring in the role is as delightfully complicated as she is compelling. Surely there have been other fiery redheads playing Martha, but few have been as memorable.

Equally important is having a pathetic George wallow in his own mediocrity and fold under Martha’s hard-hitting humiliation, only to match her fury with bitter arrogance, astute intelligence and an eye for her tender soft-spots. Michael Mauldin is brilliant in this role.

Both actors ride the emotional pendulum that is this play like the seasoned professionals they are.

As for their young guests, Daniel Telford and Becca Ciamacco are wonderful as these deceptively secondary and extremely challenging characters. And they ride that same pendulum with convincing inebriation, palpable consternation and mounting outrage.

Carrier’s perpetually forward-moving direction keeps the pace lively while Aaron Benson’s and Adam Ditzel’s scenic and lighting designs, respectively, make the cluttered ’60s-style living room that houses this play look lived in. Character-defining costuming comes courtesy of Carolyn Dickey.

A perfect storm has been created for Albee’s masterpiece and it has hit land in Lakewood. CV

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” at the Beck Center for the Arts
WHERE: Studio Theater, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood
WHEN: Through Nov. 4
TICKETS & INFO: $10-$33, call 216-521-2540 or visit beckcenter.org

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3 or visit cjn.org/Abelman. 2018 Ohio AP Media Editor’s best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Oct. 26, 2018.

Lead image: Daniel Telford as Nick, from left, Becca Ciamacco as Honey, Michael Mauldin as George and Derdriu Ring as Martha. | Photo / Kathy Sandham

Karamu fouls off a few while swinging for the ‘Fences’

By Bob Abelman

Actor Denzel Washington, who won a Tony in 2010 for his portrayal of protagonist Troy Maxson in the Broadway revival of August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning “Fences,” recently led a $5 million fundraising effort to restore the playwright’s childhood home, to be completed in 2020.

While watching the current production of the play at Karamu, it is very easy to understand Wilson’s legacy and appreciate Washington’s passion for preserving where it began.

“Fences,” which is set in a lower-middle-class black section of Pittsburgh in the mid-1950s, is one of the most successful and enthralling installments of Wilson’s highly celebrated 10-play “Pittsburgh Cycle.” The play’s title alludes to the hard-wood hedge middle-aged Troy (Darryl Tatum) is building to surround the small front yard of his weathered Hill District home, where he is master of all he surveys. It also references the emotional barrier that exists between him and those closest to him.

They include his wife Rose (Colleen Longshaw), who braves through his most erratic behaviors and core cruelty; teenage son Cory (Dar’Jon M. Bentley), whose football career Troy undermines in callous response to his own disappointments as a Negro League baseball player; Lyons (Dyrell Barnett), Troy’s abandoned and aimless 30-something son by a previous marriage; and younger brother Gabriel (Prophet D. Seay), whose war-time head injuries have rendered him childlike and vulnerable.

Only Troy’s pal Bono (Peter Lawson Jones) – who shared his time in prison, works by his side as a garbage man, and adores the man and his tall tales – remains largely impervious to his best friend’s mean-spiritedness and alienation. If we did not see the demeaning and demoralizing Troy through Bono’s rose-colored perspective and in his company, he would be a most unlikable character. Liking him is essential to our buying into the play’s heightened realism and the poetry the playwright offers in the form of rapid-fire discourse, soul-baring monologues and flinch-worthy confrontations.

Neither Tatum as Troy nor Jones as Bono made that easy on opening night.

Troy’s intense, stage-filling presence and quicksilver shifts in emotional states, including endearing flashes of playfulness and sexual impulse, are muted affairs in Tatum’s hands. His otherwise fine performance softens Troy’s edges and lacks variety in pitch, tone and intention, which does not serve this play.

And what should be unconditional and unwavering love on Bono’s part is unconvincing in Jones’ rather pallid portrayal. Both actors find the humor in the script, which is delightful, but they don’t mine the drama that also resides there. This is most evident in the first act, where it is most important.

Mining drama is left to the magnificent Longshaw, who finds strength, stability and dimensionality in Rose and through whose eyes we best sense Troy’s redeeming qualities. The other members of the ensemble also turn in clearly delineated and authentic performances. All this gives life to Wilson’s language.

The entire cast finds better balance in the second act, but by that time, Wilson’s brilliant storytelling and Tony Sias’ intuitive direction have taken over to carry this powerful play to its poignant conclusion.

Perhaps the best part of the second act is the introduction of actor Logan Dior Williams. Playing 7-year-old Raynell, the child Troy conceived with another woman and who is being raised by Rose, Williams steals the show when she shares with Cory a song Troy had apparently taught them both. This is a tender moment in a play strategically and painfully devoid of them, so it comes as a brief reprieve as well as an absolute pleasure.

All this takes place on a cramped patch of front yard realistically rendered by scenic designer Richard Morris Jr. His and lighting designer Colleen Albrecht’s attention to detail is impressive save for a prominently placed tree that could not look more artificial and a sky that does not register the passing of the seasons suggested in the script.

This Karamu production fouls off a few curveballs delivered by the playwright, but it never swings and misses while going for the “Fences.” CV

“Fences” at Karamu
WHERE: Jelliffe Theatre, 2355 E. 89th St., Cleveland
WHEN: Through Oct. 21
TICKETS & INFO: $20-$40, Call 216-795-7077 or visit karamuhouse.org

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3 or visit cjn.org/Abelman. 2018 Ohio AP Media Editor’s best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Oct. 18, 2018.

Lead image: Darryl Tatum as Troy and Colleen Longshaw as Rose. | Photo / Vince Robinson

Even the overture gets an ovation in soon-to-be-touring ‘Hello, Dolly!’

By Bob Abelman

“Hello, Dolly!” is a star vehicle, plain and simple. It has been since the original Broadway and London productions more than 50 years ago.

Thirty-eight seconds into the opening number of this always classy and now-classic musical, the likes of theater legends Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, Mary Martin and Ethel Merman have entered the stage on a horse-drawn trolley as the marvelously self-assured Dolly Gallagher Levi.

In the 2017 Broadway revival, Bette Midler raised the role’s sass quotient while her replacement, Bernadette Peters, offered a more endearing Dolly imbued with layers of charm and warmth. She was the polish, said The Washington Post, on Midler’s brass. She won the audience with her dimples, noted The New York Times, while Midler did so with a Cheshire cat’s grin.

So, the question to ask and answer at the opening of the Playhouse Square launch of the touring “Hello, Dolly!” is what kind of Dolly is Tony Award-winning actress Betty Buckley, the woman New York Magazine labeled “The Voice of Broadway” two decades ago?

It is the only question, really, since there is no need to speculate about the show itself.

Songwriter Jerry Herman and book writer Michael Stewart’s handiwork is legendary. The original Broadway production of “Hello, Dolly!” ran for 2,844 performances and swept the Tony Awards, winning 10, while the 2017 production won the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical, among others.

Set in the 1890s, the story revolves around the endlessly resourceful matchmaker who has set her sights and her own affections on the wealthy and curmudgeonly widower Horace Vandergelder. Caught in the web of romance in this delightfully lighthearted and wonderfully old-fashioned tale are Vandergelder’s two unworldly clerks, two unsuspecting women, and just about everyone else who crosses Dolly’s path.

The show has the hummable tunes this era of musicals was famous for, where gorgeous songs like “It Only Takes a Moment,” “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “Ribbons Down My Back” don’t so much progress the storyline as offer congenial commentary about it.

There is no need to speculate about the touring production either.

It is, after all, directed (Jerry Zaks), designed (scenic and costuming, Santo Loquasto) and choreographed (Warren Carlyle) by the same artists who spearheaded the Broadway revival.

All the astonishing eye-candy on stage – the Currier and Ives scenery that drops from the rafters, the ballet-infused Gay-Nineties dance moves that bring ensemble numbers like “The Waiters’ Gallop” and “The Contest” to life, and the Crayola-colored period costuming – is identical to the Broadway production.

On opening night, eager-to-applaud audience members gave an ovation to the overture performed by a huge orchestra under Robert Billing’s superb direction, to the scenic scrim revealed when the curtain opened, and to the set behind it when the scrim turned translucent. And, of course, they applauded the star playing Dolly upon her entrance, which has become obligatory.

So, what kind of Dolly is Betty Buckley?

Sadly, she is the least interesting thing on stage.

While in great voice and exuding the confidence of a pro, Buckley brings little to the role while stand-out performances by Lewis J. Stadlen as the comic foil Vandergelder, Nic Rouleau and Jess LeProtto as his endearing young clerks Cornelius and Barnaby, and Analisa Leaming and Kristen Hahn as their adorable love-interests Irene Molloy and Minnie Fay, are inventive, energetic and always entertaining.

Magnificently orchestrated company numbers orbit around Buckley rather than include her. And while she gets at the heart of the character when asking her late husband to bless her renouncement of widowhood and rejoin the human race in “Before the Parade Passes By,” her comedic moments – elongated in anticipation of the raucous reaction earned by past performers – fall rather flat.

“Hello, Dolly!” remains triumphant, but not because of the star at its center. CV

Touring ‘Hello, Dolly!’ at Playhouse Square
WHERE: Connor Palace Theatre, 1511 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through Oct. 21
TICKETS & INFO: $30-$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/BobAbelman3 or visit cjn.org/Abelman. 2018 Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Oct. 12, 2018.

Lead image: Betty Buckley as Dolly Gallagher Levi | Photo / Julieta Cervantes

Cleveland Play House hosts spine-tingling ghost story ‘The Woman in Black’

By Bob Abelman

It’s been suggested that the Hanna Theatre in Playhouse Square is haunted. Perhaps. But the Allen Theatre just down the street most certainly has things that go bump in the night and during the matinees, courtesy of the Cleveland Play House’s season opener “The Woman in Black.”

Based on Susan Hill’s 1983 novel of the same name, and the very stuff the 2012 film with Daniel Radcliffe was made of, this Gothic ghost story was adapted for the stage by Stephen Mallatratt. The play has resided in London for the past 30 years, toured England on several occasions, and has had several productions in other countries.

The current production embraces the original London staging as recreated by the show’s original director, Robin Herford, and is being promoted as the U.S. premiere of the London production.

It will play at Cleveland Play House for several weeks before going on a North American tour. It will inhabit the Royal George Theatre in Chicago for several months, where it rehearsed before moving to the Allen Theatre and from where many of the show’s designers and one of its two featured performers hail.

“The Woman in Black” tells the tale of Arthur Kipps (Bradley Armacost), who as a junior lawyer many years ago, was summoned to attend the funeral of a client in the remote, windswept town of Crythin Gifford to get her affairs in order. While there, he encounters the specter of a wasted, vengeful young woman dressed all in black. With fear still gripping his soul, the now old and exhausted Kipps recounts his experiences with the assistance of a young actor he hired (Adam Wesley Brown) in a desperate attempt to exorcise the ghost by acting out the tale.

It is the acting out that explains this play’s longevity and this production’s enormous appeal, for it is a brilliant study in well-timed jump scares. Each is masterfully created by Mallatratt’s deliciously manipulative narrative, an ominous atmosphere and horror-laced theatricality manufactured by designers Michael Holt (scenic), Kevin Sleep (lighting) and Gareth Owen (sound), and some truly fine acting.

All the action takes place on an old empty stage draped in dark dropcloths that cleverly transforms into every other location, best of all the haunted manor of the recently deceased client. Kipp and The Actor assume the roles of all the characters in the tale as they rehearse its telling. Each character is so brilliantly portrayed by Armacost and Brown that the rehearsal becomes indistinguishable from the actual events that inspired the tale, which helps feed the foreboding.

Those well-schooled in the horror genre will likely be a half-step ahead of the action on stage, for the material taps familiar tropes. But those easily spooked will likely find themselves apologizing to the stranger in the next seat upon detaching from the arm they’ve been clutching for the duration of the two-hour production.

The hardest audience to please with a two-handed, one-set ghost story like “The Woman in Black” is the seasoned theatergoer just coming off of a “Hamilton” high. Pleased they will be, for it is impossible not to marvel at Armacost and Brown’s detailed and always interesting performances and the finely tuned storytelling that surrounds them. CV

Cleveland Play House’s “The Woman in Black”
WHERE: Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through Oct. 7
TICKETS & INFO: $25 – $97, 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 or visit cjn.org/Abelman. 2018 Ohio AP Media Editor’s best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Oct. 4, 2018.

Lead image: Adam Wesley Brown as The Actor, from left, and Bradley Armacost as Arthur Kipps. | Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Beck Center for the Arts’ amusing ‘An Act of God’ a bit of an Adonai-ance

By Bob Abelman

God does indeed move in mysterious ways.

Take “An Act of God,” the play the Beck Center for the Arts selected as its 85th season opener.

In it, God takes human form in order to explain a new set of commandments that better reflect His original intentions, His coming to terms with “wrath-management issues” and His liberal position regarding fornication, child-rearing and the bearing of arms.

The play’s political leanings come as no surprise considering its creator is David Javerbaum, the 13-time Emmy-winning former head writer and executive producer of Comedy Central’s the former “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

Nor is it a surprise that, like the show, “An Act of God” is sarcastic (“I’m not blessing you anymore, so stop asking. Tell your money to trust in someone else”), deceptively smart (Noah’s ark is casually referred to as “a phylogenetically complete nautical double bestiary”) and extremely funny.

But the play is little more than a 90-minute stand-up comedy routine, with an impish, self-critical God delivering a steady stream of direct-address one-liners accented by percussive rims-shots, some sacrilege (less than Trey Parker’s “Book of Mormon” but more than Anat Gov’s “Oh, God”) and a whiff of sober intent.

Good thing God is being played by a local stand-up comedian.

Mike Polk Jr.’s affable personality and well-honed comic timing allow him and director William Rodebush to find an up-tempo rhythm and much-needed fluidity in a script without a dramatic arc and which borrows heavily from annoying TV game show tropes for its storytelling.

When the novelty of God’s revised rules wears off, the “Family Feud” theme wears thin and the aggravating realization that “An Act of God” is not a play, per se, sets in, it really comes down to Polk’s persona and delivery to keep the laughter coming, which it does.

And his improvisational skills make quick work of the random mishaps that can occur during live performance on an opening night, foreshadowed in his playbill bio, which admits to “missing his teleprompter badly.”

Providing God with straight-faced set-ups for His explanations and occasional exasperations – which designers Benjamin Gantose (lighting) and Cartlon Guc’s (sound) augment with terrific fire-and-brimstone special effects – is the skeptical archangel Michael and the supportive archangel Gabriel, played with great charm by Allan Byrne and Brian Pedaci. Both were last seen at the Beck Center in a production of “Waiting for Godot,” which is an irony that playwright Javerbaum would have appreciated.

“An Act of God” takes place on the Beck Center’s main stage since the intimate Studio Theater would most certainly have added to the comedy-club vibe the play cannot avoid.

Most of God’s diatribes take place on a white couch atop a flight of white stairs in front of a star-filled backdrop, devised by Aaron Benson. God’s white robe, selected by costumer Inda Blatch-Geib, looks as if were taken off the choir rack at Our Lady of Intelligent Design, which nicely taps the aforementioned sarcasm and smarts that drive this play.

God most certainly moves in mysterious ways. “An Act of God” is based on the ultimate celebrity autobiography book “The Last Testament: A Memoir,” channeled by Javerbaum. It went on to a Broadway run in 2015, which was clearly an example of divine intervention. CV

“An Act of God”
WHERE: Beck Center for the Arts, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood
WHEN: Through Oct. 7
TICKETS & INFO: $12-$33, call 216-521-2540 or go to beckcenter.org


Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Oct. 4, 2018.

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3 or visit cjn.org/Abelman. 2018 Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Lead image: Allan Byrne as Michael (from left), Mike Polk Jr. as God and Brian Pedaci as Gabriel. | Photo / Andy Dudik

Lakeland Civic Theatre offers respectable but unremarkable ‘A Little Night Music’

By Bob Abelman

“Isn’t it bliss? Don’t you approve?” asks Desirée in the opening refrain of the money-song “Send in the Clowns” in Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1973 Tony Award-winning musical “A Little Night Music.”

“Well, for the most part” is the honest answer after watching a respectable but not remarkable production of this musical at Lakeland Civic Theatre under Martin Friedman’s direction.

The show, set during the turn of the 19th century, is a melancholy ode to discovering love, reviving love and outliving love.

“Send in the Clowns” appears well into the second act, after Desirée Armfeldt (Trinidad Snider) – the worldly Scandinavian seductress who is now a flirtatious middle-aged actress – comes to the painful realization that the man she is with, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Ian Atwood), means nothing to her. And the dream of reuniting with her now-married former lover, Fredrik Egerman (Rob Albrecht), is just a delusion.

Actually, everyone in this musical – The Count and his beleaguered wife Charlotte (Neely Gevaart), Fredrik and his very young wife Anne (Sarah Clare), and their studious son Henrik (Eric Fancher) and the vivacious maid Petra (Meg Martinez) – is with the wrong partner. From the first song to the show’s “Finale,” with plenty of outstanding tunes in between, this harsh reality plays itself out to the accompaniment of a superb 12-piece orchestra under Jordan Cooper’s direction.

The problem with this production is it does not look nearly as lush or as interesting as it sounds.
Set designer Aaron Benson has hung a large scrim as a backdrop on which nothing is projected and constructed a stage on the stage on which little takes place, leaving an empty performance space where chairs, benches and lattice set pieces are obtrusively loaded in and out by the actors themselves. There is little in the way of Adam Ditzel’s lighting design to add to the production’s storytelling.

Kelsey Tomlinson’s colorful and rather avant-garde period costuming offers us something to look at while Jennifer Justice’s choreography, which could add some interesting imagery and action to the performance, is underutilized. And the five strolling minstrels – Robin Woods Davis, Robert Pierce, Michaela Bennett, Patrick Carroll and Jessica Pringle – who serve as the play’s narrative voice enter and exit as obtrusively as the furnishings and offer little in the way of charm or presence to accentuate the show’s visual scheme.

