The new New Deal

by Bob Abelman

Between 1933 and 1943, during the depths of the Great Depression and into the early years of World War II, federal tax dollars employed artists and craft workers of various media and with varying levels of experience, and kept them from poverty and despair.

In addition to providing relief, the New Deal’s Federal Art Project and other government-sponsored art programs promoted American art and culture by giving more Americans access to what President Franklin D. Roosevelt decorously labeled “an abundant life.” It enabled Americans all across the country to see an original painting for the first time, attend their first professional live theater or dance production, or take their first music or drawing class. An enormous volume of public art intended for education and civic engagement – including 2,500 murals and 18,000 sculptures – was created without restriction to content or subject matter and put on display.  

Arshile Gorky works on “Activities on the field,” his 1936 mural project for Newark Airport sponsored by the Works Progress Administration. | Photo / Federal Art Project, Photographic Division

“Artists have been given something more precious than their daily bread,” said social critic Lewis Mumford at the time. “(They have received) the knowledge that their work has a destination in the community.” The public art of the New Deal reflected a vast array of traditions and cultures that served not only to celebrate the nation’s diversity but to reflect and build a common, collective national identity through art.

Never before or since has our government so extensively supported and sponsored the arts. Until now.

COVID-19 devastation by the numbers

The Bureau of Economic Analysis and the National Endowment for the Arts report arts and culture contribute approximately $877.8 billion, or 4.5%, to the nation’s gross domestic product annually, according to 2017 data. Prior to the pandemic, more than 5 million wage-and-salary workers were employed in the arts and cultural sector.

In the wake of COVID-19, the arts have been devastated. Research published by the Brookings Institution reports the performing arts have been the most at risk and the hardest hit of all the creative industries. More than 52% of actors and 55% of dancers were out of work in the third quarter of last year, when the national unemployment rate was 8.5%, The New York Times reported. Since the shuttering of arts venues in March to the end of the last calendar year, it was estimated that nationwide almost 1.4 million performing and fine arts related jobs and $42.5 billion in sales have been lost. And the numbers are mounting as venues remain closed or open to sparse, socially distanced occupancy.

The live entertainment industry has missed out on $9.7 billion of box office sales, according to Pollstar, a trade publication. The larger economic hit from lost sponsorships, concessions, merchandise and other related revenues may be closer to an estimated loss of $33 billion. 

Broadway theaters were among the first businesses to shut down in March 2020, and according to the Actors’ Equity Association, more than 1,100 actors and managers lost work. From May 2018 to May 2019, shows across all 41 theaters garnered more than $1.83 billion in sales. But according to a report published by the Broadway League, a national organization of theater owners and show producers, only around $300 million in ticket sales were generated in 2020 before theaters were shuttered and midtown Manhattan became nearly deserted. Thousands more working touring shows that contributed $3.8 billion to the local economies of about 200 U.S. cities became unemployed.     

In March, we witnessed the abrupt closure of nearly all the nation’s 5,477 cinemas, the Los Angeles Times reported. In Los Angeles County, where all five major film studios – Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, Warner Bros., Universal Pictures and Walt Disney Studios – are housed, job losses in the creative community reached 24% between February and December 2020. Disney alone saw a $7.4 billion loss to its operating income in the last fiscal year, despite its effective shift in distribution to streaming services.  

Locally in Cuyahoga County, arts, entertainment and recreation is a $1.35 billion industry that employs more than 10,000 people, one-third of whom lost jobs due to the pandemic, ideastream reported in October. Downtown Cleveland’s Playhouse Square Foundation – a consortium of performing arts venues that attract about 1 million visits a year – estimated a loss of about $4 million and laid off or furloughed nearly 200 employees between March 2020, when its theaters were first closed, and the end of the calendar year. Playhouse Square has canceled or postponed 680 performances, the organization reported late last year. 

In a May 2020 press release, Gina Vernaci, Playhouse Square CEO and president, said, “Your health and safety are our top priority,” announcing the postponement of the KeyBank Broadway series.

And, of course, local theaters, concert halls, nightclubs and arenas across the region have had thousands of live performances canceled or indefinitely postponed, leaving artists unemployed or severely underemployed. But there has been help.

A New New Deal

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act was a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill signed into law last March in response to the economic fallout of the pandemic. The bill included the Paycheck Protection Program, which offered small businesses – including arts organizations – forgivable loans to help them keep their workforce employed during COVID-19.  

Within 18 days of the bill’s approval, the National Endowment for the Arts was awarded almost $75 million, 40% of which was to be distributed to state and territorial arts agencies and regional arts organizations, including the Ohio Arts Council, for their funding of local programs. By law, the agency had to allocate the money by Dec. 30, 2020 which, according to its Executive Director Donna S. Collins in a press release, “will go a long way in supporting the recovery and resilience of Ohio’s creative economy.”

The OAC issued 296 grant awards totaling $20 million in economic relief for the arts and culture sector. Approximately $2.66 million was set to be distributed to arts and culture nonprofits through Cuyahoga Arts & Culture, the public agency that distributes some $12 million a year in county cigarette tax revenue to cultural nonprofits in the area. An additional $1.3 million was given to Arts Cleveland, which distributed the relief funds to some 425 Cuyahoga County artists and 38 performing arts businesses, of which 23 are owned by minorities or women, local media reported. 

“The CARE funds we received though the Ohio Arts Council and Cuyahoga Arts & Culture have helped survive the loss of a season plus two plays from last spring,” says Bob Taylor, executive director of Great Lakes Theater in Cleveland. “They allowed us to hold onto the reserves we strategically and rigorously built over the last decade so that we will be ready for when what’s coming next comes along.”

The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant Program

In December 2020, tucked into Congress’ massive, year-end $2.3 trillion relief package, was the largest public rescue of the arts in U.S. history: $15 billion in relief grants earmarked to help save the arts and entertainment industry. First crack at the money went to those venue owners who could demonstrate losses of 90% of their earned total revenue because of the COVID-19 shutdown, the Washington Post reported. Allowable expenses included equipment, rent, insurance, worker protection expenditures and mortgage payments.  

The PPP was also extended, allowing many arts organizations to apply for a second forgivable loan from a pool of $284 billion. The NEA and National Endowment for the Humanities were given a budget increase of $5.2 million each ($167.5 million each in FY2021) and were tasked with distributing additional funding to nonprofit arts organizations across the country. 

American Rescue Plan Act

Most recently, the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 passed this March. The Act provides an additional $270 million in funds to the NEA and NEH, $175 million in emergency funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, an additional $7.25 billion for PPP and an additional $1.25 billion for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant Program program. It is expected this round of funding will support about 234,000 jobs, according to the National Endowment for the Arts.   

