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

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

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 

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 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

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)