Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Nude Deal for Christmas

(Greg Violand as Mr. Charles and Steven J. West as Shane in the Dobama Theatre production of Paul Rudnick's "The New Century." Photo by Steve Wagner.)

Last Saturday, Dobama Theatre proved itself to be the most obliging of theaters. The boyish box office manager offered a delightful tutorial on where to sit to receive the optimal gander at the entertainment's nominal star, a studly performer's "engine of desire." Then, just in case dyslexia inopportunely flared up, landing us where we could only admire the tush, the managing director personally escorted us to our voyeureristic throne.

Yes, the genitals were stellar, but since the purpose of the evening was legit theater, rather than male burlesque, it would be unseemly not to mention that they were attached to one Stephen J. West, who in turn was attached to a buoyant production of Paul Rudnick's "The New Century."

Just as Ibsen's social conscience and Chekhov's expert grasp of failed souls gave birth to a generation of high-minded passion plays, so here Neil Simon's knowing, wisecracking insights into human behavior and Patrick Dennis' campy, fey, joyous gooses of human absurdities commingled to engender the daffy wisdom of playwright Rudnick.

Rudnick functions best as a miniaturist. His plays and screenplays tend to splinter into hors d'oeuvres, rather than sustained meals. But these tidbits have the airy confection of an expert pastry chef. "The New Century" is composed of three separate character studies, each equipped with a gimmick, a multitude of Simon-esque guffaws and a well-earned heart tug. At the end, Rudnick attempts a flourish by bringing his disparate kvetchers together in a maternity ward for a mystical, Tony Kushner-like resolution.

The vignettes commence with the most liberal of Jewish mothers coming to terms with a triumvirate of offspring, who change their sex, eroticize feces and practice law in sadomasichistic leather. The second part chronicles the public-access TV adventures of one Mr. Charles, "the world's gayest man," as he combines Ed Sullivan and Liberace in a show dedicated to gay theater and more camping than ever took place in the Adirondacks. Eventually, the long-suffering Mr. Charles has to accept the fact that his brand of queerness has become passe and that his splendid boy-toy is anything but a brainless guttersnipe. The third vignette shows Rudnick's skill for sneaking melancholy into the mirth in Decatur, Ill., where one Barbara Ellen Diggs exults in the healing powers of macrame as she tearfully reminisces about the AIDS death of her beloved son.

There are many reasons why the evening's 90 minutes seem to dance by with the exquisite grace of Balanchine's snow flakes. But let us lay the blame or praise on Scott Plate, who directs with the giddy aplomb of a Paul Lynde mug. Among his gleaming ensemble players, Greg Violand's Mr. Charles suggests a castrated French bulldog in a platinum toupee. West, as his voluptuous sidekick, performs a wonderful sex change of the oh-so-wise dumb blondes of Judy Holliday vintage.

As the ur-Jewish mother, Helene Nadler serves up the vinegar-through-the-schmaltz routine in the manner of our finest delis. And in the most heartbreaking performance of the evening, Molly McGinnis unravels like one of her beloved tea cozies as the arts-and-crafts addicted Barbara Ellen.

"The New Century" may not be your traditional Yuletide revels, but it has the essential holiday ingredient - the milk of human kindness behind each ho-ho-ho.

"The New Century" runs through Sunday, January 9. For tickets, call 216-932-3396.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Muses in my midst VIII

(Alice Faye in "The Gang's All Here.")
For the worrying multitudes, relax. Frank Lloyd Wright and Michelangelo have finally gotten their act together, and the pantheon is ready to re-open for Christmas. I've had to do some serious soul-searching as to who is to host the opening-night Yuletide cotillion. Merman always cracks the crystals in the chandelier. Dietrich makes the queens hyper-ventilate. And Betty Grable keeps chewing gum. The answer is obvious: the eternally likable Alice Faye. Climbing the ladder from Jean Harlow wannabe to America's own shopgirl thrush, she was the reigning star of the 20th Century Fox musical from 1938 until her retirement from films in 1945. She could wisecrack with Mae Westian aplomb, wring glorious tears out of her made-for-Technicolor eyes, and even steal candy from America's most illustrious youngster, filching a scene from Shirley Temple while singing "You Gotta Eat Your Spinach, Baby." Faye made suffering at the hands of such scoundrels as Don Ameche and Tyrone Power as moving an art form as any geisha performing in a tea house. Garland got "Over the Rainbow" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," but Faye got the third musical plum of Hollywood Americana. No one who lived through World War II can help holding back the wave of nostalgia when she breaks into Harry Warren and Mack Gordon's "You'll Never Know" (from "Hello, Frisco, Hello"). If you want to sample the ultimate Alice Faye vehicle, we suggest Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band." She also accomplished something very rare for a movie star. She got out of the business in time to have a deliriously happy marriage with comedian and band leader Phil Harris, with whom she had a second career in radio. Faye elegantly ended her years promoting senior health for Pfizer. She was a doyenne of good health and good cheer with the poignancy of Garland- minus the pharmaceutical baggage.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Lunching with Gertie and Fanny

(The cast of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" at Beck Center.)
As a devotee of the then and departed, it gives me great satisfaction that Judy, Elvis and Mark Twain continue to rake in millions demonstrating that death can never curtail a trouper. Dickens, also proudly deceased, amply illustrated in his best-selling "A Christmas Carol" just how helpful the ministrations of ghostly souls can be. Following this precept, I never let their half-century-plus tour in the provinces of Hades spoil my Yuletide revels with Gertrude Lawrence and Fanny Brice next to our favorite table at Otto Moser's Restaurant in downtown Cleveland. Ignoring the puzzled stares of servers and patrons, I do my best to charm these illustrious dead divas while munching on my sauerkraut hot dog.

