Porthouse’s ‘Oklahoma!’ earns the exclamation point

By Bob Abelman

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

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

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

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

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

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Nolan O’Dell (scenic, revived from the 2008 Porthouse production), that it is very easy to forgive the work’s terribly outdated socio-political trespasses.

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

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

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

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

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

WHERE: Porthouse Theatre, 3143 O’Neil Road, Cuyahoga Falls
WHEN: Through Aug. 12
TICKETS & INFO: $22 – $40, call 330-672-3884 or visit porthousetheatre.com

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

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

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

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

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

By Bob Abelman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On stage

“Anything Goes”

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

WHEN: Through June 30

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

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

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

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

The newsies take flight. Photo | Paul Silla

Porthouse’s ‘Newsies’ performs above the fold

By Bob Abelman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Stage

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

WHEN:  Through Aug. 13

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

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

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

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

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

Porthouse offers transportive  ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’

By Bob Abelman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Stage

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

WHEN: Through July 22

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Bob Abelman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Stage

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

WHEN:  Through July 1

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

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

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

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

Colleen Longshaw as singer Deloris Van Cartier. PHOTO | Bob Christy

Porthouse Theatre performs minor miracle with its ‘Sister Act’

By Bob Abelman

It’s hard to pinpoint the precise moment when nuns became fun. It may have started with the 1985 creation of “Nunsense,” which, along with many sequels, turned singing and dancing sisters into a musical comedy franchise.

So it was no surprise that the 1992 nun-on-the-run motion picture “Sister Act” was turned into a Broadway musical, given that the film starred comedian Whoopi Goldberg, featured music by Alan Menken (“The Little Mermaid”), witty lyrics by Glenn Slater (“School of Rock”), clever repartee by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner (TV’s “Cheers”) and one-liners by shtickmeister Douglas Carter Beane (“Xanadu”).

Like the film, the musical tells the tale of Deloris Van Cartier, a wannabe nightclub diva whose life takes a turn when she witnesses a murder and the cops hide her in a down-on-its-luck, inner-city convent. Disguised as Sister Mary Clarence, she finds herself at odds with the cloistered lifestyle but manages to use her talents to save the local church. While helping tone-deaf choir members find their voices, Dolores finds her own.

For its retrofitting from screen to stage, the location was changed from Reno to Philly, the timeline shifted from 1992 to 1977, and the soundtrack was inspired by soulful, period rhythm ’n’ blues and disco.

The short-lived show received five 2011 Tony Award nominations — it won none — and was called “tame, innocuous and frankly a little dull” by The New York Times. Its national tour, which came through Cleveland in 2013, lived up to the press and was a huge disappointment.

Despite that legacy, the production staged at Porthouse Theatre hits on all cylinders.

It’s a musical theater miracle more accurately attributed to the creative invention of director Eric van Baars than to divine intervention.

As if to compensate for or distract from the often-mediocre material, the original and touring productions of “Sister Act” filled the stage with high-octane staging complete with towering stained glass walls, looming statues of saints and elaborate, eye-candy costuming. At Porthouse, van Baars simply fills the parquet floor and sparsely set performance space with talent.

His gifted cast mines every funny line and tender moment in the script, embellishes but never overplays the lovable and quirky qualities of the archetypal characters featured in the film, and soldiers through the script’s less memorable moments. And every member of this sizable ensemble executes Kelly Meneer’s playful, ’70s-era choreography with boundless energy.

But mostly, they sing the heck out of the song list, beautifully accompanied by 10 musicians under Jennifer Korecki’s superb direction.

The jubilant gospel number “Raise Your Voice,” the show-stopping “Take Me to Heaven” and the finale, “Spread the Love Around,” showcase the members of the cloister, featuring the wonderful Hannah Quinn as jocular Sister Mary Patrick, Katelyn Langwith as mousy Mary Robert, Terri Kent as sarcastic Sister Mary Lazarus, along with Bernadette Hisey, Jess Tanner, Kristen Hoffman, Emily Kline, Abby Morris, Katey Sheehan, Lindsay Simon, Michaella Waickman and Emma Wichhart. Their “It’s Good to be a Nun,” sung when first introduced to Deloris, is hilarious.

The immense charm generated by Tracee Patterson, as the disapproving Mother Superior, and Tyrell Reggins, as Eddie the kindly policeman, are best on display in her “I Haven’t Got a Prayer” and his tender “I Could Be That Guy.” Also charming is Rohn Thomas as Monsignor O’Hara, who sells Mother Superior on the witness protection program and becomes one of Deloris’ biggest fans.

Joey, Pablo and TJ, the inept bad guys, are given their own novelty number, “Lady in the Long Black Dress,” which Jim Bray, Jimmy Ferko and William Tipton perform with abandon and riotously smarmy sex appeal. They are just as funny as backup dancers during head henchman Curtis’ “When I Find My Baby,” which Jim Weaver delivers with the perfect balance of sensuality and sadism.

These performances and the seamless execution of this show by its designers, crew and altar boys are more than sufficient to erase any negative impressions one might harbor from the touring production. But Coleen Longshaw’s winning personality and pitch-perfect vocals in the lynchpin role of Deloris will seal the deal. She is flat-out sensational in everything she does on stage.

Longshaw is so good she will make you wish that the creators of “Sister Act” would consider turning “Sister Act 2” into a musical, just so it could be performed at Porthouse Theatre with Longshaw in the lead. CV

On stage

WHAT: “Sister Act”

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

WHEN: Through July 2

TICKETS & INFO: $25 – $36, call 330-672-3884 or visit porthousetheatre.com

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

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on June 20, 2016.

Lead image: Colleen Longshaw as singer Deloris Van Cartier. PHOTO | Bob Christy