Fortunately, the featured performers are terrific.

As the “other woman” in their own husbands’ life, both Clare as Anne and Gevaart as Charlotte find the humanity and all of the humor in this romantic comedy and their duet – the tragic and brilliantly conceived “Every Day a Little Death” – is breathtaking.

Portrayals of the bombastic Count, the intense young Henrik and the cad Fredrik can all too easily focus on those singular characteristics. But Atwood, Fancher and Albrecht, respectively, are remarkably accessible, likable and in great voice. Albrecht, in particular, solidifies his appeal when he sings “Now” – a ditty about how best to seduce his young bride – and “You Must Meet My Wife,” which he sings to Desirée.

As Desirée, Snider is a delight. Her perfectly natural, unaffected performance gives richness and dimension to the character. And while her overly emotional rendition of “Send in the Clowns” obscures some of Sondheim’s best work, it is a powerful and moving performance nonetheless. Unexpected gems also surface in this production.

Elyse Pakiela as young Fredrika, Desirée’s child, is immensely charming, always energetic and remarkably earnest when delivering lines. And when Mim Goloboff as Madame Armfeldt, Desirée’s mother, reflects with a sense of resigned despair that she let love pass her by, her character becomes heroic rather than tragic.

As Petra, the maid who turns a life of limited choices into quite the opposite, Martinez is enchanting. Her handling of Sondheim’s very challenging “The Miller’s Son” is spot-on.
Best of all is Frank Ivancic as the relatively silent and stealth servant Frid, whose sly smile while observing all the folly of those around him and after coupling with Petra in the bushes adds just the right comedic accent to those moments.

Friedman’s creative vision for his productions often turns a minimum amount of construction into highly stylized and attractive scenic design that complements the playwright’s intent and the talent on stage. Not this time. To borrow the final line from “Send in the Clowns,” “Well, maybe next year.” CV

“A Little Night Music” at Lakeland Civic Theatre
WHERE: 7700 Clocktower Drive, Kirkland
WHEN: Through Sept. 30
TICKETS & INFO: $7 to $15, call 440-525-7526 or visit lakelandcc.edu/arts


Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3 or visit cjn.org/Abelman. 2018 Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Sept. 20, 2018.

Lead image: Rob Albrecht as Fredrik Egerman and Trinidad Snider as Desirée Armfeldt. | Photo / Kathy Sandham

Dobama Theatre’s ‘Sunset Baby’ rises to the occasion

By Bob Abelman

In a season that champions the work of six award-winning women, Dobama Theatre could not have chosen a more popular, powerful or problematic playwright than Dominique Morisseau for its opening production.

In terms of popularity, the young Morisseau ranks No. 5 on American Theatre’s list of the 20 most-produced playwrights of 2017-18, just above Arthur Miller.

Her powerful plays take marginalized people – particularly African-Americans who are marginalized within their own inner-city community – and give them a story and a voice.

This voice reflects the rhythms and cadence of urban dialect imbued with an intelligence and eloquence that is often a stumbling block in productions that see these characters as archetypes rather than real and complex individuals.

This is not the case with Dobama Theatre’s current production of Morisseau’s “Sunset Baby,” a play that opened off-Broadway in 2013 and is receiving its Ohio premiere. Under Justin Emeka’s direction, it is superb on every level and holds its audience’s emotions hostage from start to finish.
This play, at its core, is about unrequited love.

It revolves around Nina (Mary-Francis Miller), the daughter of an estranged and imprisoned father and a drug-addicted and now-dead mother, both former revolutionaries in the Black Liberation Movement.
Her father, Kenyatta Shakur (Greg White), decided long ago that love is a liability that makes targets of family and friends, and that it is impossible to build a world and a home at the same time. He arrives at Nina’s doorstep, still deeply guarded and unable to connect, looking for a packet of love letters that are now in Nina’s possession, written to him by his late wife, Ashanti X, when he was in prison. Those letters offer him a bittersweet glimpse of something he had willingly sacrificed but now laments.

Nina is the scarred, self-destructive and disillusioned victim of this sacrifice. She has her mother’s eyes and Type-A personality, is a drug dealer and a scam artist, and her pain is the price paid by the children of revolutionaries. Nina is holding onto those letters for dear life since they are the only thing her mother ever gave her.

She has signed on with Damon (Ananias J. Dixon), who is the victim of a rebellious deadbeat Dad without a cause and, so, has become one himself. He’d like to get his hands on those letters and deliver them to the highest bidder so he can escape the poverty, this place and his aching soul.

All this occurs in Nina’s distressed apartment, designed by Laura Carlson Tarantowski, where the characters circle one another and reveal their respective truths.

When alone, Kenyatta’s lament takes the form of poignant moments of private self-disclosure and Nina’s defensiveness fleetingly fades as she attempts a graceful plié or arabesque that no one will see. These meditations are accompanied by the music of Nina Simone, our heroine’s namesake, while still and animated images of former black revolutionaries are projected onto the apartment walls, courtesy of designers Jeremy T. Dobbins and T. Paul Lowry, respectively.

Damon, insecure and anguished, is never alone and most in need of accompaniment.
The acting in this production is always engrossing and displays a real mastery of Morisseau’s intense poetry and the aforementioned intelligence and eloquence that makes it distinctive and so very interesting. It is impossible not to care about these people, despite their flaws, foibles and felonies, because of these performances.

Upcoming Dobama productions feature plays by Annie Baker, Karen Zacarias, Alice Birch, Jennifer Haley and Melissa James Gibson. The theater is off to a grand start with this one. CV

“Sunset Baby” at Dobama Theatre
WHERE: 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights
WHEN: Through Sept. 30
TICKETS & INFO: $33–$35, 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 or visit cjn.org/Abelman. 2018 Ohio AP Media Editor’s best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Sept. 14, 2018.

Lead image: Mary-Francis Miller as Nina and Ananias J. Dixon as Damon. | Photo / Steve Wagner Photography

convergence-continuum’s ‘The Casual Tree Ward’ a tedious treatise on truth and faith

By Bob Abelman

The blurb promoting the world premiere production of Robert Hawkes’ one-act “The Casual Tree Ward” reads: “The Goddess Freyja (or is she?) is tending to Yggdrasil, the World Ash Tree (or is it?), trying to protect it from increasing drought. An itinerant water-bearer tries to persuade Freyja to go with him to where water is plentiful. She refuses. Does the world really depend on this single tree, or is this a self-generating myth? All is made clear (or is it?).”

The key question not asked is “huh?”

Hawkes has written a folkloric short story that uses the threat of death of the tree of life as the modus operandi for characters from Norse mythology – Freyja, the goddess of love (Andrea Belser); Odin, the god of wisdom (David L. Munnell); and a pragmatic human named Nero (James Alexander Rankin) – to argue over the differences between truth and faith, facts and hope, proof and belief.

Argument and explanation occasionally devolves into bickering and all of it is an exercise in verbosity that can easily alienate an audience whose insight into Middle Age Icelandic storytelling may not be up to snuff, whose interest in theater-as-debate may be limited and whose patience for 80 minutes of literary prose and wordplay void of poetry is short.

Fortunately, this convergence-continuum production does not break into the North Germanic language spoken by the Scandinavian people during the European Middle Ages, which must have been tempting.

To their credit, all three performers find and feast on the sharp wit Hawkes weaves into the script. And while Belser has some difficulty fighting through the hard veneer of a Nordic goddess, Rankin and Munnell both unearth something very accessible and modern in their portrayals.

While a modern take on these classic characters makes them interesting, it does fly in the face of Scott Zolkowski’s costume design set in a time without buttons or zippers. Director Susan Soltis does a nice job of augmenting the script with Beau Reinker’s sound design and Cory Molner’s lighting design to make the work theatrical. But the huge tree that scenic designer Jim Smith has placed center stage in Liminis Theatre’s narrow performance space keeps her from finding anything for her actors to do except go toe to toe with each other.

Hawkes emulates the skalds of yore by telling a tale about the world on the brink and the need to forge a better relationship with nature. Though the tale has never been more relevant, the telling of it is too much of a test of acumen and endurance to be entertaining or particularly informative.

“The Casual Tree Ward” by convergence-continuum
WHERE: Liminis Theatre, 2438 Scranton Road, Cleveland
WHEN: Through Sept. 15
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 or visit cjn.org/Abelman. 2018 Ohio AP Media Editor’s best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Sept. 6, 2018.

Lead image: Andrea Besser as Freyja, David Munnell as Odin and James Rankin as Nero | Photo / Tom Kondilas

Cleveland Musical Theatre’s revisited ‘Jane Eyre’ a dark, delicate and disarming musical

By Bob Abelman

Any stage version of a weighty, timeworn Victorian tome is likely to come up short in terms of content, context and authorial voice. Such complex storytelling is not easy to capture in the short form typical of live theater.

Such is certainly the case with modern plays based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1909 novel “The Secret Garden,” Victor Hugo’s 1862 “Les Misérables” and Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 “Jane Eyre.”
To compensate, each of these works has been imbued with musical numbers to augment the storytelling, and in their Broadway productions, the stages have been saturated with extraordinary and ominous theatricality to help bring the works to life.

A new streamlined rendition of composer-lyricist Paul Gordon and librettist John Caird’s 2000 Tony-nominated “Jane Eyre” – receiving its world premiere by Cleveland Musical Theatre, a recently-formed professional production company – is even further abridged.

An original song list of 50 numbers has been reduced to 36, which is delivered by a 10-member cast rather than the original 30. A running time just shy of three hours has been cut to slightly more than two. And all of this takes place within a single set – the stark interior of a large room in a gothic mansion, designed by Gabriel Firestone.

The musical traces the major moments in the novel – the courageous orphan Jane Eyre’s tragic upbringing at the hands of her dismissive aunt and sadistic cousin, the humiliation and friendship she encounters at the Lowood School, and of course, her passionate love affair with the damaged, brooding Edward Rochester.

But we never do witness the many experiences that result in what she calls her “expanded mind” or the evolution that takes place from her serving as Rochester’s employee to becoming his “second self.”

Still, this magnificent production proves that less is more, for what happens on that stage in this room is lush, imaginative and thoroughly engaging.

From the start, this production retains and accentuates the first-person intimacy of the novel by having every member of the ensemble – Alison England, Cody Gerszewski, Lauryn Hobbs, Greg Violand, Laura Perotta, Fabio Polanco, Emma McClelland and Genny Lis Padilla – serve as Eyre’s narrative voice in addition to playing multiple roles. This keeps her from having to step out of the story; instead, she is an invested observer of it when not an active participant, which is intriguing.

The ensemble’s voices blend beautifully to form a rich tapestry of sound that gets woven into the storytelling. And they are also occasionally showcased, such as in England’s wonderfully comedic “Slip of a Girl” as housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax, Hobb’s beautiful “Forgiveness” as Eyre’s childhood friend, Helen Burns, and McClelland’s “Lonely House” as the young Jane Eyre.

The string-centric music, with new arrangements and orchestration by Steven Tyler and Brad Haak, becomes a delicate, buoyant thing when performed by a mere seven talented musicians under Nancy Maier’s direction.

Everyone on stage executes Martín Céspedes’ graceful choreography with astounding fluidity as they usher in and remove furnishings that define a new location, transition from one character to another, or create dramatic tableaus that capture – along with T. Paul Lowry’s haunting projections, Benjamin Gantose’s gothic lighting design, Carlton Guc’s dramatic sound design, and Sydney Gallas’ period-perfect costuming – the tenor of Eyre’s memories.

Even with all the impressive stagecraft on display in this production, it is Céspedes’ inventive stage movement and Miles J. Sternfeld’s direction of it that truly defines this revisited “Jane Eyre.”
And even with an exceptional ensemble, it is the lead players who carry this show. Broadway alums Andrea Goss (“Indecent,” “Once”) as Eyre and Matt Bogart (“Jersey Boys,” “Aida”) as Rochester are magnificent.

Goss’ performance captures Eyre’s humble demeanor, ardent spirit and the innate intelligence that Brontë bestowed upon this iconic character. And her pure and powerful voice raises the level of professionalism of this production and the audience’s enjoyment of it.

Much of Rochester’s dialogue fluctuates between melodramatic and melancholic, yet Bogart manages to use this to inform the portrayal of a more complicated, conflicted and intriguing man. His beautifully performed, impassioned duets with Goss, particularly “Secret Soul,” are absolutely stunning.

Eight stage adaptations of the much-beloved “Jane Eyre” appeared in England and America between 1848 and 1882. There have been many others since, but it is hard to imagine any better than the one currently being staged by Cleveland Musical Theatre. This is a gorgeous production with a very limited run. CV

World premiere of “Jane Eyre” by Cleveland Musical Theatre
WHERE: Tri-C East’s Rose and Simon Mandel Theatre, 4250 Richmond Road, Highland Hills
WHEN: Through Sept. 9
TICKETS: $15 to $45, call 216-584-6808 or go to clevelandmusicaltheatre.org


Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3 or visit cjn.org/Abelman. 2018 Ohio AP Media Editor’s best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Sept. 6, 2018.

Lead image: Matt Bogart as Edward Rochester and Andrea Goss as Jane Eyre | Photo / Black Valve Productions

Porthouse’s ‘Oklahoma!’ earns the exclamation point

By Bob Abelman

Porthouse Theatre patrons still in the throes of depression after seeing the marvelous but mournful “Next To Normal” will most certainly get the giddy-up back in their gait with the joyous production of “Oklahoma!” currently on stage.

The musical – the first of nine shows written by composer Richard Rodgers and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II – tells the simple tale of cowhands and farmers finding love and community in the Oklahoma territory at the turn of the 20th century and just a few years away from statehood.

At the center of the story is Laurey (Rebecca Rand), a spunky young woman who runs her aunt’s farm and is courted by the brash cowboy Curly (Matthew Gittins) and the brooding and dangerous farmhand Jud (Sam Johnson). How this plays out is pretty much what this musical is about.

Running parallel is the comedic courtship between the good-natured and air-headed champion steer roper Will Parker (Christopher Tuck), the perpetually flirtatious Ado Annie (Samantha Russell) and the smooth-talking traveling salesman Ali Hakim (Joey Fontana).

In 1943, when “Oklahoma!” hit Broadway, the show and its hummable, delightfully romantic score caught the imagination and patriotic fervor of wartime America. Today, the corn in the script and in the score is as high as an elephant’s eye.

But the show’s stirring optimism still resonates. And this production is so vividly staged and vibrantly sung under Terri Kent’s stalwart direction and with its airy design by Brittney Harrell (costume), Cynthia R. Stillings (lighting) and Nolan O’Dell (scenic, revived from the 2008 Porthouse production), that it is very easy to forgive the work’s terribly outdated socio-political trespasses.

Interestingly, it is not the lead players who are responsible for our forgiveness or who provide this production’s bursts of escapism. While many (Johnson, Tuck and Fontana) are absolutely brilliant in all that they do, others (Rand, Gittins and Russell) have voices strained by the demands of their roles and/or seem to be playing to the balcony of an intimate amphitheater without one, thereby missing what is authentic in and so interesting about their characters.

No, it is the other players who provide the punctuation in the show’s title. It’s Lenne Snively as Aunt Eller, who adds emphasis to every playful or poignant event with a purposefully pregnant pause or an understated but evident gesture. And she takes full advantage of every generous gift Hammerstein throws her character’s way.

It’s the male (Mathew Blasio, Ryan Borgo, Antonio Emerson Brown, Nick Johnson, Jake Rosko, Eoin Rude) and female (Katelyn Cassidy, Merrie Drees, Felicity Jemo, Falyn Mapel, Abby Morris, Liz Woodard) ensemble members, whose contagious energy, gorgeous voices and spot-on execution of John R. Crawford-Spinelli’s choreography help articulate the meaning in the moment.

It’s Crawford-Spinelli’s ballet-imbued country western choreography, which adds the perfect accent to every production number, particularly “Kansas City” and “The Farmer and the Cowman.”
It’s standout ensemble members Fontana, Blasio and Morris, whose dramatic performance of the stunningly conceived Dream Ballet puts an exclamation point to the end of the first act that carries over to the second.

It’s the 12-piece orchestra under Jennifer Korecki’s musical direction, which skillfully underscores every emotion offered by Rodgers and Hammerstein. This is a rousing rendition of an American classic that aims to please and hits its target. CV

“Oklahoma!”
WHERE: Porthouse Theatre, 3143 O’Neil Road, Cuyahoga Falls
WHEN: Through Aug. 12
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 or visit cjn.org/Abelman. 2018 Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Aug. 9, 2018.

Lead image: Christopher Tuck as Will Parker and Samantha Russell as Ado Annie. | Photo/ Bob Christy

Shtick adds vivacity, ambiguity to Mercury Theatre’s re-envisioned ‘Joseph’

By Bob Abelman

“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” was written in the late-1960s by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, who were themselves in their early ’20s.

Inexperienced at creating original storylines, they borrowed from the Old Testament and staged the tale of Jacob and his 12 sons.

Still working on finding a distinctive musical voice to call their own, ”Joseph” is chock-full of well-established styles, including pop (“Go, Go, Go Joseph”), ragtime (“Potiphar”), country western (“One More Angel in Heaven”) and reggae (“Benjamin’s Calypso”).

Not yet confident at creating dialogue, they didn’t write any. The show is sung from start to finish.
Their imprudence as young artists gave “Joseph” an infectious playfulness that helped make it one of the most enduring shows in the American musical theater catalog.

Director Pierre-Jacques Brault has upped the show’s playfulness quotient in Mercury Theatre Company’s current production by setting it in an MGM soundstage during the Classical era of Hollywood cinema. Here, during the filming of his epic story, Joseph’s amazing coat brings Technicolor to a black and white world populated with iconic actors, including Charlie Chaplin, Mae West and the Marx Brothers.