First, I let the girls do their usual gripes about how Hollywood has defamed and bowdlerized their reputations. Gertie moans over the sugary Julie Andrews ruining her tempestuous glory, and then Fanny kvetches about how that Streisand laid pretentious schmaltz on her kosher comedy. After the grousing, I placate their ethereal egos by soliciting their advice on what Christmas shows to see in Cleveland.

(The author and his beloved Gertrude Lawrence at Otto Moser's Restaurant in downtown Cleveland.)
Gertie has admired the work of choreographer-director Martin Cespedes ever since he toured, shirtless, with Faith Prince in Gertie's own "The King and I." She instructed me to see how and if he was able to breathe some life into the ubiquitous Webber-Rice Gap commercial rendering of the Old Testament, "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," at Beck Center.

Fanny, who revels in the pulling off of stunts due to her own legendary run as adolescent Baby Snooks when well past 40, urged me to see the one-man version of "It's A Wonderful Life," titled "This Wonderful Life," at the Cleveland Play House.

Gertie was right. Cespedes is a genius of goosed-up pastiche. "Joseph" was written for church pageants back in the days when Webber's creative borrowing seemed fresh and cheeky. Every number is in a different style, ranging from country-western and Elvis rock 'n roll to French bistro music. Recruiting Connor O'Brien, who looks like the lost Osmond, to play the eponymous Joseph, Cespedes has a field day interpreting every musical number in an equally vibrant dance style. The array is so dizzying that we encourage the administrators at Beck to engage the audience in a guess-the-choreographer-and-show game. Here are some helpful hints: think Robbins' Sharks, Champion's shriners, Fosse's denizens of the Pompeii Club and de Mille's rodeos. My suggestion for the winner would be the first prize of a certificate for Cespedes' services to choreograph a bar mitzvah, wedding or briss. He can make any amateur dance like a twinkle toes.

Those of you who have sworn off this show after your fifth viewing at the local junior high should reconsider, for it has undergone a glorious resurrection and is perhaps only slightly less fulfilling than the dance-rich "Billy Elliott" that is wowing them at PlayhouseSquare.

(Fanny Brice shares a hallowed place on the wall at Otto Moser's Restaurant with Gertrude Lawrence and friends.)
Fanny, however, was not so sagacious in her choice. Admittedly, James Leaming has the charm and charisma of a rosy-cheeked Norman Rockwell caroler. Jumping off bridges onto offstage trampolines, doing a plethora of accents ranging from Barrymore to Stewart, and schmoozing the audience, he is likable enough to outdo Harold Hill in the sale of band instruments. The problem is that the concept of one man racing through the many-splendored script of a beautifully photographed and directed film classic is akin to someone playing Beethoven's Ninth on harmonica. It's an enjoyable stunt, but why? After a while, Leaming, with all his energy and brio, unfortunately starts to take on the air of a hamster speeding on its wheel. The final indication of what's wrong with this gimmick is that after seeing George Bailey's salvation and hearing Clarence's bell ring, the only music evoked by this production is Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?"

"Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoast" plays at the Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood through Sunday, Jan. 2. For tickets, call 216-521-2540.

"It's Wonderful Life" runs at the Cleveland Play House through Sunday, Dec. 19. For tickets, call 216-795-7000, ext. 4.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Leaping with Faith

(Faith Prince, top, as Mrs. Wilkinson, with Giuseppe Bausilio, left, as Billy; Patrick Wetzel, right, as Mr. Braithwaite; and the ballet girls in "Shine" in the touring production of "Billy Elliot." Photo by Michael Brosilow.)
Concerning "Billy Elliot," now at PlayhouseSquare, I'm half-convinced that I loved it, but to make sure I pulled off the interview of the century. I've gotten Keith A. Joseph's Id to chat with Keith A. Joseph's Ego.

Id: Why should I attend a musical that isn't called "Gypsy"? Once you've encountered perfection, why go anywhere else?

Ego: First of all, you cannot spend the rest of your mobile years waiting for the next "Gypsy" revival. Of course, with "Billy Elliot" you have to put up with Elton John's anthem-laden score, far closer to the bombast of "Les Miserables" than to the trumpeted show-biz sass of Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim's paragon of all scores.

Id: True, but what about theatrically?

Ego: OK, I admit it. They're both about escaping a hum-drum life with a domineering parent. But "Billy Elliot" is graced with Peter Darling's choreography, which is the equal in storytelling panache to anything De Mille or Robbins pulled off. Agnes had her dream ballets and Jerry had his leaps into the human psyche. Darling combines the two in a surrealistic clash of artistic expression and police-state brutality.

Id: It isn't all doom and gloom, is it?

Ego: Don't forget those tap-dancing dresses and Margaret Thatcher monster puppet, or the adorable little ballerinas being lifted by those macho bobbies.

(Ethel Merman, center, with Sandra Church and Jack Klugman in "Gypsy." Photo by Leo Friedman.)

Id: Hold on. How can you have a thrill without a Mama Rose to insert steel into the protagonist's spine?

Ego: "Billy Elliot" fills the bill. Instead of a child-eating show-biz mother from Seattle, there's a sharp-tongued ballet instructress from the gritty north of England who lives out her dreams through her youthful charges. Here, as played by the indomitable Faith Prince, she's every bit as fierce and funny as Gypsy's monumental Mom. (Oh, Faith, when will you take your turn as Rose?)