The cast of “Ghost Girls,” part of the “5 x 15 Minutes” musicals, a partnership between the Beck Center for the Arts, Baldwin Wallace University and the National Alliance for Musical Theatre. | Photo / Screenshot, directed by Vicky Bussert

The impact of relief funding

How do relief payments affect arts organizations on an individual basis? For one thing, the funding provides for sustainable staffing. 

For many arts organization, the first and most accessible form of assistance came in the form the forgivable loans made available through the Paycheck Protection Program. The first round of the PPP, which issued loans from March to August 2020, helped 5.2 million small businesses keep 51 million American workers employed, according to the Small Business Administration.  

This past December, as many small businesses continued to struggle and the PPP was renewed, roughly 60,000 borrowers were approved for the forgivable loans during the first week of the reopening, noted the SBA. A portion of the available funds were set aside for first-time borrowers.  

In Northeast Ohio, some larger organizations like downtown Great Lakes Theater did not have to lay off a single administrative or production staffer thanks to these loans. 

“When we are ready to go back to work and deliver live theater – hopefully in the fall, along with our Playhouse Square partners – we will have our team in place and hit the ground running,” Taylor says.  

André Gremillet, president and CEO of The Cleveland Orchestra, says, “We applied for and received a PPP loan in the amount of $5.5 million dollars, which was absolutely essential in order to be able to pay our employees – including our musicians – in 2020.”

For some smaller arts organizations with limited staffing, such as Cleveland Heights’ Ensemble Theatre, PPP loans were “a lifeline,” according to Executive Artistic Director Celeste Cosentino.

Katrice Monee Headd in Maelstrom Collaborative Arts’ “ACTIVATE 2020” storefront window visual and performing arts project. | Photo / Kaitlin K. Walsh

The funds also allowed for creative pivoting. For Gordon Square’s Maelstrom Collaborative Arts, the PPP and other forms of federal funding “allowed us to pivot, creatively,” says connectivity director Marcia Custer.  

Similarly, Laura Wiegand, executive director of Les Délices, suggests grants distributed by Cuyahoga Arts & Culture and the OAC enabled the Cleveland-based chamber ensemble to think outside the box. Adds the company’s artistic director Debra Nagy, “We emerged from the pandemic as providers of virtual interactive programming and pivoted from audio to audio/video recording for later distribution. It changed our model of creativity.”  

Verb Ballets dancers Emily Dietz, from left, Lieneke Matte, Kelly Korfhage and Kate Webb perform “KL3668.” | Photo / Kolman Rosenberg Photography

The same goes for Verb Ballets in Shaker Heights, which was forced to close its doors last March. According to producing artistic director Margaret Carlson, “we could not have continued without relief funding,” which not only reopened the doors six weeks later by providing payroll for the company’s 14 dancers and six staff, but it allowed Verb Ballets to invest in the equipment necessary to transition a rehearsal studio into a recording studio, and purchase the technology necessary to deliver performances virtually. “Doing so,” adds Carlson, “has significantly expanded the company’s audience nationally and internationally.”  

Cleveland Public Theatre’s Raymond Bobgan notes that everything takes longer and requires more resources to produce art under the current circumstances. But the grants have allowed CPT, located in Gordon Square, to “dive in” and reinvent its working model, he says. 

Darelle Hill, from left, Samantha Cocco, Christina Johnson, Zach Palumbo and CorLesia Smith in Karamu House’s “Freedom After Juneteenth, Episode Two.” | Photo / Nathan Migal

Another impact is on programming. Karamu House, in the Fairfax neighborhood on the east side of Cleveland, and CPT were among the many local theaters to receive a grant from the OAC CARES program. But they were the only two Cleveland theaters of the 30 historically under-resourced Midwestern arts and culture organizations to receive a grant from Arts Midwest’s share of the United States Regional Arts Resilience Fund.  

This first round of funding – consisting of $50,000 to $55,000 grants for each of the 30 organizations, underwritten by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation – focused on rural communities, Indigenous communities and communities of color. Karamu is the oldest producing African American theater in the nation, and CPT is home to the Latino theater company Teatro Publico de Cleveland. Grant sources helped make possible Karamu’s original virtual theater social justice series “Freedom on Juneteenth” and facilitated CPT’s use of technology to extend its virtual reach into the community, and to take creative risks in the development of hybrid performance art that merge film with live theater. 

When the dust settles

As might be expected, the New Deal’s Federal Art Project was met with some political opposition. Works of art that promoted social justice, challenged political beliefs or threatened cultural norms, for example, were seized upon by critics of President Roosevelt and used as fuel for the argument that the New Deal was bad for America. Many argued art projects should not be funded with taxpayer money. Several works of art that depicted controversial topics were destroyed by local officials uninterested in or fearful of radical, depressing or “un-American” subject matter.

Clearly, funding the arts is still a partisan issue. Recall that former President Donald Trump’s budgets for the past four years proposed the elimination of the NEA, NEH and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, as The New York Times reported.  

“As for now,” notes Laura Lott, president and chief executive of the American Alliance of Museums in a recent Times article, “we are relieved with how things ended up (under the Biden administration). But we don’t take anything for granted.” 

By Skylar Dubelko

The Cleveland International Film Festival will permanently move to Playhouse Square in downtown Cleveland in 2021.

First held at Cedar Lee Theatre in Cleveland Heights for 14 years and then at Tower City Cinemas in downtown Cleveland for the last 30 years, next year’s move marks a new chapter for both CIFF and Playhouse Square.

Gina Vernaci

Playhouse Square President and CEO Gina Vernaci described the festival as “a real point of pride for Northeast Ohio (that is) recognized as one of the best internationally” in a Jan. 23 media release announcing the move.

“Marcie Goodman and her team have built a juggernaut of a festival … . They bring the world to Cleveland, through the films they program and through the audiences and filmmakers who travel from around the globe to be a part of it,” Vernaci said in the release. “We heartily welcome CIFF to our family of resident companies.”

CIFF in 2020 will remain at Tower City Cinemas, with the 44th annual festival scheduled from March 25 to April 5.

Come 2021, festival attendees will be able to view films in venues such as the Allen Theatre, KeyBank State Theatre, Mimi Ohio Theatre and Connor Palace. They will also have access to Playhouse Square District’s dining and nightlife establishments.

Marcie Goodman

“By moving to Playhouse Square, the CIFF gets to remain in our beloved downtown Cleveland and under one phenomenal roof,” CIFF Executive Director Marcie Goodman said in the release. “We will have the privilege to be part of a thriving arts district where the sum of our Film Festival and Playhouse Square parts, along with the other resident companies, will be profoundly strong.”

According to Goodman, it’s come time to position the festival within “an incredible entertainment complex with multiple-sized venues and enormous capacity.”

“It will be thrilling for us to create a different audience experience, from intimate to grand, as we honor Playhouse Square’s past, which was built on cinema,” Goodman added. “We cannot wait for our future to begin.”