The soundstage concept is a bit muddled and occasionally at odds with the show’s intentions, but it adds layers of entertaining shtick to the storytelling and provides Brault and his designers – Nichols Thornburg (scenic), Michael Jarett (lighting) and Katelyn Jackson (costume) – with plenty of opportunities to engage in creative staging on a multi-tier performance space.

One of the best examples of this is an enchanting, pantomimed reinvention of “Those Canaan Days” featuring Brian Marshall as Charlie Chaplin. Not as successful are musical numbers where character impersonations are less pertinent and on point.

Brault’s vision nicely streamlines the production of this musical by casting only 12 actors (Kelvette Beacham, Jonathan Bova, Sophia Dennis, Emily Grodzik, Marshall, Courtney Anne Nelson, Devin Pfeiffer, Paige Schiller, Melissa Siegel, Michael Swain-Smith, Sunayna Smith and Bill Wetherbee) to play the brothers and all other characters.

He takes full advantage of this talented ensemble’s vocal strength, ear for harmony and diverse personalities by divvying up solos and having everyone partake in dance breaks jam-packed with his creative choreography. They also share the show’s narration, which is a task traditionally assigned to a single featured performer.

The typically massive children’s chorus is also limited to a highly affable and capable few (Claire Daugherty, Ryan Humphrey, Madelyn Low, Emma McClelland, Sarah Ramalah, Cayla See and Juliana Tate), masquerading as the Little Rascals. Sadly, having ensemble members serve as jacks of all trades throughout this 90-minute production results in some being the master of few during an energetic, entertaining but error-prone opening night performance. Despite this shortcoming, it is Webber and Rice’s songs and their witty lyrics that matter most in “Joseph” and their performance – supported by a small but capable on-stage orchestra under Eddie Carney’s direction – is wonderful.

Many are sung by the delightful Brandon Schumacker in the title role, a triple-threat performer whose six-pack abs get so much stage time that they should get their own credit in the program. Schumacker sells everything he does with immense charm and confidence, with his rendition of “Close Every Door” being particularly show-stopping.

Kudos to Mercury for breathing new life into this often performed and usually overproduced musical, and for taking creative risks that, for the most part, pay off. CV

“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” by Mercury Theatre Company
WHERE: Notre Dame College’s Regina Hall, 1857 S. Green Road, South Euclid
WHEN: Through Aug. 12
TICKETS & INFO: $16-$20, call 216-771-5862 or visit mercurytheatrecompany.org



Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3 or visit cjn.org/Abelman. 2018 Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Aug. 3, 2018.

Lead image: The cast of “Joseph” | Photo / Amanda Kranz Photography

Elijah Malcomb as John Laurens (from left), Joseph Morales as Alexander Hamilton, Kyle Scatliffe as Marquis De Lafayette, Fergie L. Philippe as Hercules Mulligan, and the "Hamilton" company. Photo / Joan Marcus

‘Hamilton’ on tour: Yes it is, and yes it does

By Bob Abelman

Yes, it is.

Worth the wait. Worth the cost. The most profound theatrical experience you are likely to have. A simultaneous celebration of a country founded on the sweat equity of young, risk-taking immigrants and criticism of a country that has largely forsaken this history. Inspiring.

Yes, it does.

Live up to the hype. Reinvent and revitalize the musical theater art form. Serve up the perfect storm of historical significance, ingenious writing, gorgeous orchestration, stunningly innovative choreography, visionary design that saturates the stage, and an ensemble where everyone from star to swing is exceptional.

Yes, it did.

Earn for writer/lyricist/composer Lin-Manuel Miranda a Pulitzer Prize, 11 Tony Awards (out of 16 nominations), seven Drama Desk Awards (out of 14 nominations), a record-breaking seven Olivier awards (out of 13 nominations), and a Grammy.

As Hamilton raps early in the musical: “This is not a moment; it’s the movement.”

So much has been written about “Hamilton” since its introduction as a concept album at a 2009 White House event, an intimate evening of poetry, music and the spoken word. It was there that Miranda performed what would be the show’s title song, which showed that exposition drawn from Ron Chernow’s weighty Alexander Hamilton biography can be incredibly entertaining when in rhyme and set to a hip-hop beat.

Even more has been written since the show’s sold-out 2015 off-Broadway premiere and its record-breaking box office sales on Broadway.

A review of this show on tour risks traversing nothing but familiar terrain. The only unknown at this point is whether the show will win over its Cleveland audience.

Yes, it will. cv

On stage

Touring “Hamilton” at Playhouse Square

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

WHEN: Through Aug. 26

TICKETS & INFO: $99-$475, 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 July 11, 2018.

Lead image: Elijah Malcomb as John Laurens (from left), Joseph Morales as Alexander Hamilton, Kyle Scatliffe as Marquis De Lafayette, Fergie L. Philippe as Hercules Mulligan, and the “Hamilton” company. Photo / Joan Marcus

Natalie Blalock as Mama Rose. Photo / Andy Dudik

Beck’s imbalanced ‘Gypsy’ entertains but does not enthrall

By Bob Abelman

Winner of multiple Tony Awards, Grammys and Drama Desk Awards for both the original 1959 Broadway production and its 1974, 1989, 2003 and 2008 revivals, Arthur Laurents’ “Gypsy,” with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, is considered one of the standard bearers of the old-timey American musical.

The story, based loosely on the memoirs of famous striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee and set during the 1920s and 1930s, follows an overbearing mother and her two performer daughters from one run-down theater to another just as vaudeville was regressing into burlesque.

From this musical came such memorable tunes as “Let Me Entertain You” and the infamous Mama Rose – the poster child for billboard-sized show business mothers – which has served as a prominent showcase for leading ladies the likes of Ethel Merman in the original production and Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone in subsequent revivals.

Natalie Blalock stars as Mama Rose in the Beck Center for the Arts’ entertaining but less-than-enthralling production.

She certainly has the essential belt and brass down pat, best displayed in the truly show-stopping “Some People,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Rose’s Turn.” And she lives up to her character’s introduction as a “woman always in the middle of a sentence.”

But missing from Blalock’s portrayal is a necessary dimensionality – an undercurrent of vulnerability, a flash of warmth or a touch of charm – to complement Rose’s single-minded steamrolling tendencies and make palatable to modern sensibilities the pattern of child abuse that plays out throughout this musical. It would also serve to offset the script’s dumbfounding stoicism about said abuse, which worked well for Merman in the 1950s but has been a bit cringe-worthy since Peters and LuPone.

A one-dimensional Rose has ramifications, turning her long-suffering business partner/admirer Herbie – played by an endearing and hard-working Allen O’Reilly – into little more than a doormat and their romantic “You’ll Never Get Away From Me” into just a catchy show tune.

It also keeps June, Rose’s youngest daughter, from being more fully fleshed. While Calista Zajac and Gigi Hausman, as younger and older versions of June, show off their significant musical theater chops during “Let Me Entertain You” and “If Momma Was Married,” respectively, neither demonstrates the showbiz steel their character possesses and which eclipses – for a while, anyway – Rose’s own ambition.

Only Grace Thompson and Emmy Brett as younger and older versions of Louise – who will later become Gypsy Rose Lee – manage to shed the simple skin of their character to reveal something much richer.

Brett seems to rise above the show’s subtitle “A Musical Fable” by projecting a magnetism and sense of presence that adds personality to what could easily be an uncomplicated and less interesting portrait. She is less convincing once Louise becomes the seasoned and worldly stripper Gypsy, where Brett – only an incoming senior at Baldwin Wallace University – seems to be playing dress up even when dressing down on the burlesque stage.

Scattered among this production’s instances of unevenness are some standout moments that squarely hit their marks. Among them is a marvelous piece of song and dance turned in by Enrique Miguel as chorus boy Tulsa during “All I Need Is The Girl,” a hilarious turn by Leslie Andrews as the jaded secretary to a vaudeville producer, and the comedic performances of Andrews, Leah Smith and Tasha Brandt as strippers who help Louise figure out the art and craft of burlesque in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.”

The show’s sizable and soaring orchestra, under Larry Goodpaster’s musical direction and keyboard, helps remind audiences why Styne’s benchmark score has made five trips to Broadway and remains hummable.

Director Scott Spence firmly grounds this production in the musical fable motif by surrounding the stage with three gilded, receding, light-bulb embellished proscenium arches, under which Aaron Benson’s set pieces flow in and out with remarkable stealth. This approach guides Inda Blatch-Geib’s period-appropriate costuming and Martín Céspedes’ absolutely delightful and light-handed choreography.

All of this helps create Mama Rose’s insulated show-biz world, though it does not quite excuse Spence’s double casting of actors (Patrick Carroll, John Stuehr, Robert Pierce, Jack Warren, Nathan Hoty and Steven Huynh) in minor roles, which proves to be distracting.

As most old musicals do, this one creaks upon occasion. And while some creative choices are questionable in this production, the talent on stage is undeniable and brings all that is entertaining in “Gypsy” to the forefront. cv

On stage

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

WHEN: Through Aug. 12

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 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on July 8, 2018.

Lead image: Natalie Blalock as Mama Rose. Photo / Andy Dudik

Andrew Gorell as Horst (left) and Geoff Knox as Max. Photo / Andy Dudik

Beck Center’s poignant ‘Bent’ bends but never breaks

By Bob Abelman

Few of us can imagine the indignation of being singled out, sequestered and assigned a yellow Star of David to wear. Fewer still can envision someone’s desperate desire to wear one.

But this aspiration is at the very heart of Martin Sherman’s Holocaust drama “Bent,” which calls attention to the lowest class status of homosexuals in the Nazi concentration camps – designated by a pink triangle – and the heightened severity of persecution, if such a thing is possible, that goes along with it.

The horrifying acts of denial, deception and betrayal that the gentile and flamboyantly gay Max performs to obtain a Jewish star is the focus of this immensely powerful play.

In its staging at the Beck Center for the Arts, “Bent” proves to be a still-relevant story about the oppression of queer individuals that needs to be told, though it does so with some glitches in the storytelling.

For this production, director Matthew Wright has been saddled with Beck’s smaller stage, the Studio Theater, whose intimacy is a double-edged sword for shows like this.

Audience members are so close to the performance space that we can easily reach out and touch the performers while the world of the play forbids their characters from ever touching one another. This dramatic contrast perfectly highlights the fundamental cruelty reflected in this play and adds resonance to the characters’ desperate efforts to connect with each other by other means.

But the space’s intimacy also contributes to underplayed performances by Antonio DeJesus as Max’s sweet but spineless lover Rudy, Brian Altman as the ruthless drag queen Greta, and Luke Ehlert as a prison guard, as if to overcompensate for the close proximity. More calibrated and interesting portrayals are turned in by others, including David Bugher as Max’s discreetly gay Uncle Freddie and Nate Homolka as Wolf, one of Max’s one-nighters at the start of the play.

The small space actually accommodates the many and potentially problematic set changes required in the early part of this play, when Max and Rudy are on the run from SS troupers. It allows scenic designer Aaron Benson to employ seven sliding panels that depict projected images created by Steve Shack to establish a sense of location along with a few furnishings, which become successively diminished as the play moves from an apartment in Berlin to a desolate courtyard in a concentration camp.

But there is also a minimal use of sound and lighting design by Angie Hayes and Benjamin Gantose, respectively, which surely would have enhanced the muscularity of the text and the theatricality of its presentation.

Case in point is the lengthy scene where prisoners are assigned to move rocks from one side of the courtyard to the next. The sheer mindlessness and monotony of this activity is actually monotonous to watch when some form of sensorial augmentation could have made it dramatic as well.

The intimacy of the space also detaches the audience from the world of the play during the set and costume changes by clearly exposing the on-stage performers who do them. It is hard enough to suspend disbelief when these changes are performed by black-clad stagehands; it is impossible to do so when performed by Nazi officers and the recently dead.

And yet, none of these shortcomings undermine the superb performances turned in by Geoff Knox as Max and Andrew Gorell as Horst, Max’s fellow prisoner and only friend who was assigned a pink triangle for having signed a petition for gay rights in Germany.

The emotional trajectories of these characters are perfectly paced, honest and interesting. The actors’ delicate management of the play’s gallows humor, of which there is plenty, is authentic and engaging. And the play’s most psychologically naked moments – Max’s recounting of what was required of him on the transport train to earn his star and Horst’s fear of losing his sanity and his life – are beautifully performed by these actors. Their final moment together is a master class in anguished restraint.

“Bent” was a landmark of gay theater when it premiered in London in 1979 and it holds up still. And this production’s understated quality, while occasionally troublesome, most certainly sets its focus squarely on the inward drama of its key characters without ever losing touch with the brutality of their situation.  It offers a lesson about humanity that still needs to be taught. cv

On stage

“Bent”

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

WHEN: Through July 1

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 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on June 3, 2018.

Lead image: Andrew Gorell as Horst (left) and Geoff Knox as Max. Photo / Andy Dudik

The ensemble performing “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.” Photo / Clint Datchuk

Porthouse’s ‘Anything Goes’ is déjà vu all over again

By Bob Abelman

Any production of “Anything Goes” is bound to inspire a sense of déjà vu among audiences.

After all, the show has been thrice revived on Broadway since its 1934 premiere, has been on a national tour that came through Playhouse Square in 2012, and – as a thoroughly wonderful piece of escapist entertainment – is the go-to musical for local amateur and professional theaters whenever desperate times call for diversionary measures.

“Anything Goes” offers silly scenarios easily resolved, witty conversation shared by enchanting and simply drawn characters, a stage full of willful nonsense performed by a large ensemble, and absolutely delightful music.

The show’s music and lyrics by Cole Porter are memorable in their own right, but are made even more so considering that many – like “It’s De-lovely” and “Easy to Love” – have been used in other popular musicals that pre-date or follow “Anything Goes,” and are so good that they have been covered by numerous recording artists the likes of Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra and Lady Gaga.

The current production of the show at Porthouse Theatre is particularly familiar because it was also performed in 2008. Terri Kent is once again directing, MaryAnn Black is once again providing the choreography, Rob Wolin’s gorgeous multi-tier set with an oft-used revolving door has come out of cold storage, and a few of the original costumes have worked their way into Sarah Russell’s wardrobe closet.

If your memory needs stirring, this romantic comedy takes place on the deck of a cruise ship sailing from New York to England. Billy Crocker is a stowaway, hoping to break up an engagement and win the heart of Hope Harcourt, who is sailing with her foppish English fiancé, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh. Billy is aided and abetted by a second-rate gangster named Moonface Martin who is posing as a minister, his sailor-chasing, -catching and -releasing moll Erma, and his old friend and nightclub singer Reno Sweeney.

If several players seem familiar it is because Sandra Emerick and Eric van Baars are repeating their featured roles from 10 years ago, and the years have been very kind.

Emerick’s Reno is just as brash and brassy as Sutton Foster’s portrayal, which won a Tony for Best Actress in the 2011 Broadway revival, and Emerick’s voice is as strong as when she last performed Reno on the Porthouse stage. Everything she does is impeccably timed, always interesting and in keeping with the embroidered presentation that goes with playing a character grounded in the world of 1930s musicals.

van Baars as Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, who is more in love with American slang than his American fiancé, is once again hilarious. “The Gypsy in Me” number he performs with Emerick – where his now-fuller physique wonderfully belies the immense song-and-dance skills he long ago mastered and which resurface here – is such a delight that it qualifies as the best number of the evening.

Although the production numbers are performed with punch and precision by a very talented ensemble composed largely of Kent State University musical theater majors, much of the tap choreography seems repetitive and only complex enough to appease an audience but never wowing it.

Still, it is so easy to get lost in the young performers’ passion and pleasure, as well as the superb musical accompaniment that supports it under Jennifer Korecki’s direction, that you find yourself grinning like an idiot throughout most of their performances.

The other featured performers are also delightful, including the charming and vocally gifted Matthew Gittins and Liz Woodard as Billy Crocker and Hope Harcourt, respectively. The adorable Kelli-Ann Paterwic, who plays Erma and is given a chance to shine in “Buddie, Beware,” should have a musical all to herself.

Rohn Thomas as a nearsighted and lusty Wall Street tycoon (and Crocker’s boss) and Christopher Seiler as Moonface, Public Enemy #13, are a pleasure to watch as well.

Yes, Porthouse’s “Anything Goes” is déjà vu all over again. But it is a musical theater experience worth repeating. cv

On stage

“Anything Goes”

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

WHEN: Through June 30

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 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on June 17, 2018.

Lead image: The ensemble performing “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.” Photo / Clint Datchuk

Mason Henning as Robbie and Kennedy Ellis as Velcro. Photo / Daren Stahl Photography

Mercury offers feel-good boy-meets-boy fairytale, ‘Soho Cinders’

By Bob Abelman

Composer George Stiles and lyricist Anthony Drewe have made a career out of adding music to famous fairytales like “The Ugly Duckling,” “The Three Little Pigs” and “Mary Poppins,” and bringing them to the stage.

In Mercury Theatre’s “Soho Cinders,” a show that received its world premiere in London’s off-West End in 2012 and has rarely been seen elsewhere since, the Cinderella story has been significantly re-envisioned. Its infrequent stagings are no doubt due to the nature of its reincarnation as a decidedly naughty modern musical rather than the quality of the work itself, which is arguably some of Stiles and Drewe’s best.

Nearly everything takes place on Old Compton Street — the seedy center of London’s gay scene – which has been significantly sanitized courtesy of Nicholas Thornburg’s simple and handsomely crafted Soho flat exterior and pull-out scenery, Michael Jarett’s colorful projections, and director Pierre-Jacques Brault’s artistic vision.

This vision populates the neighborhood with a young, affable and good looking ensemble (Matthew Brightbill, Sophia Dennis, Sydney Mahon, Courtney Anne Nelson, Brandon Schumacher, Noah Vega, Brooke Vespoli, Jake Washabaugh, Bill Wetherbee) who wander through the city street in perfect synchrony to the rhythms of Washabaugh’s modern dance choreography.