Id: Why shouldn't I wait until some local community theater tackles "Billy Elliot"?

Ego: Get real. What community theater could field the brilliant actor-dancers, a director and choreographer with the talents of Stephen Daldry and Peter Darling, and a production on a scale that continues to wow audiences in London, New York and elsewhere? Add to that a title role so demanding that the touring production at PlayhouseSquare requires five boys alternating performances.

Id: OK. If you don't tell Ethel, I won't tell Roz. Let's go see it.

Ego: Together, wherever we go.

The touring production of "Billy Elliot" runs at the State Theatre in PlayhouseSquare through Sunday, Dec. 12. For tickets, go to playhousesquare.com or call 216-241-6000. 

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Unsung Bard

(Members of the cast of Horton Foote's "Dividing the Estate" at Ensemble Theatre.)
Last Friday's miraculous re-emergence of Ensemble Theatre at the Cleveland Play House brought on an onslaught of seasonal joys. Outside, it was a russet fall. In the lobby was the usual pageant of tarted-up Christmas trees. But in the Brooks Theatre, it was pure spring, for there was a resurrection in progress. This company, morbid and decaying since the illness and demise of its founders, was once again luxuriating in patented whiffs of Americana.

Originally founded to showcase the brooding wonders of Eugene O'Neill, then spreading its branches to include 20th-century staples ranging from Albee to Williams, Ensemble has always functioned best as a thespian antique road show featuring yesterday's glories. "Dividing the Estate," which can be considered Horton Foote's "Long Day's Journey into Night," could not have been a more sagacious season opener.

Foote has always been an unsung master and alchemist, combining the best qualities of a cornucopia of great writers. He shares with Tennessee Williams an exquisite ear for Southern regional dialect, portraying a psyche and whole way of life through a poetic phrase. From Chekhov, he learned how to eschew all signs of melodrama, drawing his plot developments from human experience rather than hoary theatrical cliche. One could consider "Dividing the Estate" an American variation on "The Cherry Orchard," centered around an old-time estate in danger of being sold off for oil wells and condominiums.

Like William Inge, Foote has an infinite understanding of human frailties and how loneliness can drive people to unsavory acts. Like Mark Twain, he can take a piece of back-porch family gossip ("What was he doing cleaning his gun on his wedding night?") and spin it into a comic landmine of insightful social criticism.

One of Ensemble's greatest attributes is its ability to mine a plethora of skilled actors who bring flesh and blood to these rich theatrical forests of the American psyche. As the grandmother of Foote's clan, Ensemble regular Bernice Bolek is akin to a giant, gnarled oak tree offering comfort and shade. Robert Hawkes, as the weak scion of the family, has the Charles Laughton ability to simultaneously suggest frailty and decadence. As the rapacious daughter, Valerie Young gives a rich comic portrayal of an over-the-hill debutante who's been corroded by years of financial and emotional deprivation, as if she were Maggie the Cat 20 years after the conclusion of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Although not quite able to illuminate all the play's moods and complexities, director Sarah May sheds just enough light for us to appreciate the show's gentleness and palette of Renoir colors.

For those of you laboring under the delusion that "August: Osage County" is some kind of masterpiece, you need to experience "Dividing the Estate," which covers another family drama minus easy pyrotechnics and melodrama.

Ensemble Theatre performs "Dividing the Estate" through Sunday, Dec. 12 in the Brooks Theatre at the Cleveland Play House. For tickets, call 216-321-2930 or e-mail info@ensemble-theatre.org.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Dead on

(Sarah Ruhl's "Dead Man's Cell Phone" is playing at Dobama Theatre. Photo by Steve Wagner.)
In spite of its mock-icy film noirish moniker, Dobama Theatre's production of Sarah Ruhl's "Dead Man's Cell Phone" is, in its own macabre and nutty way, the theatrical equivalent of a revivifying Bahama romp. While the latest crop of plays are busy embalming movies, yodeling Nihilism and treating obscurity as profundity, this 2008 play basks in the balmy breezes of a nascent, whimsical intellect. Here is reassuring hope that all terrific playwrights aren't named Tony Kushner or have passed away to either Hollywood, a nursing home or the great beyond.

"Dead Man's Cell Phone" is founded on a stunning premise. We are in a cafe, where the continuous ringing of a cell phone enrages the woman at the next table. Within minutes, she discovers that the fellow has kicked the bucket. She appropriates his phone and, in the manner of an overaged girl scout, politely decides to answer the calls and pick up the pieces of the dead's man life. Running with this unlikely beginning, Ruhl creates a scary and ultimately hopeful fairy tale, with the phone acting as surrogate magic beans to take our heroine into a swirling fantasia. At breathtaking pace, we meet the dead man's fixated mother, emotionally stunted brother, cohorts in the illegal human-organ trade, his mistress and wife, and, in a darkly scintillating climax, the dead man himself in his afterlife apartment. Since "Angels in America" captured every critical Hosannah, every play that hopes to be hip invades a Lewis Carrollinian wonderland in one way or another. Ruhl is among the few playwrights using this style who does not descend into cacaphony, but rather, reaching back to an older and happier tradition, weaves blissful possibilities of redemption and self-knowledge into her narrative.