Described in the release as the “largest performing arts center in the country outside of New York,” the nonprofit Playhouse Square is home to the Cleveland Ballet, Cleveland Play House, Cleveland State University Department of Theatre and Dance, DANCECleveland, Great Lakes Theater and Tri-C JazzFest.

The Cleveland Jewish News and Canvas are media sponsors of CIFF 2020.

Playhouse Square announced the lineup of shows for its 2019-2020 KeyBank Broadway Series.

“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” (Oct. 8-27); “The Band’s Visit” (Nov. 5-24); “Mean Girls” (Dec. 3-22); “Anastasia” (Feb. 4-23, 2020); “Jesus Christ Superstar” (March 10-29, 2020); “My Fair Lady” (April 28 to May 17, 2020); and “Disney’s Frozen” (July 15 to Aug. 16, 2020) will take the stage next season in downtown Cleveland.

The cast of “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.” (photo by Matthew Murphy)
The company of “The Band’s Visit.” (Photo by Matthew Murphy)
The cast of “Mean Girls” includes, from left to right, Ashley Park (Gretchen Wieners), Taylor Louderman (Regina George), Kate Rockwell (Karen Smith) and Erika Henningsen (Cady Heron). (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Lila Coogan (Anya) and the company of the National Tour of “Anastasia.” (Photo by Evan Zimmerman; MurphyMade.)
The cast of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” (Photo Credit: Evan Zimmerman; MurphyMade)
Original Broadway Cast: Norbert Leo Butz and company in Lincoln Center Theater’s “My Fair Lady.” (Photo: Original Broadway Cast by Joan Marcus)
Caissie Levy as Elsa in “Frozen.” (photo by Saint)

The shows were announced over a Feb. 26 online broadcast of Playhouse Square’s annual Broadway Launch Party.

“In today’s fast-paced world of push notifications and screens that chirp at us all day, it is helpful to have good incentives to shut them all off. The KeyBank Broadway Series offers seven such reasons,” Playhouse Square President and COO Gina Vernaci said in a news release. “We know you are going to thoroughly enjoy those moments when the lights go down, worries disappear and showtime truly becomes your time.”

Playhouse Square, with nearly 46,000 season ticket holders, leads the nation’s Broadway tour markets. Playhouse Square will offer each production for a total of three weeks, giving Northeast Ohioans a number of opportunities to catch these touring productions. 

For more information about the seven shows or ticket options, visit

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

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

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

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

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

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 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

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

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 May 6, 2018.

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

‘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

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 13, 2018.

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

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

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 March 8, 2018.

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

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

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 12, 2018.

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

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

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 December 7, 2017.

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

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

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 November 10, 2017.

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

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

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

By Bob Abelman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bryan Fenkart brings all the endearing idiosyncrasies required of

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

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

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

On Stage

Touring “Waitress” at Playhouse Square

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

WHEN: Through Nov. 5

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

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 Oct. 22, 2017.

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

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

Photo / Jeremy Daniel

Touring ‘Something Rotten’ is an absolute treat

By Bob Abelman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Stage

WHAT:  “Something Rotten!”

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

WHEN:  Through May 14

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

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

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

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

Adam Langdon as Christopher. Photo / Joan Marcus

Touring ‘The Curious Incident’ astounds more than it engages

By Bob Abelman

“On the spectrum.”

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

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

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

Just as the film “A Beautiful Mind” captured, through clever cinematography, the paranoid delusions associated with John Nash’s genius, “The Curious Incident” relies on high-quality high-tech stagecraft – and 234 sound and 373 light cues – to depict the barrage of stimuli that keeps Christopher in a heightened state of anxiety.

The performance space is surrounded by Bunny Christie’s Tony Award-winning scenic design that entails a huge black mathematical grid that explodes with the animated images that exist in Christopher’s mind – mathematical formulas, city maps, train stations and constellations – as designed by Finn Ross.

An exhilarating electric underscore by Adrian Sutton, intense pulsating lighting design by Paule Costable, amplified ambient sound design by Ian Dickinson, and modern ballet mob-scene movement by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett work in perfect balance to create an intriguing sense of Christopher’s consciousness.

Playing Christopher in Britain’s National Theatre touring production, which is currently on stage at Playhouse Square, is the magnificent Adam Langdon (who alternates with Benjamin Wheelwright for some performances). Langdon’s portrayal is authentically autistic, artistically risk taking, and always interesting.

And yet, this impressive, immersive theater experience is not particularly engaging. The reason is that this drama is also on the spectrum, exhibiting an excess of storytelling but not much story.

The play revolves around Christopher’s parents, who are estranged due to the pressures associated with looking after their high-maintenance son. In the first act, we and Christopher learn the details of their separation and in the second act we travel with Christopher on his Asperger’s odyssey to London to see his Mom.

Once the sheer novelty and unconventionality of the production values wears off, the thin story beneath it becomes exposed and the show grows tedious.

To cover, the playwright uses the same narrative devices as Haddon’s bestseller but they never quite click on stage.

Christopher’s special-education teacher, Siobhan – a delightful Maria Elena Ramirez – provides Christopher’s inner voice by reading aloud his journal about his family. Because this turns the play and the people in it into an extension of Christopher’s autism, it limits the range and depth with which the parents can be depicted.

The wonderful Gene Gillette and Felicity Jones Latta do what they can to add flesh to their characters, but there’s not much to work with. The talented ensemble, who are afforded moments as assorted neighbors and passersby, are similarly handcuffed.

Later in the play, Siobhan convinces Christopher to turn his journal into a play, which then gets enacted in this production and gives way to some meta-theatrical references that come across as cloying.

Director Marianne Elliott finds the humor and tenderness in this work, as she did when creating the first production of “War Horse” for the National Theatre.

But the heightened engagement she was able to generate from that production and from the London and Broadway productions of “The Curious Incident” get a bit lost amidst the bells and whistles of this touring production. cv

On stage

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

WHEN:  Through April 9

TICKETS & INFO:   $10 – $90, call 216-241-6000 or visit

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

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on March 23, 2017.

Lead image: Adam Langdon as Christopher. Photo / Joan Marcus

Jose Llana as the King of Siam and Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna. Photo | Matthew Murphy

Success of touring ‘The King and I’ is no puzzlement

By Bob Abelman

The double-edged sword associated with revivals of Golden Age musicals is that our overfamiliarity with the work – its score, its staging, its characters and the actors who defined them – cries out for change while simultaneously condemning it. Novelty and nostalgia are always at odds in theatrical re-productions.

This is particularly true for stage-to-screen musicals like “The King and I,” where our memories of the original work are cinematic. These perpetually preserved images are impossible to replicate in a live production and are reinforced with every viewing of the 1956 film, so each attempt at innovation is blatantly obvious and often underwhelming.

And yet, director Bartlett Sher’s production of this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, on tour and on stage at the Connor Palace Theatre, offers creative changes and new ways of tapping our emotions without ever detracting from why it was a classic in the first place.