It is there that we meet our wide-eyed and good-hearted hero, Robbie (Mason Henning) while being evicted from his flat by his foul-mouthed, strip-club owning stepsisters, Clodagh (Amiee Collier) and Dana (Kelvette Beacham). He is also being squeezed out of the laundromat he runs with best friend Velcro (Kennedy Ellis), which is frequented by an adorable sidekick named Sidesaddle (Lynette Turner).

Robbie is romantically involved with London’s charming and clandestinely gay mayoral candidate, James Prince (Brian Marshall), whose faux-fiancé (Melissa Siegel) discovers Robbie’s glass slipper – rather, his lost mobile phone – while attending a political fundraiser staged by Prince’s two-faced campaign manager (Joe Monaghan) and his put-upon assistant (Meredith Aleigha Wells).

The show is infused with Stiles and Drewe songs that range from gorgeous ballads like “Gypsies of the Ether,” performed with pitch-perfect harmonies by Henning and Marshall, the torch song “Let Him Go,” beautifully sung by Siegel and Ellis, and an assortment of high-energy production numbers like “Spin” that are brilliantly executed by the triple-threat ensemble. Everything is backed by a superb five-piece band under Eddie Carney’s direction.

Most remarkably, Mercury’s production finds a common ground for the often incompatible emotional realism of the story, its fable-based characters, and the romanticized songs they tend to sing.

As such, it provides an effective platform for the contrasting but equally exceptional acting turned in by the thoroughly endearing Ellis as the supportive but long-suffering Velcro and the deliciously over-the-top comedy delivered by the scenery-devouring Collier and Beacham as the sex-driven step-sisters.

But this approach to the work also sacrifices some of its intended edginess, which undermines a secondary and rather sordid storyline that revolves around Robbie’s relationship with an older man (Paul Hoffman).

This is no great loss, considering that the show’s happy-ever-after ending is the big payoff of this fractured and reconfigured fairytale, which nicely complements the production of “Disney’s My Son Pinocchio” that is running in repertory.

On stage

“Soho Cinders” by Mercury Theatre Company

WHERE: Notre Dame College’s Regina Hall, 1857 S. Green Rd., S. Euclid

WHEN: Through June 23

TICKETS & INFO: $16-$20, call 216-771-5862 or visit mercurytheatrecompany.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 June 10, 2018.

Lead image: Mason Henning as Robbie and Kennedy Ellis as Velcro. Photo / Daren Stahl Photography

Darius J. Stubbs (from left), Justin C. Woody and Treva Offutt. Photo / Michelle Berki

Karamu’s brilliant ‘Passing Strange’ testifies about the power of art, love

By Bob Abelman

There is certainly no shortage of coming-of-age memory plays, where an older character sentimentally reflects back on the trials and tribulations of his younger self. But few are delivered through music and verse and fewer still are as intriguing, engaging and brilliantly performed as Karamu’s production of “Passing Strange.”

More punk rock performance art than traditional drama, the play features a fellow in his 40s, known only as Narrator (a soulful and wonderfully accessible Darius J. Stubbs), who is looking back at the choices he made as a budding artist in his 20s, known only as Youth (an infectiously likable and passionate Justin C. Woody). Youth is trying to find his voice as a songwriter as well as a comfort level with his blackness.

The 2008 Tony Award-winning musical is an autobiographical fiction written by rock ’n’ roller Stew and his bandmate Heidi Rodewald, who hail from the L.A. indie music subculture of the 1980s, which is when “Passing Strange” largely takes place.

Every album created by their band, called Stew and the Negro Problem, is known to reflect a vast artistic vocabulary and create a carefully crafted universe unto itself. The same holds true for “Passing Strange.” The show is a joyful testament to the power of music though you’ll hardly walk away from the theater humming a tune from a highly eclectic song list where the inclusion of rock, punk, funk and gospel somehow makes perfect sense.

Each song is supported by an outstanding on-stage band consisting of Ed Ridley, Jr. on keyboard, Elijah Gilmore on drums, Kevin Byous on guitar, Bradford L. McGhee on bass, and vocalist Chantrell Lewis sharing the harmonies.

The world of this play interweaves song, verse and dialogue and allows for four exceptionally talented cast members (Carlos Antonio Cruz, Joshua McElroy, Mary-Francis Miller and CorLesia Smith) to play three highly diverse characters each, one in each city visited during Youth’s journey of self-discovery.

His journey begins in the middle-class L.A. home that Youth shares with his protective, church-going mother (the magnificent Treva Offutt), which is so buffered from tough neighborhoods like Compton and Westmont that a popular girl (Miller) he meets when thinking about joining the church’s youth choir will only date him if he stops passing for white and blackens up a little.

Finding nothing to inspire his art at home or in church, Youth leaves for Amsterdam where he discovers drugs, sex with Marianna (Miller) and a loving family with Joop (Cruz), Renata (Smith) and Christophe (McElroy).

But with no friction to stimulate his creativity, he moves to still-Communist Berlin and comes across a rebellious performance art scene populated with the aggressive Sudebey (Miller) and Hugo (McElroy) and led by the outrageously anarchist Mr. Venus (Cruz). There, Youth falls in love with Desi (Smith) and ups his angry “negritude” by passing for ghetto to gain the favor of the radical arts community he has embraced.

His mother’s passing ends his journey and the play, leaving Narrator to reflect on his life-long battle with reality and share with the audience what he and Youth have learned from it: “Life is a mess that only art can fix.”

This show is physically demanding and emotionally exhausting for these seven players. They not only lean into each and every song to mine their gorgeous harmonies, share the meaning in their poignant lyrics and wail when required – which is often – but they do so while performing Kenya R. Woods’ high-energy and wonderfully engaging choreography and never leaving the captivating characters they have created.

All this takes place on a two-tier stage void of storytelling trappings, which leaves the performances and Rob Peck’s lighting and sound design to fend for themselves.

Audiences will surely marvel at the hard work put in by director Nathan A Lilly to make it all look so easy.

On stage

“Passing Strange” performed by Karamu

WHERE: Arena Theatre, 2355 E. 89th St., Cleveland

WHEN: Through June 3

TICKETS & INFO: $15-$37, Call 216-795-7077 or visit karamuhouse.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 May 19, 2018.

Lead image: Darius J. Stubbs (from left), Justin C. Woody and Treva Offutt. Photo / Michelle Berki

The cast of "Aladdin." Photo / Deen van Meer

Touring ‘Aladdin’ is the catnip of screen-to-stage Disney musicals

By Bob Abelman

In much the same way tabbies are attracted to shiny things and rendered dopey by a hit of catnip, audiences will be drawn to and stupefied by the supersaturated stagecraft of Disney’s “Aladdin.”

The show, which is based on the hit 1992 animated film of the same name, is now on tour and performing at Playhouse Square.

Most folks probably know the story from the film, though it originated as a medieval Persian folk tale popularized in the 18th century by an English-language text titled “Arabian Nights.” Aladdin, a street urchin, finds a magic lamp containing a genie. He uses its powers to disguise himself as a wealthy prince to impress the Sultan, win his daughter, and avoid the clutches of the Sultan’s evil advisor.

On tour as it was on Broadway, Bob Crowley’s visually ravishing scenic design overwhelms the senses with its colorful swirling silks, shining sequins, layers and layers of scenery, and majestic backdrops dramatically lit by Natasha Katz. A stage filled with such riches serves to effectively distract from the Disneyfied fable’s formulaic plot, cookie-cutter characters and occasionally inspired but mostly forgettable score by Alan Menken.

The saccharine script is generously seasoned with Magic Kingdom self-references, topical mentions and groan-worthy puns to help keep adult heads in the game while their kids sit in a stunned state of hyperglycemia.

Circumventing the layers of fly-in scenery and set pieces is an abundant supply of Casey Nicholaw’s eye-candy choreography, performed in Gregg Barnes’ gorgeous midriff-baring and sparkle-coated costuming by a hard-bodied ensemble amidst streamers that come shooting off the stage. All this is wonderfully accompanied by a sizable touring orchestra enriched by plenty of local musicians, all under the direction of Brent-Alan Huffman.

Oh, and there’s a carpet that flies across a moonlit star-filled sky during “A Whole New World” that defies explanation.

In short, “Aladdin” is chock-full of Vegas aesthetics, Disney magic and big-budgeted theatrical slight-of-hand.

And audiences will purr with delight.

Patrons unimpressed by all the big-tent bedazzling will find solace in some truly fine performances led by a shamelessly hammy and thoroughly endearing Michael James Scott, who has successfully exorcised anything remotely Robin Williams from the role of Genie.

And as archetypical as the roles of Aladdin and Jasmine might be, Clinton Greenspan and Isabelle McCalla make them personable and, through tone and temperament, a little more dimensional and interesting than the script dictates. The same goes for Aladdin’s buddies, played wonderfully by Zach Bencal, Philippe Arroyo and Jed Feder, who nearly steal the show during the delightful if overproduced “Somebody’s Got Your Back.”

The dastardly Jafar and his sidekick Iago, played with delicious malevolence by Jonathan Weir and over-the-top comic flair by Jay Paranada, respectively, provide the play’s prerequisite conflict.

Everyone on and behind the stage work hard and are exceptionally eager to please.

Alas, there’s very little here to engage the mind or inspire the soul. But that is not the point of productions like this. The proof is in the purring.

On Stage

Touring “Aladdin” at Playhouse Square

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

WHEN: Through May 27

TICKETS & INFO: $40-$170, 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 May 6, 2018.

Lead image: The cast of “Aladdin.” Photo / Deen van Meer

Christiana Perrault, from left, Annalise Griswold, Hannah-Jo Weisberg, Shelby Griswold, Camille Robinson and Adrianna Cleveland. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

‘Beehive’ at Great Lakes Theater all honey and no sting

By Bob Abelman

It is unlikely that Great Lakes Theater thought to counterprogram what is currently being offered across the street at Playhouse Square, but its production of “Beehive: The 60s Musical” could not be more different than the touring “Aladdin.”

While “Aladdin” is a larger-than-life, deep-pocketed musical conceived by the collective brain trust of the Disney Theatrical Productions juggernaut, “Beehive” is an intimate, low-budget, no-frills jukebox musical created by a guy named Larry Gallagher, a booking agent with a momentary epiphany.

Actually, the show is more of a musical revue than a jukebox musical, since the songs neither tell a story nor is there a discernable story being told between them as connective tissue.

Essentially, six female performers in full frontal flirtation mode and cheer face sing popular ’60s songs by female performers the likes of Tina, Aretha and Janis, and renowned girl groups that include The Chiffons, The Shirelles and The Supremes.

They do so while performing Gregory Daniels’ choreography that cleverly incorporates the dance crazes – the Swim, the Mashed Potato, the Twist, the Frug, the Pony – and highly synchronized backup group movement of the era, while wearing colorful period dresses designed by Esther M. Haberlen.

Although ’60s issues like civil rights and woman’s rights are addressed, they are delivered with postage due through token songs like “Abraham, Martin and John” and “You Don’t Own Me,” respectively.

All this is performed on a stage with only six light columns to call scenic design, which change hues in accordance with the mood of the song being performed.

In addition to the nostalgia generated by the music for those cognizant in the 1960s, this show offers little except for the exceptional performers handpicked among Baldwin Wallace University’s students and alum by the school’s director of music theatre and this production’s director, Victoria Bussert.

Christiana Perrault, Annalise Griswold, Hannah-Jo Weisberg, Shelby Griswold, Camille Robinson and Adrianna Cleveland are no Tina, Aretha or Janis – whose songs make up most of the show’s less engaging second act – but they brilliantly cover everyone else, are immensely charming and move beautifully. They are backed by a wonderful six-piece band under Matthew Webb’s direction and keyboard.

Bussert pulls all this together nicely into a tight 100-minute production.

The one thing this production does share with the Broadway tour down the road is that neither engages the mind nor inspires the soul. But that is not the point of productions like these. Sit back, sing along, and enjoy the performances.

On Stage

“Beehive: The 60s Musical” at Great Lakes Theater

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

WHEN:  Through May 20

TICKETS & INFO:  $15 – $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/BobAbelman3. 2017 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on May 6, 2018.

Lead image: Christiana Perrault, from left, Annalise Griswold, Hannah-Jo Weisberg, Shelby Griswold, Camille Robinson and Adrianna Cleveland. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Craig Joseph as Louis Ironson, from left, and Scott Esposito as Prior Walter. Photo / Aimee Lambes

Ensemble’s epic ‘Angels in America, Part Two’ is time well spent

By Bob Abelman

It’s been three months since we last spent time with the 30-year-old, AIDS-infected Prior Walter.

In the first part of Tony Kushner’s powerful “Angels in America,” performed last January at Ensemble Theatre, Prior’s longtime lover Louis had abandoned him, he had hallucinated himself into the depression- and drug-induced visions of a young Mormon woman whose husband – a clerk for power-lawyer Roy Cohn – had left her for another man, and an angel had just crashed through his ceiling to declare that Prior was a prophet and that “the Great Work” of saving humanity and heaven begins.

Quite the cliffhanger.

In part two, the “Great Work” not only begins but the great work performed earlier by Ensemble – the wonderfully rendered portrayals orchestrated by director Celeste Cosentino and the intriguing impressionist, location-establishing screen projections designed by Ian Hinz – continues.

“Angels in America” – which premiered in 1991 and is the winner of a Pulitzer for drama and a Tony for best play – is set in the mid-1980s, during the Reagan administration, as the AIDS plague ravages the nation. The play is a theatrical landmark and an audaciously ambitious work that is at once imaginative and unpretentious, personal and political, uncompromising and affable.

Its message of hope in the face of the unbearable devastation that plagues humanity, and the passion with which it was written, is still astonishingly relevant. So much so that the play has returned to Broadway, where both parts are being offered in a marathon seven-and-a-half-hour staging, which is how it should be experienced.

With Ensemble’s three-month separation of parts one and two, it takes a while to warm up to the returning characters and lose oneself in Kushner’s revisited fantasia. But audiences will eventually find themselves laughing along with the work’s hilarious irreverence and weeping in response to its heartbreaking depiction of the human condition.

Those attending part two without having seen the initial installment will likely be in the dark about how these characters first came together while watching them fall apart.

Over time, this cast has grown fiercer, more confident and more passionate in its portrayals.

No longer playing the hopeless victim, Scott Esposito’s brilliant portrayal of Prior is even more textured while still maintaining the character’s core cynicism, intelligence and likeability. Craig Joseph’s Louis is still a coward, but he gets to add repentant to the complexity that defines him. Joseph’s honest and sensitive depiction of him is enthralling.

Harper Pitt, the emotionally unstable wife of gay Mormon Joe Pitt, comes to terms with her dilutions in part two, which gives the talented Kelly Strand the opportunity to showcase her acting chops and well-honed comic timing. Meanwhile, Joe now reaps what he sowed in the first installment and actor James Alexander Rankin plays devastation marvelously.

Jeffrey Grover, as the now-dying Roy Cohn, has lost none of the deliciously serpentine traits that define his character. Indeed, they have gotten richer and more defined as Cohn defiantly faces his ungainly demise.

Derdriu Ring’s ability to totally inhabit whatever role she takes on is on full display in her portrayals of Joe Pitt’s stoic mother, the bitter spirit of the executed spy Ethel Rosenberg – who performs an impressive kaddish over Roy Cohn’s body – and assorted others.

Davion T. Brown replaces the original actor playing Belize, a former drag queen turned nurse, and does so without missing a beat. In fact, he brings an authenticity to the role that enriches the character’s endearing qualities which, in turn, enriches this production.

Inés Joris is imposing as the ethereal angel, whose flight is cleverly mimicked by being hoisted onto the shoulders of a wingless shadow. But she is rather uninteresting for a celestial being and her heightened prose is often inaudible, which tends to stall the storytelling during her visitations.

“We’re not going away. We won’t die slow, secret deaths anymore,” cries Prior to all who will listen at the end of the play. “More life!”

This declaration of choosing life, despite all the suffering and ugliness he has encountered in the world, is the play’s most poignant moment and Kushner’s most stunning accomplishment with “Angels in America,” considering the time in which it was written.

But it is just one of many moments that shows the immense compassion with which Ensemble Theatre has approached this play. It was well worth waiting the three months.

On Stage

“Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika”

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

WHEN: Through May 20

TICKETS & INFO$12-$25, call216-321-2930 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 April 29, 2018.

Lead image: Craig Joseph as Louis Ironson, from left, and Scott Esposito as Prior Walter. Photo / Aimee Lambes

Abraham McNeil Adams as Franz (from left), Tom Woodward as Bo, Tracee Patterson as Toni, Ursula Cataan as Rachael, and Ireland Derry as Cassidy. Photo / Steve Wagner Photography

Dobama’s ‘Appropriate’ offers another of Jacobs-Jenkins’ provocative shades of gray

By Bob Abelman

The dramatist Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is on a mission to explore what it means to be black in America by provocatively filtering his storytelling through our nation’s predominant whiteness.

His 2010 “Neighbors,” which was performed last year by convergence-continuum, features a black professor of political philosophy enjoying his white wife and docile suburban lifestyle until a black family wearing the blackface makeup and caricature personas of minstrel show performers moves in next door.

An Octoroon,” written in 2014 and performed in 2016 by Dobama Theatre, is an adaptation of an antebellum melodrama about the financial woes that have befallen a Louisiana cotton plantation and its impact on its community of slaves.

In “Appropriate,” currently on stage at Dobama after premiering Off-Broadway in 2014, another shade of gray is put on display for our consideration.

The play begins after the patriarch of a white Arkansas family has died in his run-down ancestral plantation home and his three grudge-bearing adult children arrive to supervise the auction of the home and the dividing of the estate.

The oldest, the recently divorced Toni (the incredibly versatile Tracee Patterson), walks the earth like a gelding who has been ridden hard and put away wet. She is a tightly wound bundle of animosity ready to explode at the next inevitable disappointment. Toni arrives with her troubled teenaged son Rhys (Jacob Eeg), who spends most the play smoldering on the couch, angry at the world.