The most delightful aspect of the evening is confirming that all of our great actors have not headed to greener pastures. As the almost catatonically introverted Jean, the ever-radiant Tracee Patterson is given ample opportunity to perform her speciality of blossoming before our eyes. Oh, those petals. The eponymous corpse is played by Joel Hammer, who once again demonstrates his firm place as the region's Fred Astaire of rage and humbug. The manical gleam in his eyes alone could power downtown Cleveland Heights. For those addicted to Turner Movie Classics, Paula Duesing is the proletariat Ethel Barrymore. Just the sound of her smoky voice gives one a euphoric buzz. Unlike most ensemble casts, there's not a weak link here, which can be attributed to Scott Miller's alert direction.

At last, a play and production that have the electrifying immediacy not to be found on any kind of screen.

"Dead Man's Cell Phone" runs through Nov. 21 at Dobama Theatre. For tickets, call 216-932-3396.

Muses in my midst VII

(Thornton Wilder is shown as Mr. Antrobus in a 1948 production of his play, "The Skin of Our Teeth." Photo by Carl Van Vechten.)

Last night, I had a dream: What would this pantheon be missing if we couldn't recruit the gifts of Thornton Wilder, novelist, playwright, historian, scholar and actor? A stage manager to explain things and put everything in perspective. Pet dinosaurs. Dolly Levi eventually descending a staircase in our perpetual Harmonia Gardens making matches, singing Jerry Herman songs and giving Shirley Booth, Carol Channing, Barbra Streisand et al a chance to browbeast crusty half-a-millionaires. Plus an uncanny ability to use a razor-sharp intellect to examine the wonder of a butternut tree in Grover's Corners and show us that "money is like manure; it's not worth a thing unless it's spread around encouraging young things to grow." And we also need that gentle cynic to remind us of the following: "Ninety-nine percent of the people in the world are fools and the rest of us are in great danger of contagion."

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Muses in my midst VI

(Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont in "Duck Soup.")
Great comedy is based on anarchy, and there were no finer anarchists than the brothers Marx. However, to generate subversive sparks, you need a great target, and this is where we come to the divine Margaret Dumont, who's sure to bring some Tinseltown blueblood to my pantheon. Gleaming with pearls and self-importance, she was Hollywood's most enduring grande dame. The boys had it easy. All they had to do was be improbable and wildly funny. It is Margaret who had the tough job - feigning adulation and outrage at the same time as Groucho laid attack to her dignity. In its peculiar way, her nonsensical courtship with the grease-painted, sharp-tongued Lothario was as true and lasting a relationship as Laurel and Hardy, Burns and Allen, and Death and Taxes. The thought of this handsome matron bearing her lorgnette as the doyenne of all things refined is an image of endearing self-mockery that has gotten this writer through many a cold night.

A kite that won't fly

(The cast of "The Kite Runner" at the Cleveland Play House. Photo by Alan Simons.)
Those whose kitsch reveries extend back to the days when Julie Andrews first skipped across the Alps may also shed a nostalgic tear at the thought of classic illustrated comic books. These highbrow dimestore treasures attempted the bizarre legerdemain of stuffing the complexities of world literature into the equivalent of an illustrated pamphlet.

If you still have a yen for this absurd brand of condensation, you may get a kick out of the Cleveland Play House's mechanical yet effective stage rendering of the best-selling novel and film, "The Kite Runner." Admittedly, Khaled Hosseini's book chronicling the journey of an Afghanistan immigrant atoning for his childhood betrayal of a devoted servant and companion is light years away from literature. However, it offered the aphrodisiacal charm of compelling pulp. The novel suffers from a schizophrenia that has plagued all of its incarnations. Its first half plays out like an Islamic variation on "To Kill a Mockingbird" dealing with youthful trauma and the difficulties of living up to the expectations of a larger-than-life, noble father. The second half oddly seques into the improbable swashbuckling you would expect out of an Indiana Jones adventure.

The verisimilitude of the screen helped the novel's improbabilities go down easier. But for the stage there's too much plot and the unfortunate presence of a narrator, all giving the feeling of an overcrowded airport, where if you look down at your watch for a second you may miss your plane, in spite of director Marc Masterson's honorable attempt at flight control. This is the Play House's second dalliance with translating a film to the stage. "The 39 Steps" remedied this situation by having its actors juggle the plot complications in the manner of jubilant circus performers playing out as an energetic spoof of the Hitchcock canon. Here, done straightforwardly in Matthew Spangler's busy theatrical adaptation, it seems to violate the natural Darwinian progression of stage to screen, creating something that's not fully equipped to survive on its own.

Under such challenging circumstances, the cast manages to impart an amazing amount of authenticity. As the heroic patriarch, Baba, Nasser Faris adds heartbreaking pathos as he goes from powerful Afghanistan millionaire to bedraggled immigrant trying to make a living selling trinkets in a California swap meet. But it would be nice to return to those halcyon days when drama was made of language instead of replications of cinematic edits and stood still long enough so you wouldn't need Dramamine.

"The Kite Runner" runs through Nov. 7 at the Cleveland Play House. For tickets, go to www.clevelandplayhouse.com/ or call 216-795-7000, ext. 4.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Muses in my midst V

(James Whale and friend.)

For the multitudes wondering who would decorate my pantheon for Halloween, the answer may not be pure, but it is simple: English-imported James Whale. Few directors dispensed as many tricks and treats - for example, his magnificent camera spin around the great Paul Robeson as he claims immortality singing "Ol' Man River" in the 1936 film version of "Show Boat." For tricks, we have Whale's uncanny ability to turn what are supposedly horror movies into the ultimate, subversive '30s romps. His undisputed masterpieces are "Frankenstein," "Bride of Frankenstein," "The Invisible Man" and "The Old Dark House." In all four cases, it's as if Oscar Wilde had teamed with Rod Serling and Bram Stoker to create a newfangled brand of tongue-in-cheek terror. Not until 1960, when Tony Perkins met Janet Leigh in "Psycho," would horror and humor make for such sublimely decadent bedfellows.