True to the Tony-winning revival that closed last June at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, this touring production manages to be both novel and nostalgic, which is remarkable. The product on stage is breathtaking.

Set in 1860’s Bangkok, the musical tells the story of the unconventional relationship that develops between the King of Siam and Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher, whom the modernist King brings to imperialistic Siam to tutor his many wives and children.

This production is intentionally cinematic. It creates gorgeous pictures that fill the stage with Michael Yeargan’s visually dramatic and oversized sets that are color-saturated with Donald Holder and Catherine Zuber’s lighting and costuming, respectively, and animated by Scott Lehrer’s rich sound design. And once the action moves into the Royal Palace, everything on stage is cinematically framed within decorative pillars that are suspended from the ceiling.

During the extraordinary “Shall We Dance?” number in Act II, the pillars move in opposition to the choreography, as if the movement was captured through a roving camera, which also creates the illusion of a more expansive performance space. By doing so, the staging cleverly captures one of the most iconic moments from the film.

Christopher Gattelli’s hyper-precise, Asian-infused choreography pays homage to Jerome Robbins’ original movement from the film and the 1951 Broadway production but takes full advantage of the physical strength and dexterity of his modern dancers.

This touring troupe consists of exceptionally talented dancers, particularly Lamae Caparas, Stephanie Lo, Jeoffrey Watson and Yuki Ozeki. The ballet “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” performed before visiting British dignitaries to Siam, is one of this show’s many highlights.

While the production values are incredible, it is the performances of the featured actors that drive this show.

Following in Yul Brynner’s enduring footsteps is a difficult feat, so Jose Llana uses his youth as an asset to redefine the role. This King of Siam is more playful and more apt to reveal the insecurities that exist under the character’s outward displays of arrogance and entitlement. As such, he is boyishly charming and immediately endearing, which resets Anna’s response to him from romantic – the go-to-emotion in past productions – to a hard-fought and rather profound admiration.

This is only possible if the admiration is mutual, which is readily established by the earnest fearlessness Laura Michelle Kelly brings to the role of Anna. And, with a voice and stage presence that has graced the Broadway stage in “Finding Neverland, “Mary Poppins” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” she delivers “Hello, Young Lovers” and “Getting to Know You” as Rodgers and Hammerstein had intended.

While all this may result in fewer tears as the two part ways at the end of the storytelling, they are no less heartfelt. And there are more tears to be had in the heartbreak generated by the talented Joan Almedilla as the King’s Chief Wife, Lady Thiang, during her moving rendition of “Something Wonderful” and by Manna Nichols and Kavin Panmeechao, the doomed lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha, in “I Have Dreamed.”

These featured performers are surrounded by a fully committed, highly disciplined and always interesting ensemble. And everyone is accompanied by a large spot-on local orchestra steered by a core of touring musicians and effectively directed by Gerald Steichen.

It is impossible to ask for more out of a national tour or any production of “The King and I.” This is the one that future revivals will be compared to. CV

On Stage

WHAT:  “The King and I”

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

WHEN:  Through Feb. 26

TICKETS & INFO:   $10 – $110, call 216-241-6000 or visit

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

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

Lead image: Jose Llana as the King of Siam and Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna. Photo | Matthew Murphy

Eleasha Gamble, from left, Laurie Veldheer, Anthony Chatmon II, and Vanessa Reseland. Photo | Joan Marcus

Stripped-down ‘Into the Woods’ makes Sondheim accessible

By Bob Abelman

It seems as if most theatergoers either have a love or hate relationship with composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

Since the 1970s, Sondheim has taken all that is simple, predictable and harmonious in the American musical and transformed it into something quite the opposite. His creations blur the line between lyric and dialogue, fill the air with a dense and steady stream of discordant sounds and images, and offer stories that are as complex as the people who populate them. Some get it; some don’t care to.

Regardless, patrons approach productions of Sondheim and librettist James Lapine’s “Into the Woods,” which opened on Broadway in 1987 and was recently turned into a star-studded film, as if it were children’s theater.

Because the Tony Award-winning “Into the Woods” intertwines the familiar plots of several well-known Brothers Grimm fairy tale characters – including Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of beanstalk fame), Rapunzel and Cinderella – parents often bring their wide-eyed tikes to the theater, who arrive expecting a coddling bedtime story but leave tearful and traumatized by intermission.

The show may revolve around a Baker and his wife venturing into the woods in an effort to reverse the magic spell that has kept them childless, but it bears all the foreboding theatrical trademarks typical of Sondheim musicals. Put Sweeney Todd in lederhosen and brightly colored socks and he is still the demon barber of Fleet Street.

But the significantly stripped-down Fiasco Theater version of “Into the Woods,” which originated at the McCarter Theater in New Jersey in 2013, had an Off-Broadway run, and is currently on national tour and at Playhouse Square, is different.

Although the story and score remain intact, they are delivered through delightfully inventive storytelling devised by co-directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld. Instead of characters, we are introduced to likable actors who are play-acting and whose playfulness tempers much of the show’s revelations about the dark underbelly of “once upon a time” and effectively blunts some of Sondheim’s sharp edges and keen intensity.

And playing pretend diminishes much of the play’s notorious pretention.

Scenic designer Derek McLane has fashioned a stage that is conducive to play-acting, for it resembles the cluttered storage attic of an eccentric Aunt, where set pieces, props and character-defining bits of costuming are fabricated from found objects and distressed artifacts compiled in corners.

Locations like the woods and off-stage characters like the Giant are imagined with the assistance of Christopher Akerlind’s clever lighting, Darron L. West and Charles Coes’ sound design, and the audience’s willingness to play along.

An inconsequential character (Cinderella’s father) in the original work is roguishly replaced with a framed portrait stand-in, a scary creature (the Wolf) is played by an actor holding up a piece of tepid taxidermy, and a comparatively dull character’s narrative dialogue (the Mysterious Man) is shared by more interesting characters.

And instead of an orchestra, the 11 players accompany each other on an up-right piano (masterly performed by understudy Sean Peter Forte), cello, oboe, trumpet and a range of make-shift percussion instruments that are scattered about the stage.

The show is so stripped-down that the actors – most of who play multiple medieval-era fairy tale characters – arrive in period underwear and chat with the audience before the play begins.

This “Into the Woods” is extremely enjoyable and it makes Sondheim’s work so very accessible. But that comes at a cost. Several in fact.

Though charming, musical accompaniment in the place of full orchestration dumbs down Sondheim’s rich compositions, particularly “Hello Little Girl” and “No One is Alone.”

In casting talented performers whose personality and stage presence take priority over the rarified vocal skills required to make the most of Sondheim’s difficult songs, those songs suffer.