The eldest son Bo (played perfectly by everyman Tom Woodward) arrives from New York with his Jewish wife Rachael (a delightfully defensive Ursula Cataan) and their kids Cassidy (Ireland Derry) and Ainsley (Miles Pierce). Bo believes he has outgrown this family, but finds himself reverting back to and locked into a cycle of sibling rivalry that he doesn’t like and doesn’t fully understand. It is actually the teenaged Cassidy, who spends the play insisting that she be treated like an adult, who actually behaves like one.

Franz (a wonderfully vulnerable Abraham McNeil Adams) is the black sheep of the family. He is a damaged man who has come to atone for past indiscretions at the encouragement of his young vegan girlfriend River (a charming Kelly McCready).

While rummaging through a mountain of hoarded relics left scattered about the homestead, they find a photograph book filled with old pictures of lynched black people. Amidst escalating hysteria and rising volume, the siblings attempt to reconcile these photos with the man they thought they knew and the family’s slave-owning history they’ve rarely thought about.

In a profile of the playwright, who in 2016 was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a 2016 MacArthur Fellow “genius” grant recipient, the New Yorker compared the brilliant prose and poetry in this and his other works to that of Sam Shepard, Eugene O’Neill, Tracy Letts and Tennessee Williams. In a play appropriately titled “Appropriate” – to be read as ap_pro_priate or appropri_ate – Jacobs-Jenkins actually borrows heavily and purposefully from the tropes, time-tested narrative recipes and character types created by these great American writers.

The reason is that American plays don’t get any whiter than theirs and these characters and their world-view brings into focus that precise element of cultural discomfort that this playwright attempts to achieve in all of his plays. But while Jacobs-Jenkins’ other plays embrace and exploit the visual nature of race, this one – without a single black character – cleverly offers race as a virtual reality.

And to make sure that uneasiness rises to the surface, he fills every scene change with the irritating, ear-splitting and prolonged sound of cicadas who, like this family, have instinctively returned to their place of origin after years of deep hibernation.

The family’s historical toxicity is evident in the decaying, mold-covered walls of the Southern Gothic mansion, designed by Cameron Michalak, lit by Marcus Dana and then brilliantly dismantled at the end of the play to depict the future of the house once its occupants and its history have been exorcised.

For those with little interest in Jacobs-Jenkins’ clever literary ploys and all-too-clever double meaning of the title, this play still offers a captivating albeit lengthy portrayal of family dysfunction with enough exaggeration to be entertaining. Plus, this production is populated with superb actors turning in memorable performances under the always-forward momentum of Nathan Motta’s direction.

On stage

“Appropriate”

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

WHEN: Through May 20

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. 2017 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on April 28, 2018.

Lead image: Abraham McNeil Adams as Franz (from left), Tom Woodward as Bo, Tracee Patterson as Toni, Ursula Cataan as Rachael, and Ireland Derry as Cassidy. Photo / Steve Wagner Photography

The kids of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling.” Photo / Roger Mastroianni

‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ is how the CPH spells hilarity

By Bob Abelman

Recently, the 90th Annual Scripps National Spelling Bee was given more than 15 hours of live coverage on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU and the ESPN app.

More than a million people tuned in for the final round, where 12-year-old Ananya Vinay of Fresno, California, won by spelling “marocain,” a French word for a type of dress fabric, after plugging through “gifblaar,” “wayzgoose,” “tschefuncte” “gesith” and “cecidomyia.”

The national audience no doubt consisted of people devoted to the high-stakes competition of juvenile o-r-t-h-o-g-r-a-p-h-y (the art and science of spelling) and drawn to the thrill of learning new words, their definitions, their alternate meanings, and their lands of origin.

But there’s probably a little s-c-h-a-d-e-n-f-r-e-u-d-e (the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others) at play as well when watching physically, socially and emotionally awkward pre-adolescents fighting low-blood sugar, sleep deprivation and all sorts of internal demons during this survival-of-the-smartest pressure cooker.

And there’s plenty of melodrama in the stalling tactic of “can you use it in a sentence” and from the departure of a fallen contestant after the dreaded D-sharp peal of the bell signifies a critical misstep.

All this and more is replicated in the 2005 Tony Award-winning parody “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” with delightful music and lyrics by William Finn and an hilarious book by Rachel Sheinkin. A superbly performed and thoroughly enjoyable production of it is being staged by the Cleveland Play House under Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s direction.

Six adults take on the roles of Bee champion wannabes, who represent the collective foibles and phobias found on the ESPN telecasts. Ali Stoker plays latchkey kid Olive Ostrovsky, Chad Burris plays the abrasive William Barfée, Mariah Burks plays the lisping Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, Kay Trinidad Karnes is the overachieving Marcy Park, Lee Slobotkin is the free-spirited Leaf Coneybear, and the raging hormone-driven Chip Tolentino is played by Andres Quintero.

John Scherer portrays the pompous Vice Principal Douglas Panch, who is returning as Bee word pronouncer after an emotional breakdown five years ago. He also plays one of Logainne’s controlling gay dads. Playing Logainne’s other dad as well as Olive’s dad and Mitch Mahoney, the ex-con comfort counselor, is Garfield Hammonds. Kirsten Wyatt plays Rona Lisa Perretti, the Bee’s play-by-play announcer, as well as Olive’s mother.

Everyone is charming, has impeccable comic timing, and is vocally gifted, which is best showcased in the gorgeous “The I Love You Song” featuring Stoker, Wyatt and Hammonds, as well as the harmonious send-offs given to fallen comrades.

The musical comedy unfolds as if it were an actual Bee in a school gymnasium that doubles as an auditorium, which is authentically rendered by Michael Schweikardt. A terrific five-piece band, which gamely appears on the auditorium stage and in Putnam County colors courtesy of costumer Gail Baldoni, is directed by Jordan Cooper.

The show’s schadenfreude is provided by a local celebrity and two audience members who are invited to play along with the other spellers on the stage bleachers. They quickly and quite comically fall victim to multisyllabic words only Ananya Vinay could master.

If it’s serious theater you crave, “The Humans” is next door at the Connor Palace Theatre. “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is pure entertainment and a welcome addition to a superb CPH season weighed down by “The Invisible Hand” and “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

The word is d-i-v-e-r-t-i-s-s-e-m-e-n-t (a pleasant escape).

Cleveland Play House’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”

WHERE: Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Through May 6

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 April 22, 2018.

Lead image: The kids of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling.” Photo / Roger Mastroianni

‘The Humans’ on tour, a moving reminder of life’s fragility

By Bob Abelman

There’s a wonderful cartoon by The New Yorker’s Bob Mankoff that depicts a corporate executive reporting to his board.

“And so,” he says, “while the end-of-the-world scenario will be rife with unimaginable horrors, we believe that the pre-end period will be filled with unprecedented opportunities for profit.”

Stephen Karam’s “The Humans,” currently on tour with a three-week stopover at Playhouse Square, also calls attention to the admirable if highly irrational human tendency to be enterprising in the face of imminent demise.

And like Mankoff’s hand-drawn illustration, the play – unfolding in a mere one-act on a single stationary set – is simply rendered to underplay its hefty message about life’s fragility and impermanence while simultaneously underscoring it.

At first glance, “The Humans” seems to be just another American play – like Tracy Lett’s “August: Osage County,” Alan Ayckbourn’s “Absurd Person Singular,” Richard Nelson’s “The Apple Family Plays” and so many others – that takes place over a meal at a family gathering and which sets its limited sights on domestic dynamics.

Here, three generations of middle class, Irish-American Blakes – loving father Erik (Richard Thomas), overprotective mother Dierdre (Pamela Reed), elder daughter Aimee (Therese Plaehn), younger daughter Brigid (Daisy Eagan) with benevolent boyfriend Richard (Luis Vega), and grandmother “Momo” (Lauren Klein) – have come together to share Thanksgiving dinner. Weary from travel and over too many drinks, old arguments about religion and marriage erupt, sensitive emotional buttons grounded in shared family history get pushed, generational gaps are exposed, and a few secrets are revealed. The normal stuff of family gatherings.

But it is rare indeed for a non-musical to find a place in the Key Bank Broadway series, suggesting that “The Humans” is more than it appears.

It’s four 2016 Tony Awards, including one for best play, and the fact that it would have won the Pulitzer Prize for drama were it not for the Broadway premiere of “Hamilton,” are proof that it is.

Not long into the production, it becomes clear that the play is tackling bigger issues than family dysfunction and that it does so in a most extraordinary way.

Tony voters have likened “The Humans” to the works of Annie Baker, in that both employ startlingly realistic dialogue that is immediately appealing and absorbing, as if we have just walked into an actual conversation rather than a theatrical presentation. But while Baker embraces silences that give way to contemplation and reflection, Karam’s continuous supply of overlapping conversation and director Joe Mantello’s setting his actors in perpetual motion never gives the audience the opportunity to disengage or dissect.

The play’s undercurrent of anxiety has been compared to the works of Anton Chekhov, except that Karam uses an abundance of impeccably placed comedy to both set up and brilliantly distract us from the dramatic tension. We never really see it coming until we are up to our eyes in it.

The family gathering takes place in Brigid and Richard’s spacious but windowless two-floor basement apartment in New York City’s Chinatown. We soon learn through casual conversation that it is a short distance from 9/11’s Ground Zero, is located in the area flooded by Hurricane Sandy, and a family member died in a factory fire in 1911 just a few blocks away. The place also emits mysterious thumps and experiences inexplicable blackouts, courtesy of designers Fitz Patton and Justin Townsend.

The apartment is set slightly askew on stage by scenic designer David Zin and appears to be ripped from its moorings – a true breaking of the fourth wall – leaving a border of exposed brick and concrete block. Quite the inhospitable, precarious and threatening environment for a simple family drama.

As the play progresses, we discover that its seemingly unremarkable characters – played most convincingly by a talented corps of seasoned performers – are living unimaginable, debilitating and demoralizing horrors in their own personal end-of-the-world scenarios. As such, they are immediately recognizable and astoundingly relatable. And, as do the humans depicted in Bob Mankoff’s The New Yorker cartoon, they persevere and carry on. As do we all.

If still unconvinced upon leaving the theater that “The Humans” is not just another American family drama, take note of the fact that the father, Erik, enters the play the way he leaves it: alone and in the dark. This is not a curtain call moment for recognizable actor Richard Thomas, who originated the role of John-Boy in TV’s “The Waltons” – which IS just another American family drama.  The playwright is reminding us that we all enter and leave this world alone and in the dark.

Touring “The Humans” at Playhouse Square

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

WHEN: Through April 29

TICKETS & INFO: $10-$80, 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 April 13, 2018.

Lead image: Richard Thomas (from left), Therese Plaehn, Pamela Reed, Lauren Klein, Daisy Eagan and Luis Vega. Photo / Julieta Cervantes

Rolling premiere of ‘Br’er Cotton’ hits some potholes at the CPT

By Bob Abelman

Borrowing heavily from the Old Plantation folktales featuring Br’er Fox and Br’er Rabbit, Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s “Br’er Cotton” is a modern-day parable filled with heroic deeds, magic and moral guidance.

The problem is that these elements fail to come together on the page or on the Cleveland Public Theatre stage, resulting in an ambitious but discombobulated piece of storytelling.

The play begins with a young mother holding her babe and telling us a story about Br’er Cotton, a rebellious and impatient young soul born in the cotton fields of the South who desires to break into heaven.

We are then introduced to members of the Witherspoon family, who live in an impoverished neighborhood in Amherst County, Virginia during a recent killing of a young black man by a white police officer in nearby Charlotte.

Ruffrino (Joshua McElroy) is an angry, politically aware 14-year-old and our Br’er Cotton, who rants about “The Man” and attempts to escape reality through online game playing.

His mother Nadine (Samantha V. Richards) is too busy cleaning houses, keeping tabs on her son and providing for her family to give much notice to the world around her.
Grandfather Matthew (Peter Lawson Jones) has succumbed to the unexceptional nature of his bloodline and spends his time rambling like Uncle Remus about the past while counting the days until his demise.

Meanwhile, the cotton field on which the Witherspoon house has been built and in which generations of enslaved and indentured Witherspoons have toiled tightens its hold on the family and slowly sucks it underground.

The writing fluctuates between pedestrian prose espousing the same racial injustices better expressed in dozens of more powerful CPT productions and occasional bouts of poetry. Most of the verse is offered by Caged Bird_99 (Sara Bogomolny), an online gamer who Ruffrino believes to be black, free-spirited and like-minded but is actually white and burdened with cerebral palsy.

The other white person in the play is a kindly police officer (Beau Reinker) who befriends Nadine in a series of improbable scenes and is the antithesis of the brutal racist cop at the heart of Ruffrino’s wrath and talk of revolution.

Director Jennifer L. Nelson does her best to give this production a sense of fluidity and continuity, and to bring the moral to the forefront, but the script fights her at every turn.

Designers Wes Calkin (scenic), Benjamin Gantose (lighting), Inda Blatch-Geib (costume), T. Paul Lowry (video projection) and Ryan T. Patterson (special effects) try to balance the play’s interspersing of naturalistic drama and magical realism, but their efforts cannot undo the script’s clumsy transitions from one to the other.

Case in point is the extended scene that abruptly emerges in the middle of the play that turns the house into the cotton fields of the pre-Civil War South. Here, the now-happy family members sing as they go about their work, which is an intriguing excursion into the folktale motif that lurks behind this play but which comes across as awkward and contrived.

The actors seem handcuffed by all this.

Jones is committed to living in the world of magical realism that plays too broadly and artificially during the drama that dominates this play. McElroy is living in the white hot drama that does not register when the play turns poetic and magical. And Richards, Bogomolny and Reinker never quite find their footing, at least not on opening night.

This CPT production is the final installment of the rolling world premiere process in which the playwright continued to develop his play after stagings at Kitchen Dog Theater in Dallas, where a similar shooting took place in July 2016, and Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble in Los Angeles, the home of the 1991 Rodney King beating and a Super Bowl Sunday shooting this past March. Cleveland, of course, still suffers from the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014.

In an email exchange, Chisholm noted that the extended revision process entailed “excavation, digging deeper into the play and examining the layers.”

The play would benefit from more attention being paid to the big-picture issues, particularly if there will be stagings in the many other cities where black men have been shot and killed by white police and the wounds are still tender to the touch. A really good folktale can still be a powerful and healing elixir.

“Br’er Cotton”
WHERE: Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., Cleveland
WHEN:Through April 21
TICKETS & INFO: $12-$30, call 216-631-2727 or visit cptonline.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 April 7, 2018.

Lead image: Peter Lawson Jones as Matthew. Photo / Steve Wagner

Lynn Robert Berg as Macbeth. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

It’s back to basics with Great Lakes’ ‘Macbeth’

By Bob Abelman

The more theater one sees in Cleveland, the more familiar one becomes with each theater company’s wheelhouse – the types of plays and productions they are most capable and comfortable performing.

Despite changing its name from Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival to Great Lakes Theater Festival in 1985, to capture the broader body of work produced beyond Shakespeare, and then shortening it to Great Lakes Theater to best reflect its broader programming format, one thing is clear to all who attend its plays: Great Lakes Theater does the Bard best.

Regulars also know that the works of Shakespeare are not impervious to creative reinvention by the company’s brain trust in terms of the time and place in which the plays take place.

In 2013, “Richard III” was set in modern times and staged within cold glass and chrome corporate headquarters.

For its 2010 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the comedy 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 tunes to facilitate the storytelling.

In 2008, “Macbeth” was infused with classic Japanese styles, sensibilities and theater traditions, and the entire production was underscored with live percussion based on the bold rhythms of Taiko drummers. The Far East met the Thane of Scotland.

Not in the current production of “Macbeth” under Charlie Fee’s direction, who also happened to direct the 2008 staging. Here, the production resembles what one would imagine to be the original performance of the tragedy in 1606, though a few modern-day bells and whistles help create the illusion.

Scenic designer Russell Metheny employs a fixed wooden structure for the set that is surrounded by galleries for audience seating, reminiscent of Elizabethan playhouses. And though below stage hydraulics are used upon occasion and to great effect, this is a place where Shakespeare would seem at home.

Rick Martin incorporates two candle-lit chandeliers into his lighting design, though a dramatic use of floodlights and spotlights provides much of the ambiance and special effects. Kim Krumm Sorenson embraces the influence of historical costuming in her design and fight choreographer Ken Merckx does the same regarding his choice and wielding of weaponry. Sound designer Matthew Webb accentuates every dramatic ending of a scene, which director Fee orchestrates with astounding speed and grace, with sharp percussion.

Everything seems period and appropriate.

All this allows the production to focus on the play’s glorious language, complex characters and stellar performances, which theater purists would argue is the obvious choice. It is hard to argue.

In case you missed any of the five previous Great Lakes Theater stagings, “Macbeth” is about an army general’s (Lynn Robert Berg) bloody rise to power and the guilt-ridden pathology of evil deeds that follow.

His ambition, and the horrific path he takes toward being crowned King of Scotland, are foreseen in the prophecies of three dreadlock adorned sisters (Laura Welsh Berg, Jodi Dominick and Meredith Lark) who are witches. Macbeth assassinates the reigning king (David Anthony Smith), murders his best friend (Jonathan Dyrud), and kills the wife (Jodi Dominick) and children (Niko Ustin) of his key rival MacDuff (Nick Steen).

Lady Macbeth’s (Erin Partin) blind passion for power leads her into an unnatural alliance with witchcraft, which results in insomnia, madness, suicide, and some of the best soliloquies ever written for the stage, which are delivered with incredible passion and precision by the actor.

Everyone in this top-notch ensemble, which includes Great Lakes veterans Dougfred Miller, Andrew May and Aled Davis, is remarkable.