Once in love with Dorothy

(Dorothy Silver in "Wings." Photo by Kathy Sandham.)

In days of yore, when supernovas like Bette Davis ruled the box office, their home studios would periodically stick them in prestigious, uplifting epics chronicling the triumph of the human spirit. This, of course, would up the studios' cultural ante and guarantee them an Oscar to make up for lost revenue. Following the same principle, Beck Center has commandeered Dorothy Silver and put her in "Wings" - not to be confused with the silent film of the same name starring Clara Bow - between productions of "My Fair Lady" and the perennial "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." Arthur Kopit's 1978 drama cunningly uses interior monologues to dramatize the cerebral imprisonment and devastation of a once-vital aviatrix. In that noble Warner Brothers tradition, it culminates in chin-held-high exhilaration as Emily, the play's heroine, unearths her most euphoric memory of walking on the wings of a soaring plane. Although well-wrought and earnest, Kopit's work has occasional whiffs of formaldehyde good intentions, and its relentlessness makes one yearn for the intrusion of a Keystone Kops pie fight.

However, there are extenuating circumstances that make this production imperative, and this is the aforementioned, all-too-rare appearance of Dorothy Silver. When a cultured friend of mine confessed he had never experienced a Silver performance, I berated him by pointing out that here is an omission as grievous as living in Jerusalem and never having worshiped at the Wailing Wall. He was kidnapped, and by the end of the play's 90 minutes, like all earthly beings, he was overwhelmed by Silver's incandescent projection of humanity. England has its Redgrave, the past has its Tandy and we in Cleveland have Silver. All three women show that beauty goes beyond ivory complexions and the promise of spring. The magic of Silver's acting lies in what Lillian Hellman's autobiographical "Pentimento" suggests: traces of the hopeful young girl peaking out from the present-day wrinkled visage.

Another lagniappe of the production is the welcome return of Derdriu Ring as the therapist. Ring, like Maureen O'Hara, seems to encapsulate all of Ireland in her red-haired feistiness. Watching these two major forces of nature together, we yearn for the roles that call out for their talents: Ring in a long line of fierce O'Casey and nimble-tongued Shaw heroines; and Silver in comedies and tragedies ranging from Dolly Levi to Samuel Beckett. But to return to Bette Davis: Don't let's ask for the moon. We have the stars.

Beck Center presents "Wings" through Nov. 7. For tickets, call 216-521-2540.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Shavian trick or treats

As Barbra Streisand couldn't be bribed to sing, Clevelanders who need Clevelanders all head to the Shaw Festival. For it is just impossible to roam this haven of expertly crafted fudge and theater in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada, without bumping into some dimly recalled book-club or locker-room compatriot. Conventional souls visualize strolling the aisles of the Shaw's three theaters in their seersucker shorts, fresh from their Fourth of July frolics. But those with an imagination should consider broadening their theatrical horizons by heading to this paradise in their fall trick-or-treat cashmeres. After all, you have the rest of October to experience Jimmy Stewart's rabbit-loving Elwood P. Dodd in "Harvey" or Oscar Wilde's naughty and loquacious aristocrats in "An Ideal Husband."

Also on display is the eponymous Irish bard's "The Doctor's Dilemma." As to the dilemma, don't be nervous: this is not the Shaw that Yeats referred to as a sewing machine "that clicked and shone, but the incredible thing was that the machine smiled, smiled perpetually" - i.e. this is not the purveyor of endless, battling points of view thinly disguised as characters to drive audiences into cerebral hemorrhages. Rather, "The Doctor's Dilemma" is the great Shaw of "Pygmalion," the Shaw who delivers magnificent paradoxes, vivid characters and the romance of rhetoric spun into poetry.

Just in passing, let me tell you what you missed: a wonderful rendering of Kurt Weill's "One Touch of Venus," put together with flawless archeology to bring back to life a time when songs were precious jewels shockingly placed in plastic, burlesque-like settings. It was perhaps not commercial enough for Broadway but ecstasy for those who care about lost nuances of the past.

A personal tip: If you're looking for the embodiment of a distant, pre-World War II England, where the muffins and scones approach divinity, the landlord and lady of Duncan-Quinn House Bed & Breakfast seem to have been sent by MGM central casting to represent those endearing stiff-upper-lip couples found in a multitude of British novels, ranging from Dickens to P.G. Wodehouse. I can't advocate highly enough for increasing the charm quotient of your trip by seeking refuge here. The owners, Peter and Jane Griffiths, confirm all our "Masterpiece Theatre" longings. To reach them, call 905-468-1171.

Next year: "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." See you there.

For information about the Shaw Festival, go to www.shawfest.com/

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Muses in my midst IV

(Irene Dunne in "Love Affair.")