Lisa Helmi Johanson as Little Red Riding Hood, Darick Pead as Milky White the cow, Eleasha Gamble as the Baker’s Wife, and Philippe Arroyo as Jack are wonderful. But only Laurie Veldheer’s “On the Steps of the Palace” as Cinderella, Vanessa Reseland’s “Last Midnight” as the Witch, and Evan Harrington’s “No More” as the Baker stand out.

Also, for the Sondheim aficionados among us, blunting Sondheim’s sharp edges, softening the show’s keen intensity, and side-stepping its pretentiousness sort of misses the point of performing a Sondheim musical.

The payoff is that the children and naysaying adults in attendance were actually at a Sondheim production they could fully appreciate. Bring on “Sweeney Todd” and “Company.” CV

Related: Former Clevelander Wolf backstage star in ‘Into the Woods’

On stage

WHAT:  “Into the Woods”

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

WHEN:  Through Jan. 29

TICKETS & INFO:   $10 – $90, call 216-241-6000 or visit

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

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

Lead image: Eleasha Gamble, from left, Laurie Veldheer, Anthony Chatmon II, and Vanessa Reseland. Photo | Joan Marcus

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

The ensemble of “Finding Neverland” | Photo / Carol Rosegg

More lost boy than pan, ‘Finding Neverland’ crows, but doesn’t fly

By Bob Abelman

It may help resuscitate fairies, but no amount of clapping can reconcile what the musical “Finding Neverland” is and the kind of musical it wants to be.

Following the popular and often unfortunate trend of turning feature films into Broadway musicals, “Finding Neverland” – which opened in New York in 2012 and is on tour and on stage at Playhouse Square – is based on the 2004 biopic about the Scottish-born playwright J. M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan.

Both works explore Barrie’s friendship with the Llewelyn Davies boys, how young Peter inspired the now-famous tale and its featured character, and Barrie’s complicated relationship with their mother, Sylvia.

But while the film embraces the rather gloomy story of a depressed and depleted playwright whose latest work flopped horribly, whose wife left him for another man, and whose scandalous relationship with the married Sylvia ended with her death from heart cancer, the musical douses the darkness with treacle.

Sorted details about Barrie’s psychological state and Sylvia’s marital status and illness, which are central to and unavoidable in the biographical story being told, are glossed over and presented with overt sentimentality in James Graham’s script.

Barrie (Kevin Kern) now struggles against his own inhibitions rather than his inner demons, while Sylvia (Christine Dwyer) is conveniently widowed and doesn’t cough until well into Act 2.

Life’s harsh realities and stifling Victorian era mores are personified by Sylvia’s protective mother (Joanna Glushak) and reduced to life-affirming messages relayed through Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy’s syrupy and wholly unmemorable music/lyrics.

And everything that moves is set to Mia Michaels’ theatrically exaggerated choreography, imbued with eye-candy special effects by Paul Kieve and Daniel Wurtzel, and placed within Scott Pask and Kenneth Posner’s picture postcard set and lighting designs.

Everything is enriched by Jon Driscoll’s ambient animated projections that include passing clouds over the rooftops of London, birds flying through Kensington Gardens, and starry skies.

Under director Diane Paulus’ staging, “Finding Neverland” more closely resembles the stylistically oversaturated Disney stage version of “Mary Poppins” than anything associated with Peter Pan, including the original 1954 Broadway production, and tries way too hard to do so.

All this flies in the face of the trajectory of the biodrama that drives this musical. In fact, there are times during the production when songs seem disruptive and unwelcome, suggesting that this musical should not be a musical at all.

And yet, if seen through the eyes of a child – who must surely be the target audience for this affair despite claims to the contrary by its producers – “Finding Neverland” is thoroughly entertaining.

Kern as Barrie (a role he understudied on Broadway) and Dwyer as Sylvia have incredible voices and sell their story with immense passion and precision. The same goes for Tom Hewitt, who employs his impressive stage presence, comic timing and booming voice to great effect as both Barrie’s benefactor Charles Frohman and Captain Hook.

And the talented ensemble, who anchor each elaborate production number and take on roles as servants, strolling citizens and members of Frohman’s theater troupe, are superb. Matt Wolpe and Dwelvan David are particularly delightful, while the dance between Dee Tomasetta as Peter Pan and Adrianne Chu as Wendy during a brief scene from Barrie’s first staging of “Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up” is wonderful.

The actors playing the four Davies children on opening night – Eli Tokash as Peter, Mitchell Wray as Jack, Finn Faulconer as George and Jordan Cole as Michael – are enchanting. They are natural in their playfulness and handle all the key acting moments that come their way. So does Sammy, who plays Barrie’s dog and never misses a cue.

In short, the stage explodes with energy and impressive execution. And all that highly stylized choreography, eye-candy effects and animated projection, which undermines its source material, is mesmerizing nonetheless.

The production opens with the bright light of Tinker Bell beckoning us to come with her behind the closed curtains for a great adventure. What awaits us there is the Peter Pan story as told by the Lost Boys from Barrie’s novel, who crow loud and long but never quite get off the floor to fly.

“I think to have faith is to have wings,” says Sylvia sometime during “Finding Neverland.” In the world of musical theater, it takes a bit more than that. CV

“Finding Neverland”

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

WHEN: Through Nov. 20

TICKETS & INFO: $10-$100, 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 Nov 2, 2016.

Lead image: The ensemble of “Finding Neverland” | Photo / Carol Rosegg

Photo:  Ensemble of “Fun Home” | Photo / Joan Marcus

‘Fun Home’ on tour thrives on its creative contrasts

By Bob Abelman

“Dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town. And he was gay, and I was gay, and he killed himself, and I became a lesbian cartoonist. … Caption – My dad and I were exactly alike. Caption – My dad and I were nothing alike.”

These lines from the opening scene of “Fun Home,” the 2015 Tony Award-winning musical that is launching its national tour at Playhouse Square, perfectly sum up the play’s remarkably simple story and the astoundingly complex characters who populate it.

It’s this creative juxtaposition of simplicity and complexity, and the heart wrenching and theatrical intriguing moments it produces on stage, that makes this musical such a welcome addition to this season’s lineup of Broadway roadshows

“Fun Home” is a one-act memory play based on a 2006 graphic novel memoire by Alison Bechdel. It features 43-year-old Alison in her studio drawing illustrations of her family and attempting to capture the perfect captions. Memories from her youth and young adulthood unfold on the stage around her as she tries to reconcile the enigma that was her father.

Each scene is a selective, sentimental and occasionally surreal remembrance of a happy family and a healthy home. These out of sequence memories subtly give way to repressed truths about her dad’s tortured soul and shed light on the family’s dysfunction. And, as is the case with all memory plays, the standard rules of musical theater don’t apply.

None of the songs serves to move the story along its dramatic arc or add heightened vision to the storytelling, as they do in most musicals. Instead, with music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics by Lisa Kron, they merely reflect a simple observation, express a single thought or capture an isolated emotion. Their austerity renders them particularly beautiful and surprisingly poignant.