But Berg, who played Banquo in the 2008 production, is brilliant as Macbeth. In the program notes, Fee remarks that Macbeth is a character plagued by an inability to stop himself from thinking forward and projecting himself through a future that is dangerous and problematic. Berg’s every expression, every movement, hints at this and then he recoils in pain and self-consciousness when he realizes that it has. Brilliant.

This and everything else on stage reminds us of Great Lakes Theater’s wheelhouse and how fortunate we are to be able to experience it in person.

Great Lakes Theater’s “Macbeth”  

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

WHEN: Through April 15

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 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on April 1, 2018.

Lead image: Lynn Robert Berg as Macbeth. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Sean Derry. Courtesy of none too fragile

Machismo and menudo blend well in none too fragile’s ‘The Late Henry Moss’

By Bob Abelman

Henry Moss was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.

But many of legendary playwright Sam Shepard’s dark and familiar literary staples are alive and well in “The Late Henry Moss,” including ferociously feuding loser brothers, their inability to escape the influence of a dysfunctional father, and a spartanly furnished place in a desolate location with a totemic kitchen appliance, in this case an empty refrigerator.

This loaded, later and lesser three-act play by Shepard, which carries just enough substantive weight for a solid one act, is presented in two by none too fragile.

Set in a one-room adobe abode on the outskirts of Bernalillo, New Mexico, estranged and emotionally stunted brothers Earl (Bryant Carroll) and Ray (Sean Derry) have reunited on the occasion of the passing of their abusive and alcoholic father, Henry (Robert Hawkes). There they argue about everything but, mostly, they fight over the facts that define their youth and the circumstances surrounding their father’s death.

While investigating how it is that his father lived and died, Ray learns from the hapless taxi driver (Brian Kenneth Armour) who last saw Henry alive that he had a nurturing neighbor named Esteban (Christopher Fortunato), who routinely brought the old man homemade menudo. A running gag about the menudo – a traditional Mexican soup made with tripe – serves as much needed comic relief in a memory play brimming with conflict, escalating agitation and spontaneous violence.

We also learn that Henry had a young shamanistic prostitute named Conchalla (Diana Frankhauser) as a companion, who brutally and relentlessly teased him and saw that he was a dead man well before his body did. We witness much of this ourselves, through flashbacks.

While all this is intriguing, just what Conchalla symbolizes is slightly out of reach. Why the taxi driver doesn’t bolt from the premises when things get excessively heated and the opportunity arises is confounding. And the show’s 11th-hour mysticism seems murky at best.

This production takes a few missteps as well. Although the Akron population offers a very limited pool of Hispanic and Native Americans to choose from, it is hard to overlook casting Esteban and Conchalla with white actors. This is particularly true given the broad strokes Shepard uses in the language he provides these characters, which sound even more artificial when coming from non-native speakers.

And though Esteban suggests that a man could die in Conchalla’s sensuous arms and “thank the saints,” and her fiery nature is noted repeatedly in the play, it is disingenuous when Frankhauser displays modesty in the scenes that require her to be unclothed.

Shepard’s plays demand authenticity on both fronts.

Director Derry also misses an opportunity to make more of the sultry rumba between Henry and Conchalla that opens the play. Nothing they do during the dance assists in subtly defining their characters, revealing anything about the paths they will soon be taking, or servicing the storytelling.

And yet, these things matter little largely because the characters’ deep-rooted agitation is realistically and exhilaratingly displayed by every actor. This production is executed with such compelling energy and passion that it is impossible to take your eyes off the stage for even a moment.

Carroll and Derry are masterful in their displays of misguided masculinity. The brothers struggle to express their feelings in ways other than outbursts of rage and inane arguments over who acquires their father’s cheap set of mechanic’s tools. The actors’ performances reveal the character’s unavoidable and unfortunate heritage which is, at times, heartbreaking. And Hawkes’ gravel-throated Henry, in life and close to death, is absolutely riveting.

Frankhauser, Armour and Fortunato are wonderful counterpoints to all this, finding and maintaining the true north of their respective southwestern characters.

All this activity takes place on a set that effectively creates a necessarily oppressive environment, with lighting designed by Marcus Dana that dramatically differentiates flashback from real time.

“The Late Henry Moss” is a comparatively minor work by Shepard, for sure. But it is given a significant staging at none too fragile.

“The Late Henry Moss”

WHERE: none too fragile, 1835 Merriman Road, Akron

WHEN: Through March 31

TICKETS & INFO: $25, call 330-962-5547 or visit nonetoofragile.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 March 17, 2018.

Lead image: Sean Derry. Courtesy of none too fragile

The 2017 ensemble of “Rent.” Photo / Carol Rosegg

Tired, non-Equity tour of ‘Rent’ makes it difficult to forget regret

By Bob Abelman

Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning musical “Rent,” now in the throes of a second year of a 20th anniversary U.S. tour, is on stage at Playhouse Square.

The show, which originally opened off-Broadway in 1996, is loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s popular opera “La Bohème,” which opened at the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy, in 1896. “Rent,” a grunge/rock opera, follows a year in the lives of seven young artists in New York’s East Village who are struggling to follow their dreams without starving or selling out.

Despite the hundred years that separate these two works, both celebrate the excesses of youth and the pleasure that can be found in moments of camaraderie and romance. And they lament the consequences of both. For “La Bohème,” the consequence was heartbreak. For “Rent,” the consequence is AIDS.

This is a moving and powerful musical and the 15-member cast in this production is in fine voice. They absolutely nail the ensemble money-song “Seasons of Love,” which is pretty much the litmus test for any production of “Rent.” And the five-member orchestra under Matthew Demaria’s direction is superb.

But boy are these young performers – many of them doing their first tour, some having served as Disney and Norwegian cruise line entertainers, and a few still in college and on professional leave – bone-tired and brain-weary.

It may be the result of having to traverse designer Paul Clay’s massive and congested set comprised of scaffolding and a giant collaged sculpture of junk which, quite frankly, dwarfs this intimate story.

But it is probably the result of performing in an exhausting non-Equity road show, made up of mostly one-night stands in different cities. The cast arrived in Cleveland one day after a two-day stay in Fayetteville, AR, with less luxurious travel, less spacious accommodations, and fewer creature comforts in their dressing rooms than those in higher budgeted Equity tours. All this eventually takes its toll and, in the opening week’s Wednesday night performance of this three-week run, it shows.

Much of the production’s two hours and 20 minutes seems performed on muscle memory alone, with little emotion or sense of spontaneity in the acting or execution of Marlies Yearby’s attractive choreography. Nothing goes wrong, per se, but nearly everything in the first act is soulless. New York-based director Evan Ensign might want to check in with his on-location stage manager upon occasion.

Only Josh Walker as Tom Collins, an intellectual anarchist, and Aaron Alcaraz as Angel, the HIV-infected drag queen Tom falls in love with, are in the moment every moment and fill the stage with energy. Their duet “I’ll Cover You” and Walker’s 11th-hour reprisal of it are astounding. Jasmine Easler as Joanne, an Ivy League-educated public interest lawyer in love with self-absorbed performance artist Maureen, is also strong throughout the show.

Other performers – particularly Logan Farine as Roger, a struggling ex-junkie musician, and Sammy Ferber as his best friend/roommate Mark – come alive in the second act. So do Marcus John as mainstream sell-out Benny and Lyndie Moe as Maureen. Their collective rendition of “What You Own” is evidence.

Destiny Diamond, as the drug addicted, hyper-sexualized exotic dancer Mimi, never shows up and is unconvincing in everything she does, particularly “Out Tonight.” There is nothing less exotic or sexy as ineffectiveness.

One of the major, evergreen life-lessons offered by this musical is to live for the moment. “There’s only us. There’s only this,” suggests the beautifully rendered song “Another Day.” “Forget regret. Or life is yours to miss.”

With ticketholders regretting paying Equity prices for a tired non-Equity tour, it may take some time for those in attendance to forget this show and forgive the good folks at Playhouse Square.

Touring “Rent” at Playhouse Square

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

WHEN: Through March 25

TICKETS & INFO: $39-$119, 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 March 8, 2018.

Lead image: The 2017 ensemble of “Rent.” Photo / Carol Rosegg

Ananias J. Dixon as Tristan and Olivia Scicolone as Connie. Photo / Steve Wagner Photography

Style salvages substance in Dobama’s engaging production of ‘The Effect’

By Bob Abelman

It is rare and wonderful when contemporary, complex and provocative themes result in intriguing plays. Look no further than Ayad Akhtar’s “The Invisible Hand,” currently on stage at Cleveland Play House.

But sometimes they result in thoughtful but cumbersome plays whose dramatic impact could be bolstered by a theatrically complex and provocative production. That is the case with Dobama Theatre’s rendition of Lucy Prebble’s “The Effect,” under Laley Lippard’s ever-engaging direction.

The production is getting its Midwest premiere after a 2016 off-Broadway run and a 2012 award-winning world premiere in London.

The big-ticket theme addressed in this play is whether advances in neuroscience, psychiatry and pharmacology bring us closer to understanding the human brain and what it means to be human.

The play’s setting is a progressive clinical drug trial where the supervising psychiatrists – an officious Dr. Lorna James (Derdriu Ring) and celebrity shrink Dr. Toby Sealey (Joel Hammer) – hold differing positions about medical science’s ability to control and accurately measure our human qualities and effectively manipulate and repair our human frailties.

“We are this three-pound lump of jelly,” notes Dr. James as she holds a human brain in her hands. “But it’s not necessarily me, is it?”

The drug being tested is an experimental, fast-acting antidepressant that escalates the subject’s level of dopamine, which is the Kim Kardashian of neurotransmitters responsible for pleasure sensations and euphoria, among many other emotions.

The young trial subjects – Connie (Olivia Scicolone), a logical and seemingly self-confident college student interested in the study of psychology, and Tristan (Ananias J. Dixon), a playful and intelligent fellow who is participating in the trial for the cash – find themselves in an antiseptic medical facility for four weeks. There, every behavior is controlled, every action is observed, every drug dose is increased and every biological response is monitored.

No physical contact, smoking or cellphones are allowed for fear of contaminating the results and the technology capturing them.

But boys will be boys and girls will be girls.  Not long into the trial we witness Connie and Tristan risking a clandestine smoke in the hallway, sexting each other on smuggled cellphones, making love, and erupting into physical and verbal violence.  All this gives the audience a dopamine boost of its own and raises questions about whether these behaviors and emotions are natural or drug induced.

Sadly, these scenes reveal earlier and more obviously than desired the playwright’s position on the key theme that drives this play, for they demonstrate that human nature is uncontrollable, scientific protocol is highly fallible, and precise experimental method is impossible.

These scenes also unfold a bit too conveniently and clumsily to build much momentum or drama.  The same problem occurs in another Prebble play, “Enron,” which experienced an early closure during its 2010 Broadway production.

To the rescue comes director Lippard, her brilliant designers and her superb cast.

Scenic designer Cameron Michalak places this production within an in-the-round medical theater, with audience members observing all that unfolds during the clinical drug trial from raised seating, as if medical personnel themselves. For the actors, this makes it hard to play to everyone around them, which Lippard’s clever staging handles beautifully.

The production is infused with perfectly orchestrated sound by Jeremy T. Dobbins, lighting by Marcus Dana and projected images on the floor by T. Paul Lowry. They reinforce the illusion of a sterile and modern medical facility, create a sense of the rush of dopamine coursing through the subjects’ veins and underscore the high emotion moments that result. All of this adds to the drama missing in the script. So does the suspended medical monitors that constantly register biometric information about the two subjects.

The raw and passionate performances turned in by the four actors add needed dimension to the dialogue. The personal history between Ring’s Dr. James and Hammer’s Dr. Sealey and the attraction between Scicolone’s Connie and Dixon’s Tristan are palpable, the emotional and physiological reactions to the ingested drugs are authentic and everything else performed on stage – including set changes – is so very interesting.

“The psycho-pharmacological is the defining event in medicine in my lifetime,” declares Dr. Sealey early in the play.  This outstanding production of a play that needs one is a defining event for Dobama Theatre.

“The Effect” at Dobama Theatre

WHERE: 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights

WHEN: Through March 25

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 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on March 3, 2018.

Lead image: Ananias J. Dixon as Tristan and Olivia Scicolone as Connie. Photo / Steve Wagner Photography

Max Woertendyke as Nick Bright. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Cleveland Play House’s ‘The Invisible Hand’ a hand-wringing geo-political drama

By Bob Abelman

Greed is at the core of Ayad Akhtar’s riveting drama “The Invisible Hand,” which received its off-Broadway premiere in 2014. Anguished introspection and no shortage of heated debate on the walk back to the parking garage is the result of Cleveland Play House’s production of it.

The play revolves around a kidnapped American investment banker, Nick Bright, who is being held hostage in a bleak Pakistan prison by Islamic revolutionaries. Citibank has failed to come up with his $10 million ransom and Nick’s only way out is to tap his skills and play the stock market to benefit his captors and their cause and earn his freedom. In short, Nick’s future is tied to Pakistani futures and the unstable buying power of the rupee.

Terrorism and totalitarian theocracy meet capitalism, leveraging and money laundering, all under Pirronne Yousefzadeh’s precise and gripping direction.

The title of the play is a reference to a term coined by 19th century economist-philosopher Adam Smith, who noted that, in a free market economy, the greater good of a nation is always driven by the self-interests – the “invisible hand” – of individuals.

But Akhtar did not earn his 2013 Pulitzer Prize on clever titles alone. This play’s dialogue is rich and seductive, even though it is infused with economic theory and geo-political presuppositions and occasionally burdened with having to explain them. And there is plenty of dramatic tension built into a plot set in the hotbed of dissonance that is Pakistan and layered with high-stakes online transactions and high-risk interpersonal interactions between extremely volatile personalities.

To add to the show’s driving intensity, the ending of each short scene is announced with a loud percussive blast and dramatic blackout courtesy of designers Daniel Perelstein and Michael Boll, respectively, and the lights come up in similar fashion.

When they do, they reveal a long, narrow brick and mortar prison cell designed with stark realism on a runway stage by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams. A bed and inaccessible barred window are at one end, a bolted door is at the other, and audience stadium seating has been placed on both sides of the performance space. Those in attendance simultaneously watch the play and witness fellow audience members’ reactions to it in the distance.

The play’s ideologically opposite characters – flawed, complex and extremely well played – are prisoners of their own corrupt countries and at war with themselves.

Louis Sallan is mesmerizing as Bashir, the radicalized, idealistic and imposing Londoner who accidentally kidnapped Nick rather than Nick’s boss, and who is assigned by the Imam to assist with his prisoner’s day trading. With violence not far beneath the surface, Sallan’s Bashir makes it impossible for the audience to lower its guard, even when his character appears to do so.

The same can be said for J. Paul Nicholas as the spiritual but explosive Imam Saleem, who reluctantly buys into Nick’s proposition and is the play’s primary source of political and religious insight, commentary and irony.

Max Woertendyke’s Nick starts the play as a scared but cocky mid-ranking investment banker with strong survival instincts and, through some truly fine acting, devolves into a man broken and beaten by his circumstances.

His physical and emotional transformation is nearly as striking as Nik Sadhnani’s Dar, a gentle jailor pained by his primary task of chaining his captor during the first act but an obedient inflictor of pain by the play’s end.

Everyone on stage benefits from Valérie Thérése Bart’s costume design, which offers subtle insights into each character, such as Dar’s sweater vest worn over his linen Shalwaar Qameez, Bashir’s leather jacket and jeans, and Imam Saleen’s traditional garb and turban.

If this play occasionally loses the attention of theatergoers disinterested in geo-political drama and short-selling on the stock market, its brilliantly penned diatribes on these matters and the craftsmanship with which they are delivered will most certainly reel them back in.

“The Invisible Hand” at Cleveland Play House

WHERE: Outcalt Theatre, 1501 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Through March 11

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 February 28, 2018.

Lead image: Max Woertendyke as Nick Bright. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Andrew May and Kathleen Pirkl Tague. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

‘Misery’ is both title and critique for Great Lakes Theater production

By Bob Abelman

Prolific novelist Stephen King earned his fortune terrifying his significant fan base with horror stories that feature shapeshifting eldritch monsters, walking dead abominations, demonically possessed cars and canines, and everyday folks cursed by supernatural abilities.

“Misery,” his 1987 novel that was turned into a 1990 film and a 2015 Broadway play, marches to a different demon: a middle-aged sociopathic bibliophile named Annie Wilkes.

The story begins with Annie finding an unconscious and mangled Paul Sheldon after he has run his car off the road in the midst of a rural Colorado snowstorm. Recognizing him as the writer of her favorite historical romance novels, she brings him back to her remote home for healing.

While there, she learns that Paul has killed off the novels’ main character, Misery Chastain, in his soon-to-be-released final installment so he can break out of his successful rut of writing pop fiction and become a serious writer of serious books. Keeping the paralyzed Paul prisoner, the unstable Annie uses increasingly extreme forms of torture in an attempt to get him to write a new novel that revives Misery Chastain and resurrects the series.

The stage adaptation of this psychological thriller is written by William Goldman – who also penned the 1990 screenplay – and has found a place in Great Lakes Theater’s seasonal lineup in the slot previously held by such like-minded works as Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” and “And Then There Were None” and Frederick Knott’s “Dial M for Murder” and “Wait Until Dark.”

The thing is, Goldman does not have the skills or track record of a Christie or Knott. His first shot at a Broadway play, in 1962, lasted only 84 performances. “Misery” fared no better.

The play lacks the novel’s narrative voice, which assumes the point of view of the sympathetic victim of the horrific acts that King so skillfully describes and offers a carnival ride of suspense. It also lacks the cinematic storytelling afforded the B-movie rendition, which employed editing, camera placement and camera movement to establish its stifling sense of claustrophobia, create an atmosphere of fear and dread, and build immense dramatic tension.

Shock is so much harder to dole out and sustain in live theater.

To compensate, the Broadway production employed a revolving set that allowed the audience to follow the action from room to room exactly like a camera. And it offered a filmic underscore and cast highly recognizable film and TV actors Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf in the leads, to no avail.