Now that my pantheon has found its ideal director, composer and writer, it's time to start the casting process. We begin with an interesting breed known as The Great Lady. This kind of movie star - admired for their fashion sense, refinement and, above all, creamy noblesse oblige - went out of style after World War II. The most enduring and endearing of this extinct breed is Irene Dunne. Except for ax murderesses and villainesses, there was nothing that this soprano, comedian and tragedian couldn't render into silk. She was the perfect Magnolia in the great 1936 "Show Boat." She matched co-star Cary Grant twinkle for twinkle and innuendo for innuendo in "The Awful Truth." And in the late '40s, she approached the sunset of her career as a winsome teacher in "Anna and the King of Siam," as the ultimate Norwegian earth mother in "I Remember Mama" and even convinced the agnostic William Powell to be baptized in the evergreen "Life with Father." It seems a pleasing irony that several of her great roles were remade by the equally ladylike and talented Deborah Kerr. Dunne is one of the rare few who can make us swoon, giggle and weep in one movie, as she did in 1939's "Love Affair."

Not Wilde enough

(Richard Klautsch, left, plays Robert Chiltern and Laura Perrotta is Mrs. Cheveley in the Great Lakes Theater Festival production of Oscar Wilde's comedy, "An Ideal Husband." Photo by Roger Mastroianni.)
Frankly, the Great Lakes Theater Festival production of Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" isn't all that ideal. At its best, it achieves a pleasing regional-theater competence. Director Sari Ketter has concocted an economical, highly stylized production that utilizes pastel-lit platforms, rather than the expected antique road-show paraphernalia. On these platforms, the company italicizes and spoofs Victorian starchiness in the manner of automated dress dummies programmed to be relentlessly clever while constantly ringing gongs. It all brings to mind a late 19th-century diorama in a fashion-museum display case. Fortunately, the evening has just enough grace notes to let us intuit Wilde's unfading roundelay of filigreed bons mots and cut-glass romantic intrigues.

There is, however, a melancholic underpinning to the experience that causes us to contemplate a major loss. After completing "The Importance of Being Ernest," one of the English language's most perfect comedies, the madcap Irishman's pen was forever silenced by an undecidedly ungay (in the old sense) gay (in the newer sense) sex scandal. It's akin to Tennessee Williams being forever stilled after the premiere of "A Streetcar Named Desire."

Yet there are plenty of compensations. The remaining Great Lakes company seems to be coalescing. First and foremost is Laura Perrotta, sublimely cast as the exquisitely bad Mrs. Cheveley. Ravishing in burgundy finery, she vamps with the gusto of a Lillie Langtry siren. As Lady Markby, the ever-dependable Maryann Nagel has past the stage in her career of femme fatale and now is relishing the more seasoned status of dizzy matron. In last week's "Othello," David Anthony Smith showed his flair for villainy as a Cagney-gone-evil Iago. Here, as Victor Goring, he shows an equal suavity for high comedy playing on Wilde's insouciant verbal wit like a virtuoso xylophonist.

But something is amiss. To soar, Wilde needs effortless ebullience. In this production, you feel the sweat of conceptual exertion.

 Great Lakes Theater Festival performs "An Ideal Husband" through Oct. 30 at the Hanna Theatre. For tickets, call 216-241-6000.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Muses in my midst III

(Kurt Weill in the late 1920s.)

Of course, in my pantheon I can still Charleston, at least mentally, to Gershwin's jazzy syncopations, ever refresh myself from the endless well of Kern and Rodgers melodies, and nibble on Sondheim's cerebral bon bons. But the one composer who stands on the highest pedestal is Herr Kurt Weill.  He was the 20th century's magnificent musical chameleon. Like Shakespeare, he graced his collaborators and sources with imperishable greatness. In Germany, working with Bertolt Brecht, he defined Weimar decadence by reformulating American jazz styles. When the Nazis forced him to U.S. shores, he outdid the Broadway tunesmiths at their own game with songs of undying longing and romance, i.e. "Speak Low" and "September Song." In what I consider to be his greatest score, "Lady in the Dark," he managed to musicalize a tortured subconscious mind in three miniature dream operas. If you care to sip from his theatrical ambrosia, listen to radio adaptations of the exquisite "Lady in the Dark," with Gertrude Lawrence singing "My Ship," and "Knickerbocker Holiday," including Walter Huston's iconic "September Song," at http://www.archive.org/details/TheaterGuildontheAir.

Spoofing Hitch

(Sarah Nealis, left, and Nick Sandys have a chat as bobbies Joe Foust and Bob Johansen look on in the Cleveland Play House production of Patrick Barlow's "The 39 Steps." Photo by Steve Mastroianni.)

Heading east on Euclid Avenue, the Cleveland Play House opens its season with a death-defying juggling act to put Barnum & Bailey to shame. Take a compendium of Carol Burnett movie spoofs, a gaggle of Monty Python sketches, the career of Alfred Hitchcock and some Mel Brooksian winks, spin them all in the air, never dropping a ball, and you miraculously wind up with a work that's equal parts parody, romantic adventure and valentine to the theater.

Patrick Barlow has amazingly refashioned Hitchcock's classic "The 39 Steps" - the first of his many lovers-on-the-lam spy thrillers - into a romp for four performers who, with a shilling's worth of props and a dazzling array of costumes, capture all the highlights, romance and suspense of the original film. At the same time, they amp up the breezy charm into some delicious self-parody, yet keep its gallant heart beating. Even though the evening is as light as your best souffle, it serves a noble purpose, demonstrating - as the ancient Greeks and Thornton Wilder liked to show - that all you need for great theater are some deft performers and lots of imagination. It's the perfect re-introduction to theater for that cousin who hasn't seen a play since his nursery-school production of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown."

Playing what seem to be between 30 and 1,000 roles, Nick Sandys, Sarah Nealis, Joe Foust and Bob Johansen create an entire civilization built out of goofy accents and Bentley-like craftsmanship. My advice is to rent the movie, see the production and spend the next year trying to decide which gives you greater joy.

