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

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

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

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

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

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

By Bob Abelman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On stage

“Shakespeare in Love”

WHERE:  Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN:  Through Oct. 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Bob Abelman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Stage

WHAT:  “Disney’s Freaky Friday

WHERE:  Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN:  Through May 20

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

Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at

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

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

Cleveland Play House offers a marvelously madcap ‘Baskerville’

By Bob Abelman

The Cleveland Play House has a long-term love affair with playwright Ken Ludwig.

After staging world premiere productions of his “Leading Ladies” in 2004, “The Game’s Afoot” in 2011 and “A Comedy of Tenors” to open its centennial season in 2015, the CPH’s is offering “Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” at its Allen Theatre.

It is easy to see the attraction. Ludwig has mastered the farce formula – the silly situations, the witty repartee delivered at lightning speed, and the hyper-dramatic and highly stylized funny-business – and now his plays are branded with his own name in their titles. It is enough to turn an artistic director’s head.

First staged in 2015 at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage, “Baskerville” is a farcical yet faithful send-up of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s somber piece of turn-of-the-20th century Sherlock Holmes fiction, “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”

In the Cleveland Play House production, Holmes (a fully-vested and perfectly intense Rafael Untalan) and Watson (a wonderfully accessible Jacob Jones) are visited by a Dr. John Mortimer (Brian Owen), who seeks out their services because of the recent death of his friend Sir Charles Baskerville outside the Baskerville Hall estate. According to locals (including Nisi Sturgis), the family is cursed by a supernatural hound that roams the moors and has been killing for centuries. Mortimer is concerned for the safety of the American heir to the family fortune, Sir Henry (Evan Alexander Smith), who has just arrived from Texas.

Once Holmes and Watson arrive at Baskerville Hall to investigate, they encounter a number of highly suspicious individuals, including the Baskerville servants Mr. and Mrs. Barrymore, neighbors Jack Stapleton and his sister Beryl, an escaped convict lurking in the moors, and the woman who last saw Sir Charles before his demise.

The storytelling requires an unfortunate amount of somnolent exposition, given its literary lineage, though ample fun is poked at Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s gothic plot points throughout. But what turns all this on its head is that the dozens of secondary characters are deftly handled by the same three energetic and exceptionally gifted comedic actors – Owen, Sturgis and Smith.

They employ an impressive array of accents, mannerisms and quick-change period costumes (by Lex Liang) and wigs (by Mary Schilling-Martin and Caitie Martin) to help distinguish one character from another, which are broadly based and often comically unconvincing members of the opposite sex. Several of these miraculous costume changes occur before our eyes.

These on-stage antics are perfectly accentuated by excesses of dry ice and dramatic lighting by Peter Maradudin, sound and music designer Victoria Deiorio’s melodramatic underscoring, and Timothy R. Mackabee’s scenic design that consists largely of stand-alone set pieces on wheels – windows and doors, mostly, and a framed portrait most remarkably – that double as slap-shtick props.

All this is surrounded by the dark brick exterior of an industrial building in London until it opens to reveal the English countryside that houses the Baskerville Hall estate.

Director Brendon Fox sets the action in perpetual motion from the get-go and his production is a thoroughly entertaining enterprise. But despite all the quick-change artistry and the actors’ very funny self-aware references to the changes’ absurdity, frequency and difficulty, too few risks are actually taken in this production. And too few self-aware references are spontaneous and genuine. This production is marvelously madcap but rarely is it as rollicking as, say, “A Comedy of Tenors.”

One reason may be that “Baskerville” lacks originality. The comedic device on display, and some of its specific gags, borrow heavily from Patrick Barlow’s 2007 four-person parody of the 1935 Hitchcock film “The 39 Steps,” which set the bar for quick-change comedy. And the humor that surrounds the Baskerville servants, Mr. and Mrs. Barrymore, seems inspired by Mel Brooks’ Igor and Frau Blucher in his “Young Frankenstein.”

Also, the application of this quick-change device to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles” was first done in John Nicholson and Steve Canny’s delightful 2007 adaptation of the same name.

Sometimes, in long-term affairs, love is simply taken for granted and less effort is made to keep it vibrant. That seems to be the case with “Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery.” Before the Cleveland Play House produces its next play, it may want to consider hiring Dr. Ruth Westheimer as the dramaturg.