Liberties are also taken with the portrayal of Alison. The history of lesbians as featured protagonists in musical theater is sparse to say the least, and this show’s queer identity is one of the things that makes it special. But it is the division of Alison into three characters at different stages in her life that makes it intriguing.

As Small Alison at age 9, Alessandra Baldacchino is magnificent. Honest in her expression of emotion and authentic in her relationships with her bothers – played well by Pierson Salvadore and Lennon Nate Hammond – Baldacchino captures all the complexities of this character. She is also blessed with a lovely voice that absolutely crushes the song “Ring of Keys,” where Small Alison recognizes herself in a butch delivery-woman who walks by.

Magnificent also describes Abby Corrigan’s portrayal of Medium Alison at age 19, whose deliciously awkward insecurities and puppy-love crush on college classmate Joan – a delightful Karen Eilbacher – are a pleasure to watch. The song where she declares she is changing her major to Joan is one of the show’s highlights.

Another is “Telephone Wire,” where the adult Alison – portrayed by the immensely talented Kate Shindle – goes for a car ride with her father during a college-era memory flashback rather than her college-age self. The effect of this existential moment and the song that accompanies it is haunting.

Robert Petkoff is mesmerizing as Bruce, Alison’s deeply troubled father, particularly when his intense self-denial loses the battle with his homosexual urges in the company of Roy, Mark, Pete, and Bobby – all played by Robert Hager.

This plays havoc on his family and reduces his wife Helen to a lost soul, which is handled with remarkable delicacy by Susan Moniz.

In the original production of “Fun Home,” which opened and recently closed at Broadway’s Circle in the Square, all these intimate moments and dulcet disclosures were delivered bare-boned and in-the-round with no permanent scenery and before no more than 700 patrons at a time.

Such intimacy and perspective are sadly sacrificed in this touring production, where cavernous theaters like the Conner Palace force proscenium stages and seating for significantly larger and physically distanced audiences on the show’s creative team.

Director Sam Gold and designers David Zinn (scenic), Ben Stanton (lighting) and Kai Harada (sound) do what they can to compensate.

They place the magnificent string-heavy six-piece orchestra, under Micah Young’s direction, on stage behind the performers, which adds charm.

And they add scenery and family furnishings to fill the expansive space on stage. They do so by degree and in accordance with the distance of Alison’s memories, which works beautifully. The stage is barer and the details of the home are less complete when looking back at Alison’s youth; they are more fleshed out when seen through the memories of Alison’s young adulthood.

Still, the touring production seems more staged and less intimate than originally conceived. This is a shame and would be a problem, if not for the exquisite performances by this cast and enrapturing nature of the material they deliver.

On Stage

“Fun Home”

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

WHEN: Through Oct. 22

TICKETS & INFO: $10-$100, 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. 7, 2016.

Lead image: Ensemble of “Fun Home.” Photo | Joan Marcus

The Company performs ”Masquerade.” PHOTO | Alastair Muir

Touring ‘Phantom of the Opera’ too big to fail, too good to miss at Playhouse Square’s State Theatre

By Bob Abelman

In 1992, investors doubted that the Tony Award-winning “The Phantom of the Opera” would be financially or theatrically successful outside of New York City and London’s West End.

A touring production this large and cumbersome — involving 30 cast members, a huge contingent of crew and key orchestra members, and 20 truckloads of costumes, wigs, scenery, set pieces and technology — would not draw audiences and earn a profit if it skimped on its expensive production values and it could not earn a profit if it did not skimp on its expensive production values.

Wrong on all fronts.

In addition to being the longest-running production on Broadway after 28 years (and counting) and having a record-breaking run in London after 30 years (and counting), “Phantom” also has been seen on tour by more than 140 million people in 160 cities across 35 countries.

There are currently nine productions of the pop-operetta around the world, including the latest U.S. tour that is residing for the next four weeks in Playhouse Square’s State Theatre.

This is “Phantom’s” sixth visit to our city since 1993. For the handful of readers who have yet to see this show, “Phantom” is based on the 1911 novel “Le Fantôme de L’Opéra” by Gaston Leroux, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Charles Hart, book by Richard Stilgoe and Andrew Lloyd Webber, and orchestrations by David Cullen and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

It tells the tale of a deranged and hideously deformed musical genius (Chris Mann), who lurks in the forgotten catacombs beneath the stage of the Paris Opera House in 1911. He falls in love with an innocent young soprano, Christine Daaé (played this night by understudy Kaitlyn Davis), and devotes himself to creating a new star by secretly nurturing his beautiful protégée’s talents and paving performance opportunities through a reign of terror.

This touring production, directed with precision and passion by Laurence Connor under the baton of Dale Rieling, is a remarkable piece of work. Its tragic love story is evergreen and still riveting. Webber’s romantic score is still dazzling. Maria Björnson’s original costumes — both for the staged opera scenes and those that take place behind the scenes — are still astounding. And the talent on stage in lead, featured and supporting roles is first-rate in all the ways that matter in musical theater.

But this tour also boasts a creative revisiting of the work, complete with alterations in the majestic staging by Connor, a freshening of the choreography by Scott Ambler, jaw-dropping set and lighting design by Paul Brown and Paule Constable, respectively, and breathtaking pyrotechnics.

At the center of all this is a foreboding, 10-ton rotating rotunda that opens at different phases of its orbit to reveal the Corps de Ballet dressing room, the ostentatious and comically overcrowded opera manager’s office, the opulent opera house stage, the underground labyrinth underground, and the Phantom’s lair.

The original staging by Harold Prince and Gillian Lynne was dramatic and the epitome of theatricality and precision. It still is, but much of the movement has been brought down stage — including the Act Two-opening “Masquerade” number — that makes the production more accessible to the audience. Gone is the dramatic sweeping staircase for this scene, which might upset “Phantom” traditionalists, replaced by mesmerizing mirrors and mazes.

Some of the characters have been revisited as well. The owners of the opera house (David Benott and Price Waldman) are no longer as clownish as past productions, though they are still wonderful and necessary comic relief.

There’s also a decidedly muted quality to the passion in the love triangle between the Phantom, Christine and her suiter Raoul (Storm Lineberger). With an understudy in the leading role, it is hard to tell if this dynamic is a creative choice or a matter of circumstance. Davis’ Christine seems more strong-willed than past ingénues and less drawn to Raoul’s advances. And Mann’s Phantom, while very dangerous, seems particularly vulnerable. Both are intriguing twists to roles thought etched in stone since the original production in 1986.

Only Mick Potter’s sound design gets in the way of the fine performances by balancing orchestra and vocals to the point where there is no distinction between them during group-sing numbers like “Notes/Prima Donna.” Lyrics and musical phrasing occasionally get lost in the mix.