Great Lakes Theater director Charlie Fee goes with more standard staging, with scenic designer Gage Williams building a farm house that is at once theatrically enticing in its detailed state of utter dilapidation and downright confusing in its placement of Paul’s room bizarrely in front of the rest of the exposed interior of the homestead. It is also dysfunctional in terms of the characters’ difficulty navigating the awkward layout and disappearing from sight in order to get from one side of the house to the other.

While lighting designer Paul Miller and sound designer Josh Schmidt do a nice job of establishing the raging snow storm that persists throughout most of the production, it is odd that the trees that surround the house show no evidence of inclement weather.

It could be argued that these creative choices reflect the state of mind of its insane occupant, in much the same way the castle crumbles in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” It could also be argued that all this is a distorted figment of Paul’s drug-altered imagination. But they wouldn’t be convincing.

A better argument is that all this is a conceptual misstep, a notion reinforced by the peculiar horror elements that are inexplicably and ineffectively incorporated into the play’s ending.

Andrew May, as Paul, is a fine actor tasked with portraying a terribly underwritten character. There is little this former Cleveland Play House leading man and GLT favorite son can do with his character’s limited mobility and curtailed dialogue to create the tension this play requires or provide the narrative voice the story so desperately needs.

For those unfamiliar with this tale, Kathleen Pirkl Tague is more than satisfactory as Annie. But for the rest of us, there is little she can do to avoid comparisons to actress Kathy Bates’ indelible screen incarnation and she does less to create her own memorable creature.

In short, this play is dull and a bit drowsy – two words rarely associated with Stephen King – and, to borrow from Annie’s limited but colorful vocabulary, this production is “cockadoodie.” It is easy to understand the commercial attraction of a popular work like “Misery,” but artistically, it seems a poor choice by the brain trust at Great Lakes Theater.

Great Lakes  Theater’s ‘Misery’

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

WHEN: Through March 11

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 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on February 23, 2018.

Lead image: Andrew May and Kathleen Pirkl Tague. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Trinidad Snider as Mrs. Lovett and Patrick Ciamacco as Sweeney Todd. Photo / Andy Dudik

Blank Canvas’ ‘Sweeney Todd’ smolders but is short on stagecraft

By Bob Abelman

“Sweeney Todd,” with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, is a most unconventional musical.

The show is overtly operatic, with little dialogue, a melodramatic storyline and a dependence on ensemble performance to narrate and progress the story.  

Its unconventional hero is a homicidal barber out to revenge his wrongful imprisonment and the destruction of his young family. Returning to 19th century London, Todd whittles away at his clientele as the fruits of his labor are processed into meat pies and sold by Todd’s delightfully demented landlady, Mrs. Lovett. Todd lies in wait until the judge that set this madness in motion and who is now the guardian of his daughter, Johanna, walks through his door to receive the closest shave he’s ever had.

And, as is typical of works by Sondheim, this one consists of enigmatic and frequently discordant music and lyrics that, while often void of melody and lacking that hummable quality found desirable in conventional show tunes, still manage to touch the soul while challenging the intellect.

Despite the show’s eccentricities, productions of it still require the same core components found in all musicals: talent on stage and talent behind it. The current production of “Sweeney Todd” at Blank Canvas Theatre has the former in spades but is woefully lacking in the latter.

Patrick Ciamacco embraces all that is dark in the heart of the title character. His Sweeney smolders as his pathological obsession with revenge lies in wait and is never far from the surface. As such, his intense rendition of the disturbing “My Friends” and “Epiphany” – where he discovers and then clarifies his morbid calling – is absolutely brilliant.  

Everything Trinidad Snider does as Mrs. Lovett is brilliant. She manages the musical’s dark drama and broad comedy with equal aplomb, but her impeccable comic timing, high-pitched squeals and delightful physicality nearly steals the show during the musical number “By the Sea,” where she fantasizes about going on holiday with a brooding, non-responsive Sweeney.

The other eight featured performers are also superb in voice and presentation, particularly Meg Martinez and Robert Kowalewski as the tragic Johanna and the infatuated Anthony, Devin Pfeiffer as the sweet and simple Tobias, and Brian Altman as the deeply disturbed Judge Turpin.  

The show is given superb support by a talented and versatile ensemble, costumer Luke Scattergood, music director Matthew Dolan and his nine-piece off-stage orchestra.  

Where this Blank Canvas production derails is in its staging. The company’s confined performance space is always a creative challenge but, under Jonathan Kronenberger’s direction, it gets the better of this production.  

Every entrance and exit on the two-tier set that serves as every location for the production requires either ducking below low-hanging pipes from the ceiling or ducking through miniaturized passageways constructed on the stage, which is a constant and unnecessary distraction.  

When, on opening night, the first player to enter the stage in the opening moment of the musical walks straight into a pipe, it becomes impossible not to anticipate the next occurrence.

Every bit of action is hampered in some way by Ciamacco’s obtrusive, inaccurate and ill-timed lighting design, which either leaves actors in darkness, obscured by shadows, or saturated in blues, reds and yellows that define their emotions as if the audience needed color-coding for clarification.

Often in this play, multiple actors assumedly in different locations throughout London are on stage to share a musical number.  Here, they inexplicably cross in front of or behind one another, which destroys the illusion of separation. 

All this results in confusion and cluster in a complex musical that can afford neither.

“Sweeney Todd” asks much of any company taking it on. But for a company with a theater space like this, it begs for a reimagining of its staging that can sidestep physical limitations and take full advantage of unique idiosyncrasies. Blank Canvas missed an opportunity to do more with less.

“Sweeney Todd”

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

WHEN: Through March 10

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 February 24, 2018.

Lead image: Trinidad Snider as Mrs. Lovett and Patrick Ciamacco as Sweeney Todd. Photo / Andy Dudik

Jeanne Madison (from left), Rebecca Morris, and Kimberly Sias. Photo / Colleen Albrecht

Karamu’s ‘Sassy Mamas’ goes from comedic to heartfelt in a heartbeat

By Bob Abelman

It would be wise for mid-life men to stay far, far away from Celeste Bedford Walker’s romantic comedy “Sassy Mamas,” which is getting its Ohio premiere at Karamu House.

The show revolves around three female best friends in the autumn of their lives who are in search of a May-December relationship on their own terms.

Jo Billie (Kimberly Sias) is a widowed hospital executive who desires a shallow, hard-bodied boy-toy to play with, no strings attached. Enter LaDonte (Cameron Woods), who meets all the prerequisites.

Mary (Rebecca Morris) was abandoned by her husband, is recently divorced and in desperate need of romance, which her sweet and inexperienced gardener Colby (Bryon Tobin) is more than happy to cultivate.

Wilhemina (Jeanne Madison) is looking for love but can’t find the time while serving as an advisor to the President of the United States. Wes (Michael Head), a young, ex-jock journalist with 6-pack abs finds her.

This risqué comedy is all about female empowerment in the boardroom and the bedroom, with the young men in it serving as frequently shirtless fantasy fodder. The only place for older men in “Sassy Mamas” is as a doormat, the sagging butt of jokes about half-blind dates, and on the receiving end of one-liners about sex hampered by arthritis and augmented by Viagra.

Clearly aimed at audiences with two X chromosomes, “Sassy Mamas” reveals some amusing truths about life, love and menopause. It is written in the same effervescent spirit of “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” and is equally heartfelt in its portrayal of female friendship.

This production boasts absolutely charming and immediately endearing performances by everyone on stage, with Sias, Morris and Madison handling the comedy and the poignancy with equal aplomb. The show is staged with the quick pace and seamless fluidity of a sitcom by Tony Sias, the theater’s President and CEO, who is making his Karamu directorial debut.

The action takes place in three condos at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., decorated to reflect the personalities of their respective occupants. So does their wardrobe, with Inda Blatch-Geib responsible for the spot-on scenic and costume designs. Ambient sound and cool jazz between scenes is supplied by Jeremy Dobbins.

Mid-life men should seriously consider dropping off their wives at the theater entrance, finding safe-haven elsewhere for two hours, and returning with a new-found interest in gardening.

“Sassy Mamas”

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

WHEN: Through March 4

TICKETS & INFO: $15-$37, Call 216-795-7077 or visit karamuhouse.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 February 12, 2018.

Lead image: Jeanne Madison (from left), Rebecca Morris, and Kimberly Sias. Photo / Colleen Albrecht

The cast of “Hair.” Photo / Roger Mastroianni

‘Hair’ at Beck Center confirms the aging of Aquarius

By Bob Abelman

What a piece of work is “Hair,” Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt MacDermot’s patchouli- and pot-scented portrait of the 1960s.

In form and moving, how out of sync it is with the youth culture, social norms and political scene of the young actors – members of the Baldwin Wallace University musical theater program – performing in the Beck Center for the Arts production. 

When the show opened on Broadway in 1968, it offered older, affluent theatergoers a taste of the music, drug-altered mindset, anti-establishment politics and sexual freedom of the long-haired hippies they’d been hearing so much about. “Hair,” in its day, pushed the envelope on the theater experience by benevolently invading the audience’s personal space, infusing the score with ear-ringing rock ‘n’ roll, and daring to be naked – physically and spiritually – while simultaneously offering a group hug. 

The current production, under Victoria Bussert’s direction, valiantly attempts to give this receding ‘Hair’ a comb-over by finding parallels between the atrocities facing today’s world and the world of the ’60s.  

On a large projection screen in the middle of an otherwise empty backdrop, above a large round platform on an otherwise empty stage, images of Black Lives Matter protests and Women’s Marches coincide with the anti-Vietnam war sentiments and songs that are at the very heart and soul of this musical.  

But things get muddled when seemingly random images from the ’40s and ’50s also pop up on screen. And when the protest signs held by the actors – who by their own admission are living in 1968 – say “Dump Trump,” “I Can’t Breathe” and “Love is Love,” muddled turns murky, conceptually. 

In the original Broadway production, the designers created the impression that a tribe of hippies had taken over the theater, settled in and claimed it as their own.  No such pretense or any other explanation for why this tribe is here – wherever here is – is established by scenic designer Jordan Janota, lighting designer Russ Borski or video art designer Kasumi. 

With no clear temporal or physical context, with the long hair lauded in the title song being token rather than normative among the players, and with the nudity exorcised from this production, a murky theatrical concept becomes a vague one.  

What remains of this musical is 36 short songs accompanied by a wonderful six-piece orchestra located on the lip of the stage just outside the proscenium arch and under Matthew Webb’s direction. The songs tend to feature soloists, turning “Hair” into a Nighttown performance showcase for the 30 musical theater majors on stage.

The good news is that these performers are highly trained BW students who live, breath and bleed musical theater. They are extraordinarily talented, passionate and energetic in everything they do, and they adore each other – reinforced by fellow students in the audience, who scream approval whether it is warranted or not – which creates a love-fest of sorts in a musical that desperately needs one.

Everyone masterfully executes Martín Céspedes’ ’60s-style choreography, at its best and most plentiful during the musical numbers “Black Boys” and “White Boys.”  

And they sing the stuffing out of each and every song, particularly “Aquarius” featuring Veronica Otim as Dionne, “Frank Mills” featuring Courtney Hausman as Chrissy, “Easy To Be Hard” featuring Olivia Kaufmann as Sheila, and “Where Do I Go?” featuring Chandler Smith as Claude – a central character who stands alone when it comes time to burn his draft card in protest. The rich harmonies and brief solos that members of the ensemble contribute to most of the show’s songs are astonishing.

As Berger, the tribe’s ringmaster and pied piper, Jacob Slater personifies the playful, carefree spirit of the era, though on opening night, his unbridled enthusiasm frequently interfered with his vocal performance of songs like “Donna” and “Going Down.”

Like “Rent,” a brave alt-rock and grunge musical that transplanted the Parisian bohemians of Puccini’s “La Boheme” to the grime of 1989 New York and tackled the defiant aftermath of the first wave of the AIDS crisis, “Hair” was a cultural phenomenon but is now a beloved relic.  

Modern-day productions can no longer capture what made it relevant, riveting and revered, no matter how many hard-bodied triple-threats you throw at them.

“Hair”

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

WHEN: Through Feb. 25

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 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on February 10, 2018.

Lead image: The cast of “Hair.” Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Trey Gilpin (from left), Amiee Collier and Eric Fancher. Photo / Kathy Sandham

Lakeland Civic Theatre’s ‘Merrily’ rolls along

By Bob Abelman

Martin Friedman, the director of the Lakeland Civic Theatre, is a sucker for Sondheim.

He has not only staged the composer/lyricist’s most popular works – including “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Into the Woods” – but he’s also mounted “Anyone Can Whistle,” one of Sondheim’s earliest and most commercially unsuccessful musicals.

So it was only a matter of time that Friedman would return to a personal favorite, the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical “Merrily We Roll Along,” which lasted on Broadway for 16 performances in 1981 despite possessing many of Sondheim’s greatest songs and one of his most complex scores.

“Merrily” traces the disintegrating idealism and unravelling relationship of three good friends. Franklin Shepard (Eric Fancher) is a gifted songwriter driven by success and all of its trappings. Charley Kringas (Trey Gilpin) is a talented and lovable lyricist and Franklin’s long-time writing partner, who believes in art for art’s sake. Mary Flynn (Amiee Collier) is a brilliant novelist with an excessive personality that lends itself to heartache and heavy drinking.

Based on a play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, which was also a flop, the musical starts at the end of the story and moves backward through time, from the dark disillusionment that comes to a head in 1976 to the starry-eyed promises made when these three meet on a rooftop while attending Juilliard and Columbia University in 1957.

This reverse-time pretense adds poignancy to the proceedings, since we see how these three lives play out before we witness how they began. But it apparently displeased or confused audiences, who were perhaps also depressed by the show’s driving cynicism and turned off by its thoroughly unlikable central character, Franklin.

The show has been revised since, most notably in 1995 when songs were cut and added, and several structural changes were made, including a new opening. And new high-profile stagings – including a 2012 Encores! concert performance at New York’s City Center and a 2013 Olivier Award-winning Menier Chocolate Factory production in London’s West End – have been quite successful.

But these changes in the musical also come at a cost, particularly for aficionados who note that they blunt Sondheim’s signature sharp edges. They soften the work’s keen intensity, biting theatricality and overt cynicism about life in the theater and life in general.

It is this revised version of “Merrily” that is currently on stage at the Lakeland Civic Theatre. Fortunately, Friedman recognizes that much of Sondheim’s brilliant storytelling and important insights into his characters’ psychology are channeled into and still reside in the songs they sing. And so, in this wonderful production, particular attention has been placed on the music.

Friedman employs a top-notch 11-piece orchestra with Jordan Cooper at the helm, and puts them center stage behind a translucent scrim.

He makes sure there is nothing in Austin Kilpatrick’s scenic design to serve as a detraction, employing cardboard moving boxes introduced in the opening scene as furniture throughout the production and rearranging free-standing doors on wheels to establish locations.

And he casts personable and Sondheim-savvy performers in the featured roles, who can mine every necessary nuance in their songs to give their characters the dimensionality and texture the show requires.

Fancher beautifully balances Franklin’s edginess with vulnerability, particularly in the song “Growing Up” and in his interactions with his first wife Beth (Neely Gevaart, whose gorgeous “Not a Day Goes By” is a show highlight) and man-eater second wife Gussie (Kelly Elizabeth Smith, whose turn in her version of “Growing Up” is another highlight).

Gilpin, as Charley, does the same in “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” where he painfully discloses the significance of his friendship with Franklin while simultaneously destroying it.

There is not a song performed by Collier that fails to find the depth of her character’s conflicting emotions regarding her best friends, but when Mary and the boys sing “Old Friends,” her contribution is astoundingly heartfelt.

The supporting company – particularly Daniel Simpson as Broadway producer Joe Josephson, but also Kyle Burnett, Anna Barrett, Carlos Antonio Cruz, Sarah Clare, Kate Leigh Michalski, Frank Ivancic and Jake Spencer – are superb as well.

This production manages to circumvent what many have long believed to be so problematic about this musical and put on stage what Friedman and other true Sondheimaphiles have recognized and admired since 1981.

This “Merrily” most certainly rolls along.

“Merrily We Roll Along”

Where: Lakeland Civic Theatre, 7700 Clocktower Dr., Kirtland

When: Through Feb. 18

Tickets: $7 – $15, call 440-525-7134 or go to lakelandcc.edu/arts


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 February 3, 2018.

Lead image: Trey Gilpin (from left), Amiee Collier and Eric Fancher. Photo / Kathy Sandham

Marc Moritz (left) and David Lenahan. Photo / Brian Kenneth Armour

The only thing missing from none too fragile’s ‘Boy’ is a good play

By Bob Abelman

Male circumcision among newborns is an ancient ritual for Jews and Muslims that has become a wide-spread public health measure in the U.S., Britain and other nations regardless of religion or culture.

So common is this practice since World War II that little attention is paid to the surgical procedure until something goes terribly awry and a play is written about it.

Anna Ziegler’s 85-minute “Boy,” on stage at none too fragile, is based on the life of David Reimer who, in 1965 at 8 months of age, became the unwitting subject of sex reassignment surgery, hormone treatment and psychological therapy after his penis was all but obliterated during a botched circumcision. On the advice of a renowned sex researcher at Johns Hopkins University, David was raised by his parents as a girl.

It didn’t take.

Reimer’s tragic tale has been told, most famously, in John Colapinto’s pseudonym-dependent Rolling Stone magazine exposé and, later, in his highly detailed book “As Nature Made Him,” which dispenses with the anonymity. There has also been a documentary that aired on PBS and the BBC, filled with extreme close-up interviews and overly dramatic reenactment footage.

Ziegler’s play, written and first staged in 2016, fictionalizes Reimer’s life story  – he is called Sam before the surgery and Samantha after – and dramatizes the debate over the social and biological determinants of gender, focusing heavily on the young man’s excruciating struggle to find his true identity.