The Cleveland Playhouse performs "The 39 Steps" through October 10. For tickets, call 216-795-7000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.com

Moor is less

(David Anthony Smith, left, is Iago and David Alan Anderson is Othello in the Great Lakes Theater Festival production. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.)

The Great Lakes Theater Festival is opening its season on a note of impish false advertising, touting its "Othello" as "a thriller of Shakespearean proportions." Instead, it delivers an Othello as a rip-roarer of banal boobies. If Shakespeare's 17th-century tragedy once inspired some of Olivier's greatest emoting and Verdi's most sublime music, the present Great Lakes cell-phone toting, jungle-fatigues Moor could, at best, evoke some decent ratings as an NBC mid-summer replacement.

There are three positive things that can be said about director Risa Brainin's updated approach: it moves at the speed of sound; it's the theatrical equivalent of Cliff's Notes, making for a production easy enough for an attentive-deficit junior-high student to comprehend; and it delivers up one great theatrical moment - a round of self-applause from a handcuffed Iago (a riveting, Branaugh-esque performance by David Anthony Smith) as he smugly surveys a room strewn with the bodies of his victims.

However, on the negative side, with a Colin Powell-like Othello beloved by all, a nervy, blues-singing Desdemona, an army barracks set, and a company that seems to frug more than move, the production loses all pretensions to what we usually regard as tragedy. As a matter of fact, it was quite baffling to see an audience member in the front row following the production along with his script. Except for the lack of commercials, the evening was no more involving, challenging or difficult than what's stored on your VCR.

Great Lakes Theater Festival's production of "Othello" runs through October 31. For tickets, call 216-241-6000 or go to playhousesquare.org. 

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Muses in my midst II

(Director extraordinaire Ernst Lubitsch is shown in a trailer for his 1934 film version of "The Merry Widow.")
Like every other red-blooded American, I spend countless hours trying to decide which film director would be most ideal for putting my life on celluloid. The obvious answer is Ernst Lubitsch. For Lubitsch, unlike any other director, was able to rhyme elegance, wit, grace and style to create shimmering Art Deco dreamscapes. He taught Garbo to laugh, Jeanette MacDonald to glisten and Jack Benny how to turn his persona into some of the greatest comic acting since the Comedie-Francaise. If he could make Chevalier's trademark leer into a cinematic sensation, just think what the old Teutonic pro could have done with Keith A. Joseph's peculiarities.

Dig that antique jive

(Bob Hope and Jane Russell appear on Command Performance - the Armed Forces Radio Show in CBS Studio in Hollywood - in 1944.)

Admittedly, most people squander their Internet hours with the latest pop ephemera, i.e. Elvis' swinging romance with Ann-Marget or how Nancy Sinatra is burning up Vegas with those boots made for walking. But there are those chosen few who like to use technology to explore the social nuances of history. For example, there is an Aladdin's cave full of old-time radio broadcasts that can be streamed deliciously gratis. One of the most interesting bits available for those fascinated with World War II propaganda are the shows created by the Armed Forces Radio Service stations. These were a series of shows created exclusively to goose the morale of the troops. They included "G.I. Jive," "Yarns for Yanks" and, most famously, "Command Performance." It was considered every entertainer's proud duty to volunteer to appear on this last program. Perhaps the only star missing was the famously reclusive Greta Garbo. The idea was for soldiers to send in requests, such as Jack Benny's skinflint arias, Ginger Rogers' warbling and icons like Katharine Hepburn spoofing themselves. The program aimed to bring to the trenches the missed sounds of home: a frying steak; a Wisconsin cow moo; or Bob Hope trying to make time with female cab drivers. All you have to do to unearth this overpowering time capsule is to go to http://www.otr.net/?p=cmdp and stream away the decades in 125 episodes. So don the old zoot suits and join Hope and Crosby on the road to Iwo Jima.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Unaccustomed to this face

(Valerie Reaper as Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady"at the Beck Center for the Arts. Photo by Kathy Sandham.)

Perhaps she was still suffering the effects of all that "South Pacific" shampooing. Or maybe she had bumped her head one of the many times she'd been wired to Never Never Land. But something caused the great Mary Martin to reject Lerner and Loewe's invitation to create Eliza Doolittle in their musicalization of Shaw. As a matter of fact, she even related to her husband: "Richard, those dear boys have lost their talent.

Oops. For as any civilized citizen knows, that cross pollination of Shaw and lilting waltzes turned out to be one of the most enduring house plants in all of musical theater. And with their "My Fair Lady," Beck Center has set out to prove this. To comprehend the eccentricities - or, dare we say, grotesqueries - of this production, try to envision Hirschfeld's famous caricature of a god-like Shaw pulling the strings of his puppets Henry Higgins and Eliza as rendered by Salvador Dali. Now, substitute for the beaming Shaw a wild-eyed Paul Gurgol, director and choreographer of the Beck deviation, in a court-jester cap trying frantically to untangle the strings of these bedraggled marionettes.

Gurgol has done everything he can to test this masterpiece's resilience with enough bizarre inventions to fill out a Eurotrash "Ring" cycle. The evening commences with Galatea waving her arms to start the storm that will eventually bring Higgins and Eliza together. And what a Higgins. From Howard to Harrison, tradition has always given us a slender, egotistical aesthete as the charming but cantankerous linguistics professor. So imagine our surprise when we first encounter roly poly Bob Russell, whose Higgins can't decide whether to base his persona on Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot or MGM's Oliver Hardy.