This would be a problem if not for the fact that most people in attendance know the lyrics by heart and Webber’s music has so much repetition that those lost phrases are bound to come back around in time.

So will this tour, given the show’s history to date. But don’t wait. This rendition is one worth seeing. CV

On stage

WHAT: “Phantom of the Opera”

WHERE: State Theatre, 1519 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Through July 10

TICKETS & INFO: $50-$150, call 216-241-6000 or visit


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

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

Lead image: The Company performs ”Masquerade.” PHOTO | Alastair Muir

From left, Erika Rolfsrud (M’Lynn), Allison Layman (Shelby), and Elizabeth Meadows Rouse (Truvy). PHOTO | Roger Mastroianni

Female-driven comedy ‘Steel Magnolias’ hilarious at Allen Theatre while marking a historic collaboration between Cleveland Play House and Playhouse Square

By Bob Abelman

Robert Harling’s “Steel Magnolias” at the Allen Theatre, is a mani-pedi of a play — an estrogen-driven, southern comfort comedy set exclusively in Truvy’s Beauty Shop in Chinquapin Parish, La.

The drawling dialogue revolves around local gossip, recipe exchanges and Shelby. Shelby (Allison Layman) is an endearing, headstrong young woman whose diabetes and disappointing marriage lead to personal setbacks, medical complications and tough-love doled out by her ever-vigil but adoring mother, M’Lynn (Erika Rolfsrud).

The play also features the salon owner Truvy Jones (Elizabeth Meadows Rouse), her born-again assistant Annelle (Devon Caraway), and a duo of lovable and devoted locals — Clairee (Charlotte Booker) and Ouiser (Mary Stout) — who come in for a wash and a rinse, but stay to dish and offer astute observations about life and love.

Throughout the play, these women share in Shelby’s pain and pleasure and, by doing so, invite us to do the same.

“Steel Magnolias,” which premiered Off-Broadway in 1987, will be familiar to those who’ve seen the 1989 film starring Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis, Dolly Parton, Daryl Hannah and Julia Roberts or the 2012 remake on what has become the natural habitat for sisterhood stories like this: the Lifetime Channel.

But this particular production is also historic, for it is the first time the Cleveland Play House has mounted a co-production with Playhouse Square. This means that a show featured in the KeyBank Broadway series, which typically caters to productions of national tours and has more than 32,000 subscribers, has been built in Cleveland for Clevelanders.

And it is likely the first time the Play House has featured an all-female design team (Vicki Smith, scenic; Jen Caprio, costume; Jennifer Schriever, lighting; Jane Shaw, sound), spearheaded by local director and Play House artistic director Laura Kepley.

Also momentous — and, perhaps, testimony to the thriving state of professional theater in Cleveland — is that, on an opening night that coincides with an NBA playoff game that could (and did) launch the Cavs into the finals, there was a large audience with significant male representation.

And this is not an easy play for some men to love. Its preponderance of personal disclosure tends to exclude any man in the audience not willing to be one of the girls for a few hours. As if to punctuate this point, as well as bolster the notion that these women are the strong and independent Southern belles suggested in the title, the men in the play are merely talked about and never make an appearance.

What makes this play so very entertaining and appealing is that the writing is filled with clever, country-fried witticisms and hilarious one-liners, and the characters are affable and absolutely charming. When they are played well, both their gentility and inner-strength ring true.

They are most certainly played well in this production — all six women are clearly defined and always interesting — but gentility tends to take a backseat to strength in this female-driven production, which comes with some pros and cons.

Consider M’Lynn, the emotional anchor who puts on a brave face when dealing with her daughter Shelby’s fragility. Because all the characters in this production are played with a heightened sense of resiliency and strength, actress Erika Rolfsrud’s portrayal of M’Lynn’s female fortitude gets heightened even more. She comes across as overbearing, which is unattractive and unrealistic in a play set in Dixie in the 1980s, when feminism has yet to make its way from the Northern states.

Yet, when M’Lynn finally has an emotional outburst toward the end of the play, the floodgates open so wide that the intensity of the hurt, the rawness of Rolfsrud’s expression, and the naked honesty behind the other actresses’ reactions — under Kepley’s sensitive direction — is extraordinarily overwhelming.

Also hit and miss are some creative choices made regarding the show’s production values.

Kepley has opted to swap out the scripted prerecorded radio music and voiceovers between scenes for Emily Casey on guitar and Maggie Lakis on ukulele/banjo, who also provide the narrative. This adds immense charm to the proceedings and makes the minor set changes nearly invisible.

Not so covert is the makeover given Truvy’s Beauty Shop, which is expansive and over-accessorized in order to fill the vast Allen Theatre stage. Foliage runs along the lattice work of the proscenium arch, so that the set resembles a picture postcard sent from Chinquapin Parish rather than a modest backwoods Louisiana enterprise.

This is a minor concern, really. Particularly for a production that manages to make its patrons — including the men — feel the cotton balls between their toes and joy in their hearts by the play’s end. CV

On stage

WHAT: “Steel Magnolias”

WHERE: Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Through Aug. 21

TICKETS & INFO: $10-$80, call 216-241-6000 or visit

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

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on May 29, 2016.

Lead image: From left, Erika Rolfsrud (M’Lynn), Allison Layman (Shelby), and Elizabeth Meadows Rouse (Truvy). PHOTO | Roger Mastroianni

The ensemble from “Matilda The Musical.” PHOTO | Joan Marcus

While on stage at Playhouse Square, touring ‘Matilda’ stays true to Roald Dahl’s dark, delightful children’s book

By Bob Abelman

One of the four Tony Awards won by “Matilda The Musical” in 2013 was Best Book of a Musical for playwright Dennis Kelly’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s story.

The award was well deserved, for it is remarkable how well Kelly’s script captures the darkly satirical, warped and wonderful world created by Dahl — a world vividly imagined during bedtimes in millions of homes where children begged their parents for “just a few more minutes” to finish reading a most remarkable chapter.

The story revolves around an ignored 5-year-old girl who uses the power of her mind and her love of books as weapons against ignorant, demoralizing and vicious adults.

Ignoring the advice from her self-absorbed mother that “looks is more important than books,” Matilda’s first impulse — like that of Lemony Snicket’s Violet Baudelaire and J.K. Rowling’s Hermione Granger from more recent novels — is to solve problems with her intelligence, deal with conflict with her imagination, and write her own narrative.

“Matilda” is Dahl’s only female-centric work and is told from a child’s perspective. As a result, the world in this musical version of the book — now on national tour and on stage at Playhouse Square — is abundantly playful.

And it is comprised of comically exaggerated characters like Matilda’s outrageous parents (the hilarious Quinn Mattfeld and Cassie Silva), the bullying Olympic hammerthrower-turned-psychotic headmistress Miss Trunchbull (a brilliant David Abeles in drag), and the angelic teacher Miss Honey (a silver-throated and absolutely charming Jennifer Blood).