While the story is intriguing, the debate is thought-provoking and the main character’s struggle is gut-wrenching, the play is none of these.

Ziegler seems so determined not to exploit or sensationalize actual events that she has written an overly cautious, antiseptic and tepid piece of theater.

The play is written as a series of short scenes between Samantha (David Lenahan, without the use of a dress or wig), his parents Trudy and Doug (Pamela Harwood and Andrew Narten), his therapist Dr. Wendell Barnes (Marc Moritz) and his later love interest Jenny (Natalie Green) that bounce back and forth between the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

None of these scenes linger long enough for the characters or the audience to absorb the enormity of what is happening, ponder its meaning, and react before moving on to the next.

None dig deep enough to excavate the human drama, offering instead understated indicators of an atrocity without revealing much about it.

There’s a brief scene where a young Samantha plays chess with Dr. Wendell Barnes that attempts but doesn’t come close to capturing the harrowing psycho-anatomical game the therapist has been playing with this boy’s life.

The father’s cooler filled with Budweiser and the mother’s incessant rambling merely hint at his alcoholism and her clinical depression from the extended struggle to maintain the farce of raising a son as a daughter.

There’s a fleeting reference to children playing with toxic chemicals that goes nowhere.

Director Sean Derry and his talented actors do their very best to find what lies between the lines of dialogue in this script.

They work hard at stripping away the play’s whitewashing of emotion and attempt to bridge the psychological distance between these characters and the audience by shortening the physical distance during the production.

Everyone tries desperately to humanize characters who, on the page, come across as the puppets child abuse therapists employ to help reduce the trauma of pointing to where it hurts.

But the harder the actors try, the more apparent the shortcomings of this play.

“Boy”

WHERE: none too fragile, 1835 Merriman Road, Akron

WHEN: Through Feb. 17

TICKETS & INFO:  $25, call 330-962-5547 or visit nonetoofragile.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 February 5, 2018.

Lead image: Marc Moritz (left) and David Lenahan. Photo / Brian Kenneth Armour

Anjanette Hall. Photo / Steve Wagner Photography

Spellbinding ‘Grounded’ soars at Dobama Theatre

By Bob Abelman

For a show titled “Grounded,” where its only character never leaves the stage for the 90 minutes of its production, this play has certainly been on quite a journey.

Local playwright George Brant’s drama was first produced with a rolling premiere in California, Arizona and Missouri, where it won the National New Play Network’s 2012 Smith Prize for political theater. It picked up a First Place award at the 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and was part of the Cleveland Play House’s New Ground Theatre Festival in 2014 after receiving a Drama Desk Award nomination for its off-Broadway production earlier that year. It has since received more than 100 productions in 17 different countries.

“Grounded” is now on stage at Dobama Theater with New York-based director Alice Reagan at the helm and Anjanette Hall – winner of last year’s Cleveland Jewish News “Best Performance by an Actress in a Drama” award – in the lead. 

Consider Hall a contender for that same award in 2018.

She plays an ace Air Force pilot whose career flying an F-16 into combat is scuttled due to an unexpected pregnancy. Reassigned to operate a military drone from a windowless trailer outside Las Vegas, she hunts terrorists in Afghanistan by monitor by day and returns home to her husband and young daughter each night – a mixed blessing for a soldier accustomed to fighting the war firsthand and hanging with fellow pilots between missions.   

“Every day they greet me home from the war,” she says. “It would be a different book ‘The Odyssey’ / If Odysseus came home every day / Every single day / A very different book.”

Brant’s drama touches on a range of hot-button topics, including the morality of drone warfare, the infusion of women in a traditionally male profession, and what PTSD looks like in a modern military where the threat of death and the accountability of killing have been one-step removed by state-of-the-art technology.

But “Grounded” is at its best relaying a personal tale of trauma, delivered through direct address, stream of consciousness self-disclosures that are earthbound in their focus but celestial in their imagery and lyrical in their expression. In short, Brant has written 90 minutes of uninterrupted epic poetry that transforms the literal into the abstract and is absolutely spell-binding.  

It is performed on a minimalistic set designed by Tesia Benson – a crisscrossing tarmacadam runway where three points lead nowhere and the fourth, which is never trotted upon by the actor, dramatically climbs upward toward the great wide open – that captures the pilot’s mental landscape.

All this is backlit by Marcus Dana with shifting hues that reflect the pilot’s moods, the gray of her monitor and the blue sky she sorely misses. A subtle diegetic soundtrack created by Megan Culley enriches the storytelling and, as with the other production elements orchestrated by the director, never distracts from the hard labor being executed by Hall.

The audience is asked by the playwright to be the pilot’s sympathetic confidante for the evening and Hall’s intriguing performance of his exquisite narrative easily wins us over.  

Her masculine posture, foul mouth and confident swagger gets our initial attention. But it is Hall’s attention to small details in her phrasing and pacing that holds it, and it is the maternal gaze that sporadically surfaces and the emotional fragility that slowly takes over that keeps our eyes riveted to the stage.  

The 90 minutes of “Grounded” fly by at Mach 2 with all the g-force one expects from theater but rarely gets.

“Grounded”

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

WHEN: Through Feb. 11

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 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on January 20, 2018.

Lead image: Anjanette Hall. Photo / Steve Wagner Photography

Chaz Hodges, from left, as Marie and Miche Braden as Sister Rosetta. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

CPH’s ‘Marie and Rosetta’ never quite rocks one’s soul

By Bob Abelman

Over the years, the Cleveland Play House has staged its share of bio-musicals – those mini-concerts disguised as historical documentaries masquerading as dramas about the lives and influence of music pioneers.

Mahalia Jackson (“Mahalia: A Gospel Musical”), Bessie Smith (“The Devil’s Music”), Roland Hayes (“Breath and Imagination”) and Ella Fitzgerald (“Ella”) have all been profiled and portrayed with their songs performed, often in one act and during Black History month.

Only a few shows of this ilk actually manage to find that elusive sweet spot where an intriguing and well-written personal history tells a great story and riveting musical performance provides great storytelling.

George Brant’s “Marie and Rosetta,” currently on stage at Cleveland Play House, is not one of them.

The 90-minute production premiered Off-Broadway in 2016 and employs the same staging and creative team here, including director Neil Pepe, scenic designer Riccardo Hernández, costume designer Dede Ayite, lighting designer Christopher Akerlind and sound designer Steve Kennedy.

It tells the tale of the electric guitar-wielding “Godmother of Rock & Roll” and 2018 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Rosetta Tharpe and her young protégée Marie Knight.

The play opens in a Mississippi funeral home in 1946 on the night of their first performance together and ends in 1973, upon Sister Rosetta’s death. We meet the two women as they rehearse and prepare to brave the indignities of Jim Crow laws – such as having to rehearse and sleep in a funeral home – while touring in the American South.

In a Down Beat magazine review of a 1955 Tharpe and Knight performance, music critic Nat Hentoff observed that the two women “build each number toward a swinging emotional climax that eventually draws everyone in the room into the act with them, clapping, beating their feet, nodding.” And they stir the white audience, he wrote, right out of their “sophisticated complacency.”

Such was not the case during the opening night production of “Marie and Rosetta.”

Miche Braden, as the brash Sister Rosetta, certainly has the singing chops required to do Tharpe justice in the 14 tunes that comprise the show’s song list. Her powerhouse voice has become even richer, more textured and expressive than when she last graced the CPH stage as Bessie Smith in its 2013 production of “The Devil’s Music.”

As a result, her performance of such standards as “Sit Down,” “Rock Me” and “Didn’t It Rain?” are standouts. And her harmonies with Chaz Hodges – whose voice is gorgeous but lacks the strength of Marie Knights’ to hold its own against Braden’s Sister Rosetta – are impeccable, particularly during “Four or Five Times.”

What keeps these songs and their performance from stirring the audience is not so much Braden’s inability to play the guitar that was so much a part of Sister Rosetta’s persona, but her inability to convincingly mimic the playing. She is so hamstrung by this instrument that its playing is conspicuously limited to only four songs, during which the staging keeps her at an awkward and disengaging angle to the audience in an unsuccessful effort to hide the charade. And it throws off her otherwise fine acting.

KJ Denhert does the actual guitar playing and Katreese Barnes plays piano, both superb and from behind Hernández’s simple funeral parlor set that comes equipped with a piano, chair and multiple coffins but is void of anything visually theatrical to facilitate the storytelling.

This and a script thin on biographical details and historical context keeps the production as a whole from being particularly engaging. Still, its scattering of insights of life on the road and the developing relationship between Marie and Rosetta, albeit abruptly end-loaded in the script, keeps it interesting.

Although we don’t learn much, most of us learn more than what we knew about these artists going into “Marie and Rosetta.” And we leave having been serenaded by two very talented performers.  So, this is not a great bio-musical, but it is a good evening’s entertainment.

“Marie & Rosetta”

WHERE: Cleveland Play House, Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Through Feb. 11

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 January 27, 2018.

Lead image: Chaz Hodges, from left, as Marie and Miche Braden as Sister Rosetta. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Meghan Picerno as Christine and Gardar Thor Cortes as The Phantom in touring “Love Never Dies.” Photo / Joan Marcus

Touring ‘Love Never Dies’ puts the see in sequel

By Bob Abelman

Tortured. Anguished. Frustrated.

This describes the dark, twisted title character at the heart of “Phantom of the Opera,” the longest-running musical in Broadway history and a production seen by over 130 million people worldwide.

But it also describes playwright/composer Andrew Lloyd Webber during the turbulent process of revising and remounting that show’s sequel “Love Never Dies,” which opened to poor reviews in London’s West End, was revisited before an engagement in Melbourne, Australia and further fine-tuned in Hamburg, Germany before beginning its 25-city U.S. tour this past October.

The new musical, like the original love affair between Christine Daaé and her Angel of Music, The Phantom, was passionate but incomplete.

It’s complete now, leaving the opening night Playhouse Square audience anything but tortured or anguished, though some faithful fans may well be a tad frustrated by the direction this sequel has taken.

The show takes place 10 years after the story in “Phantom of the Opera” ended. It’s 1907 and the Phantom (Gardar Thor Cortes) has left the Paris Opera House to run a sideshow at New York’s Coney Island along with the ever-loyal Madam Giry (Karen Mason) and her daughter Meg (Mary Michael Patterson) by his side.

When Christine (Meghan Picerno), now a world-renown soprano, gets an invitation from Oscar Hammerstein to perform in New York, the Phantom uses this as an opportunity to seduce her with music she cannot resist, by paying off her ne’re-do-well husband Raoul’s (Sean Thompson) massive gambling debt, and by befriending her young son, Gustave (for this performance, Jake Heston Miller).

The frustration comes from the demonization of the formerly heroic Raoul, the construction of a semi-softer and gentler-by-gradation Phantom, and setting the impending conflict between the two under a seedy Big Top tent rather than in a gothic subterranean lair.

Other areas of potential agitation can be found in the dull exposition early in the production that serves to bring the two or three people in the balcony who never witnessed the original musical up to speed, some new music that awkwardly incorporates the calliope rhythms of the boardwalk into otherwise operatic orchestrations, and the use of a carnival theme ala the Broadway revival of “Pippin” to liven things up.

And as haunting as is the Phantom’s opening “‘Til I Hear You Sing” and as gorgeous as is the duet “Beneath a Moonless Sky” between the Phantom and Christine, they never seduce as deeply nor soar as high as the original’s “All I Ask of You,” and “Music of the Night.”

But those who feel that this sequel is not up to snuff need to get over themselves.

The show’s score sits squarely in the realm of the original, which includes plenty of power ballads with beautiful lyrics by Glenn Slater (Christine’s performance of the second-act title song is remarkable), impressive high notes (Lloyd Webber’s work is not for faint-of-heart performers), and the clever and well-timed infusion of familiar “Phantom”-tropes (Lloyd Webber is infamous for plagiarizing himself even in shows that are not sequels) into the evening’s production.

The Phantom’s new carnival-themed and freak-filled underworld, described beautifully in the song “The Beauty Underneath,” is brilliantly designed and costumed by Gabriela Tylesova and dramatically lit by Nick Schlieper. It is as sinister and mysterious as this franchise demands. And there is plenty of dry ice to go around.

Most importantly, the talent found for this touring production is impressive. The voices and acting performances – particularly those of Cortes, Picerno and young Miller – should meet the high expectations of the show’s fan-base, impress Playhouse Square’s season subscribers, and knock the socks off of more casual musical theater consumers.

Director Simon Phillips and musical director Dale Rieling – who leads a top-notch and exclusively touring 13-piece orchestra – masterfully pull this complex production together.

During the opening night intermission, a fire alarm went off that required the brief evacuation of the audience. The official explanation was that the dry ice fog set off the sensitive security system, but it may well have been the rising temperature in the room generated by frustrated “Phantom” traditionalists.

Seats were still full, the dry ice was still plentiful and no disturbances plagued the second act of the show. Draw your own conclusions, but I like to think that the sequel and its dramatic climax may well have won over nay-sayers.

Touring “Love Never Dies” at Playhouse Square

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

WHEN: Through Jan. 28

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 January 12, 2018.

Lead image: Meghan Picerno as Christine and Gardar Thor Cortes as The Phantom in touring “Love Never Dies.” Photo / Joan Marcus

Craig Joseph as Louis Ironson, from left, and Scott Esposito as Prior Walter. Photo / Celeste Cosentino

Ensemble’s ‘Angels in America’ offers compelling storytelling

By Bob Abelman

Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” – which premiered in 1991 and is the winner of a Pulitzer for drama, a Tony for best play, and 11 Emmys – is set in the mid-1980s as AIDS ravages the nation and escalates the pre-existing discrimination aimed at gay men. Thirty-year-old New Yorker Prior Walter, the play’s key protagonist, is one of them, and this play takes us on his personal journey.

That is the short version of what is actually a landmark theatrical marathon; an audaciously ambitious work that is at once imaginative and unpretentious, uncompromising and affable, hard to watch and impossible to ignore.    

The play, in its entirety, is told over two separate performances: “Part One: Millennium Approaches,” which is currently on stage at Ensemble Theatre under Celeste Cosentino’s direction, and “Part Two: Perestroika,” which will open there in April. 

Collectively, the shows take longer than seven hours to perform, with Ensemble’s first installment clocking in at three hours and 20 minutes, during which we witness the parallel and occasionally overlapping stories of Prior’s illness and abandonment, a high-profile closeted prosecuting attorney facing his own demise, a closeted Mormon legal clerk coming to terms with his sexuality, and his Valium-addicted wife. 

The play compares liberalism and conservatism during the Reagan years, offers a searing indictment of race relations in the U.S., and philosophizes about how the past shapes the present. It also forges an alliance between Judaism and homosexuality, reminding us – as if we needed reminding – how swiftly a fearful and divided society marginalizes, stigmatizes and ostracizes “others.”  

Clearly, “Angels in America” demands a lot from its audience. It demands a lot from its cast members as well, who play multiple roles to demonstrate the elasticity of gender, social and cultural identities, as well as the implicitly theatrical nature of this work.  

Fortunately, the characters that Kushner creates are so compelling, and his capacity to balance diatribes with dialogue, reality with drug- and disease-induced fantasy, and horror with humor is so engaging that the play keeps audiences ever-attentive, even during the occasional lapses in technical execution that blemished Ensemble’s opening-night production.  

The show’s staging is similarly intriguing, for the script’s “Playwright’s Notes” calls for a “pared-down style of presentation” to make the show an “actor-driven event.”  

Set designer Ian Hinz respectfully redefines “pared-down” by trading traditional scenery for projected imagery. The images offer artist-rendered and intermittently animated portraits of locations that are coupled with a single piece of furniture for each scene. The images appear on a rear screen that runs the length of the long and narrow performance space, which parts to reveal a deeper performance space and second screen, which parts to reveal a third. A period appropriate and thematically relevant soundtrack, including such tunes as Queen’s “Under Pressure,” plays between scenes.

Kushner’s play is enhanced by this treatment and still manages to be actor-driven. And the actors in this production serve up truly remarkable performances that showcase their characters’ distinctive brand of pain.

Scott Esposito’s boyish portrayal of Prior is immediately likable, increasingly sympathetic and eventually heroic as the indignity and hopelessness of the character’s AIDS-ridden and rapidly diminishing body plays out.

Craig Joseph, as Prior’s lover Louis, bears the full weight of his character’s anguish over abandoning Prior and offers an immensely moving, brutally honest performance.  

So does Kelly Strand as Harper Pitt, the drug-addled and emotionally unstable wife of gay Mormon Joe Pitt who, in turn, is brilliantly portrayed by James Alexander Rankin. Harper’s chronic sorrow and all-encompassing melancholy is made palpable by Strand, and her ability to balance this with her character’s humorous delusions is dazzling.

As self-deceptive and loathsome lawyer Roy Cohn, Jeffrey Grover comes out of the gates slowly but becomes deliciously serpentine and increasingly repulsive as the play progresses.  

Robert Hunter is a delight as the former drag queen turned nurse, Belize. He milks all the gallows humor out of his scenes with Prior and turns his hilarious debate about race with Joseph’s Louis into one of the highlights of this production.

Another is Derdriu Ring as Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, who opens the show by offering a eulogy that laments the loss of “the last of the Mohicans” of early Jewish immigrants who never fully integrated into American culture.  Ring’s Yiddish, heavy Eastern European accent and impersonation of an elderly man are remarkable, as is her portrayal of Joe Pitt’s devoutly Mormon mother during a late-hour exchange with a homeless woman, played by Inés Joris.

Director Cosentino has put together a talented cast and crew to generate a very memorable production of a truly monumental play. Bring on Part Two.

“Angels in America,” Part One

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

WHEN: Through Jan. 28

TICKETS & INFO$12-$25, call216-321-2930 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 January 8, 2018.

Lead image: Craig Joseph as Louis Ironson, from left, and Scott Esposito as Prior Walter. Photo / Celeste Cosentino

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

‘Camelot’

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

‘Urinetown’

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