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 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