Despite Kelly’s best efforts, the writing in the musical also inherits Dahl’s unpolished prose. This makes for some awkward, inconsistent and improbable storytelling, which plays better on the page than it does on stage.

Some of this is sidestepped by Kelly taking poetic license with the source material’s telling of Miss Honey’s backstory. Here, it is revealed through a story Matilda believes she invented that she shares, in bits and pieces, with the librarian Mrs. Phelps (a very endearing Ora Jones).

The story, which is beautifully and theatrically enacted during Matilda’s recitation, also reveals Matilda’s feelings about her hideous family, adds dimension to the powers she possesses, and offers much-needed tender moments to the production.

Dahl’s eccentricities are also addressed by the show’s producer, Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company, employing the same strategy found in their production of “Les Miserables” — throw plenty of songs and huge production numbers at the show.

Many of Tim Minchin’s songs are wordy, quirky affairs made tedious by poor sound mixing that has plagued the tour since its start nearly a year ago. Lots of lyrics go unheard (so do some British accents, but the problem there is not technical nor as troublesome).

But some songs, like the exuberant second act opener “When I Grow Up” and the anthem “Revolting” that closes the second act, are absolutely delightful. And all of the songs are infused with impressive visual and sound effects, solid accompaniment by an orchestra directed by Matthew Smedal, and astoundingly innovative, Tony-nominated choreography by Peter Darling.

As he did when choreographing “Billy Elliot,” Darling complements each song’s sentiments with impulsive, pulsating movement that is absolutely mesmerizing. It is executed to perfection by an exceptionally talented ensemble of kids and young adults, and takes place within a gorgeous set designed by Rob Howell to resemble a pop-up picture book.

Sarah McKinley Austin as Matilda (she alternates the role with Lily Brooks O’Briant and Savannah Grace Elmer) is an adorable and impressive performer if not a completely engaging one. She hits all of the marks designed by director Matthew Warchus and hits all her notes, but with rote mechanics that lack the kind of charm one remembers from the book and the 1996 film featuring Mara Wilson.

Though the music in “Matilda The Musical” is not, collectively, memorable, Dahl’s story and this production’s eye-candy storytelling most assuredly is.

“Matilda The Musical” comes with a ready-made audience, so tickets will likely be scarce. Since the Broadway production will close at the end of the year after 1,555 performances, the touring production may be your last chance to see this musical. CV

On stage

WHAT: “Matilda The Musical”

WHERE: State Theatre, 1519 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Through May 22

TICKETS & INFO: $10-$110, call 216-241-6000 or visit


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

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on May 8, 2016.

The cast of “If/Then.” PHOTO | Joan Marcus

There’s much to love in touring ‘If/Then’ at Playhouse Square, but not enough

By Bob Abelman

The 2014 Broadway musical “If/Then,” now on tour and on stage at Playhouse Square, revolves around newly divorced 38-year-old Elizabeth, an urban planner living in Phoenix who moves to New York City for a fresh start.

The play opens with Elizabeth (Jackie Burns) meeting up with new friends Kate (Tamyra Gray) and her girlfriend Anne (Janine DiVita), who insist she go by the freewheeling “Liz” as a sign of her new attitude and openness to new experiences.

She also runs into old boyfriend Lucas (Anthony Rapp), a social activist, who recalls her drive and passion and suggests she reclaim her college nickname, “Beth,” and start making professional connections in the city.

When she meets the thoroughly likable Josh (Matthew Hydzik), Elizabeth has an important life-altering decision to make: carouse as Liz or build a career as Beth. Not an easy choice for a woman who has a tendency to make all the wrong choices and then second-guess herself by wondering “what if?”

Rather than address Elizabeth’s midlife crisis, this musical avoids it by exploring the parallel paths of both Liz and Beth to see how each plays out. Think “It’s a Wonderful Life” with dance breaks.

It matters little that no explanation is given for why or how Elizabeth’s trajectory divides, for this musical is an exposition-heavy, song-saturated fable by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey’s (book and lyrics) as envisioned by director Michael Greif.

The New York City in this “If/Then” is a highly sanitized, color-saturated, ultra-contemporary version of the real thing, comprised of minimalistic, handsomely crafted set pieces by Mark Wendland and a backdrop of beautifully conceived digital animation designed by Peter Nigrini and Dan Scully. The production values are astounding.

This world is populated by young, affable and good-looking characters with nary a care save for personal growth and professional development. Even people wandering city streets and riding subways fit this description, moving in perfect unison to the rapid-fire rhythms of Larry Keigwin’s modern dance choreography, which is at once beautiful and bizarre.

As Liz, Elizabeth marries Josh and becomes a caring, devoted mother and teacher.

As Beth, she becomes a calculating, high-powered city planner under the tutelage of married but interested mover-and-shaker Stephen (Daren A. Herbert).

We glimpse each of these lives by way of alternating scenes and musical numbers performed by exceptional, Broadway-seasoned featured players and an equally talented eight-member ensemble. A superb orchestra comprised largely of local talent under Kyle C. Norris’ direction accompanies their efforts.

There is much to love in this musical. But you will surely find yourself second-guessing some of its production choices and, like Elizabeth, wondering “what if?” throughout.

The songs seem to have been written for a different musical. Dichotomous drama is nothing new to Kitt and Yorkey, who created the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning “Next to Normal.” That offered a dark and vivid portrait of a bipolar, manic-depressive and delusional woman whose disease infiltrates and infects her family. Each song was an expression of excruciating frustration and heartbreak.

The similarly sensitive and reflective compositions of “If/Then” come across as dreary and monotonous coming out of the mouths of these comparatively privileged, healthy and one-dimensional characters.

What if … the music better matched the show’s message and motif?

Another problem is Idina Menzel’s fingerprints all over this production. “If/Then” was showcased in Washington, D.C., in 2013, opened on Broadway in 2014, and went on tour in Denver in 2015 with the distinctive, Tony Award-winning Menzel playing Elizabeth. She left the tour in Dallas just weeks before the Cleveland engagement and Burns – who understudied for her on Broadway and on tour – took over.

Burns is a performer of incredible vocal strength, range and tone. She absolutely soars in the closer, “Always Starting Over.” But she doesn’t yet own it or any other trademark power ballad built for Menzel.

What if … these songs were performed on Burns’ terms?

A final and, perhaps, the biggest concern is that neither variation of Elizabeth’s life is that compelling. This leaves audiences less likely to wonder “what if” when both are explored for nearly three hours than repeat the title of a song early in the musical where neither Liz nor Beth can believe her own poor choices. The song is called “What the F—-?” CV

On Stage

WHAT: “If/Then”

WHERE: Connor Palace, 1511 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Through Feb. 21

TICKETS & INFO: $10-$100, call 216-241-6000 or visit


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

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Feb. 12, 2016.