Equally disconcerting is coming upon Valerie Reaper's Cockney flower girl dolled up as a pink Dresden shepherdess. (See photo above.) When acting, her toothy Eliza gives off an aura of a young Carol Burnett doing her routine in Edwardian England. Yet when it's time for her to unleash her creamy soprano, we suddenly are reminded of all of the radiant Elizas who have captivated untold businessmen and matinee ladies.

One other weird aspect of the production is that Colonel Pickering (Dana Hart) is far sexier and irresistible than his cohort in transformative crime. Oh, how we yearn to see this Higgins and this Pickering switch roles. However, aside from the fascinatingly appalling attempt at period costuming, undernourished ball scene and incredible lack of romance, there are enough felicities to make the teenage girls sigh. These include an exquisitely rendered "On the Street Where You Live" (Benjamin Czarnota as Freddy) and a charmingly droll "Get Me to the Church on Time" (delivered with just the right vaudevillian snap by George Roth, whose rascally Doolittle is worthy of a far plusher "Lady").

With a Higgins and an Eliza whose relationship generates bewilderment instead of sparks, we believe it would be kinder to all this time around that Eliza follow Shaw's original instruction and marry Freddy. Ha!

(Bob Russell as Professor Henry Higgins and Valerie Reaper as Eliza Doolittle at Beck Center. Photo by Kathy Sandham.) 

Beck Center performs "My Fair Lady" through Oct. 17. For tickets, call 216-521-2540 or go to beckcenter.org.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Dobama opener is an absurdist stew

(Andrew Cruse, left, as Sean, engages in unrelenting pandemonium with Daniel McElhaney, as Blake, and Carly Germany, as Hayley, in Enda Walsh's "The Walworth Farce" at Dobama Theatre. Photo by Steve Wagner.) 

Enda Walsh's "The Walworth Farce" commences Dobama Theatre's 51st season and second year in its splendid new home at the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library. At approximately 8:05 p.m., two unsavory sons start to perform film-noirish role plays for a disapproval old sod of a dad. While enacting these humiliations to please the old man, somebody turns on a tape recording of Bing Crosby singing "Tura lura lura." Ah, we surmise, an allegory concerning the crooner's notorious mistreatment of his young sons. Yet as the cacophony increases, we think, oh, theater of the absurd, for there isn't a comprehensible line or sentiment until about 9:10, when the wayward brothers - for inexplicable reasons - kidnap and begin to torture an appealing grocery clerk from a nearby store.

To evaluate whether this is your type of theater, we suggest that you first play on your TV, at full volume, some old Monty Python skits while having dad overact passages from Genet and get cousin Archie to simultaneously scream Pinter pauses. If you can honestly say, that's entertainment, by all means go.

The fact that this frenetic concoction is rendered with such style, timing and aplomb is further proof that director Marc Moritz is part lion tamer, craftsman extraordinaire and a rescuer of impossible material. For Moritz has given Daniel McElhaney, Andrew Cruse, Carly Germany and Bob Goddard inner lives and dashes of charisma nowhere to be found in the text. This may sound terribly provincial, but how we yearn for Moritz and crew to expand their talents in a worthy vehicle - let's say, "You Can't Take it With You."


Ever since 1987, when I berated the cinematic fairy-tale spoof, "The Princess Bride," I've enacted the role of the eunuch in the harem, dispensing wisdom, accolades and brickbats to works that I could never write, conceive of or act in. Through the decades, I've shouted hallelujah when Great Lakes Theater Festival pulled off a plangent Plantagenet in some crisply wrought Shakespeare. I've also cried foul when a theater such as the Cleveland Play House skinned and embalmed "The Little Foxes." I'd like to think that over the decades I've solidified my reputation as somewhere between an Addison DeWitt purveyor of platinum bon mots and a gruff, theater-loving Fred Mertz throwing beer bottles at theatrical incarnations of his Ethel.

Ironically, I have been sent to Siberia in two variations of the paper called Scene by the same road-company Stalin, sans the mustache or the power. Just when I was about to give up the hurlyburly of reviewing, the pleas of bedraggled actresses, delicatessen bathroom attendants, various relatives and desperate press agents called me back, like Dolly returning to the Harmonia Gardens.

I must enter a personal confession here: I had been shown how computers can crush human endeavors and lives. This truth had been amply drummed into my brain by such films as "The Desk Set," in which Katharine Hepburn and her office were threatened with extinction by a computer the size of a Buick, and "2001: A Space Odyssey," which showed us the insidious Hal leaving poor astronaut Gary Lockwood left floating lethally in space.

But to paraphrase Tevye, on the other hand, no more censorious editors butchering my copy to fit space; no more banishment of intoxicating reference, such as Oogie Pringle; and no more dumming down of colorful verbiage. Plus here is the opportunity to extend my range from local theater to other life-expanding enticements, including book, CD and DVD reviews and panagyrics to artists who deserve praise for the enrichment they've brought to this critic's life.

Above all, this would offer - in lieu of a paltry paycheck - the even more potent stimulation of ultimate ego gratification. Enjoy. 

(Barbra Streisand, as the other Dolly, arrives at the Harmonia Gardens.)

Muses in my midst

The human face bears no clue to the soul. To truly understand a fellow mortal, it is imperative to intuit the inspirational figures that shaped his vision of the universe. Hence, every week I will share a god from my formative pantheon. This week, let us begin with playwright, bon vivant, composer, lyricist and performer, Sir Noel Coward.

(Photo by Allan Warren)