On Stage

WHERE: Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Through Feb. 12

TICKETS & INFO: $15 – $115, call 216-241-6000 or go to

Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at

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

Lead image: Rafael Untalan as Sherlock Holmes, left, and Brian Owen as Actor One. Photo | Roger Mastroianni

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

By Bob Abelman

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

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

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

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

10. I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face

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

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

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

9. Matthew Wright in drag

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

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

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

8. Girls gone Wilde

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

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

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

7. “The Wild Party” sizzles

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

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

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

6. A store-bought musical

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

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

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

5Once more into the fray

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

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

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

4. A bad revue

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

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

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

3. Turning the Paige

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

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

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

2. When locals go national

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

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

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

1. Showcasing Stockholm syndrome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cleveland Play House’s romantic comedy ‘Sex With Strangers’ seduces, satisfies

By Bob Abelman

The Cleveland Play House’s intimate, subterranean Outcalt Theatre is quickly becoming the place where carnality and clever writing come together for an evening of mutual and consensual gratification.

Following in the footsteps of recent productions of David Ives’ psycho-sexual drama, “Venus in Fur” and Sarah Ruhl’s sex comedy, “In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play,” Laura Eason’s “Sex With Strangers” is on stage under Joanie Schultz’s superb direction.

The play received its world premiere production in 2011 at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.

Snowbound in a cozy Michigan B&B and working on her latest novel after the first earned only a modicum of success amid high expectations, Olivia’s (Monette Magrath) cherished quiet time is disrupted by a late-arriving guest.

Ethan (Sean Hudock) is a professional blogger whose sleazy online reports of his numerous one-night stands with strangers have been turned into wildly successful books. He has come to the B&B to escape his newfound fame, edit the screenplay for the optioned film, and work on the serious novel he knows he has within him.

With the internet down, no television set available and the fireplace glowing, the arrogant and attractive 28-year-old Ethan and the insecure and nearly 40-year-old Olivia fall into each other’s arms. And they do exactly what the characters in “Venus in Fur” and “In the Next Room” did: talk about sex with some explicitness and go off stage to have at it.

Throughout their physical lust-fest and the truly impressive make-out sessions that are nicely choreographed by Schultz, Eason’s characters also lust after each other’s accomplishments. Olivia craves Ethan’s notoriety; he craves Olivia’s credibility.

As the two become increasingly involved in one another’s lives and the B&B in Act 1 gives way to Olivia’s Chicago apartment in Act 2 – both of which are authentic and beautifully appointed locations designed by Chelsea M. Warren and lit by Michael Boll – red flags surface regarding their true intentions and potentially hidden agendas. This hints at the possibility of sexual and emotional gamesmanship being played.

What makes this play so very interesting in not just the seduction being performed by and between Ethan and Olivia; it’s the seduction of the audience by the playwright who, as a writer for Netflix’s hit political drama “House of Cards,” has mastered the dark art.

Eason lures us in with sex, romance and absolutely engaging writing, while managing to subtly introduce issues of substance. While the players strut and fret upon the stage in their underwear, accompanied by the sexy blues and hard-driving rock of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals (courtesy of sound designer Thomas Dixon), the playwright explores the evils of ambition, the power of the internet to invent or reinvent identity, and the continuing struggles of women artists.

The actors are busy seducing the audience as well, by hinting at but never quite revealing their characters’ true intentions. We can sense an undercurrent of mistrust and tension as Hudock and Magrath recognize and ride the play’s shifting rhythms and dynamics, but it is never fully exposed until the end of this two-hander.

It is testimony to these actors’ fine performances and remarkable chemistry that Ethan’s virile arrogance is such a perfect fit with Olivia’s vulnerability that their mutual attraction seems plausible. And as the play evolves and each characters’ strong suits and debilitating weaknesses shift power positions – artistically represented by an intriguing shift in scenic design – that, too, is believable.

At the end of last Saturday night’s performance, more patrons than usual appeared to be rushing outside for a smoke. If that isn’t a sign of a satisfying sex comedy, I don’t know what is. CV

On stage

WHAT: “Sex With Strangers”

WHERE: Outcalt Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Through Nov. 13

TICKETS & INFO: $25-$90, call 216-241-6000 or visit


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

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Oct. 30, 2016.

Lead image: Monette Magrath (Olivia) and Sean Hudock (Ethan). PHOTO | Roger Mastroianni