Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Jerry's Queens

(Christopher Sieber and George Hamilton in the touring production of "La Cage aux Folles.")

It takes a 24-carat curmudgeon to give the gate to one of Jerry Herman's Broadway extravaganzas. The shows work on the same principle as soulful pooches: they melt all resistance, with their puppyish bonhomie, and then they proceed to lick you into total submission with their melodic impishness.

If "Hello, Dolly!" was his gentle, elegant Golden Retriever strutting on a staircase, then "Mame" was his dizzying pink poodle of a charmer and "La Cage aux Folles" is his Saint Bernard - clumsy and loving, dispensing gay family values with the same tender care as "Peter Pan's" Katie Nana.

For last year's Broadway revival, director Terry Johnson replaced the jeweled lavishness of Arthur Laurents' original production with a more earthy rhinestone sparkle, making it endearingly tacky and the gay element more central with a fluorescent honesty. The touring version, now at PlayhouseSquare, retains much of this joyful approach and, with the nuanced diva vulnerability and outrageousness of Christopher Sieber's Albin, preserves the whimsical professionalism you got for twice the price in New York.

Unfortunately, there is some mongrel blood in the performance of George Hamilton as Georges, Albin's comparatively "straight" husband. Hamilton brings to mind the days when John Kenley would requisition long-in-the-tooth celebrities and give them a script and a week to master it. Admittedly well past 70, Hamilton is still dashing and looks born to his ascot. However, this elegance is rendered in a fashion much closer to a Madame Tussaud's waxwork than an aging roue in St. Tropez.

Adding the wrong kind of absurdity to this production is a black head microphone perched on Hamilton's silver mane doing a remarkable impression of the asp that bit Cleopatra.

Yet it takes more than a poisonous snake to assassinate such a queenly piece of musical theater.

"La Cage aux Folles" runs at PlayhouseSquare through Sunday, Nov. 20. For tickets, call 216-241-6000.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Theatrical cavalcade

(Kristy Cruz as Sherry and Rachel Gehlert as Grace in Dobama Theatre's production of "Tigers Be Still." Photo courtesy of Dobama Theatre.)
By now, my multitudes of readers numbering in the dozens may have noticed my month-long silence. A brief explanation: in a life fixated on fiction, I try to make it a point to live up to such titles as the most happy fellow and the constant nymph. So when struck with what James Agee called a death in the family, I was temporarily stopped from chronicling local productions.

Allow me to offer an apology to Ensemble Theatre for not being able to make timely comments on their vibrant production of Clifford Odets' "Waiting for Lefty." Just as protesters were filling Wall Street and St. Clair Avenue in a stroke of perfect synchronicity, the theater offered a production of the ultimate protest play riveted in a picturesque anger that brought to mind one of Diego Rivera's murals of anguish. Artistic director Celeste Cosentino shows every indication of bringing this revered company into a happy new epoch.

Meanwhile, on Lee Road in Cleveland Heights, Dobama Theatre has found its voice in a cerebral ode to the disenfranchised. Anyone who grew up savoring the whimsical malcontents of "Catcher in the Rye" and "Catch-22" will appreciate the different flavors of alienation in Kim Rosenstock's "Tigers Be Still."

Director Marc Moritz has become a Merlin in the art of synchronizing the comic ticks and phobias of women who haven't left the couch in six months, teenagers expressing their anger through popsicle-stick art therapy, and a high-school principal who runs his school with the savvy of Moe, Larry and Curly. All in all, it's an evening of comic discontent for those who thrive on "The Daily Show."

(Mary Pickford in the 1919 silent movie of "Daddy Long Legs.")
Moving downtown to Cleveland Play House, we have the local premiere of a new musical based on Jean Webster's "Daddy Long Legs." Long before teenage girls were swooning to the pop-diva witches of "Wicked," their great-grandmothers derived equal joy from the romantic letters of an orphan girl named Jerusha. This 1912 epistolary novel of Jerusha's growing attachment to her unseen benefactor, like "Wicked," is a lovely fable of female empowerment. Webster's idealization of innocent girlhood blossoming into spunky determination sparked three generations and was brought to life by such illustrious nymphs as Mary Pickford, Janet Gaynor and - ooh-la-la - Leslie Caron.
(Robert Adelman Hancock as Jervis and Megan McGinnis as Jerusha in Cleveland Play House's production of "Daddy Long Legs.")

The new Paul Gordon-John Caird musical is approximately half a pleasure. It faithfully follows the trajectory of Webster's charming novel and contains a cast of two ideal performers, Robert Adelman Hancock as Jervis and Megan McGinnis as Jerusha. Each is as lovely and plaintive as any antique illustration. But - and this is a big one - they both have to contend with composer-lyricist Gordon's monotonous blankness. The score fails at its most essential task: to evoke the era and inner life of its source material. No matter how winning the story and cast, the lack of melodic inspiration proves to be an insurmountable obstacle, smothering its delicate story.

(Cara Corrigan as Fredrika Armfeldt and Dorothy Silver as Madame Armfeldt in Fairmount Center for the Arts' production of "A Little Night Music." Photo by Kathy Sandham.)

On the other side of the musical-theater universe is Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music." Based on Ingmar Bergman's film, "Smiles of a Summer Night," it also draws its existence from a gorgeous artifact. In this case, however, the music and lyrics embellish, enchant and transform its source material. There are two things no civilized Clevelander can afford to forgo, and they are both onstage at Fairmount Center for the Arts: on a national level, a major work by Sondheim, and on the local level, a major actress named Dorothy Silver.

To thrive, this 1973 musical needs glamor, wry sensuality and musical panache. Fortunately, Fred Sternfeld's production has all of these elements in varying degrees. In spite of costumes that often resemble corseted potato sacks, the conviction of the cast and the lilt of the waltzes bring to life the show's jaded romanticism.

Tracee Patterson manages to combine sophistication and heartbreak as the musical's yearning heroine, Desiree. Matthew Wright pulls off the difficult stunt of being a charming fool as Fredrik. Katherine DeBoer, as Charlotte, makes sexual jealousy a savory dish. And Luke Wehner, as Henrik, not only bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Buster Keaton, he's also as adept eliciting wounded, tender vulnerability as Keaton was at straddling a locomotive. Natalie Green sensually flames as the maid Petra, and, unfortunately, as the only canker in this blossom, Anna Bradley gives a performance of amazing vulgarity and ineptitude as Anne Egerman.

The hardest aspect of reviewing Dorothy Silver is not to give in to the temptation to make an allusion to the precious metal her name evokes. Of all the virtues of her performance, the two things worth noting are her uncanny ability to suddenly appear 20 years younger onstage and her genius at taking whatever mood she cares to emphasize - here, weary melancholy and wry mischief - and burn these images into our brain.

Even rendered on a miniscule budget, this musical remains an extravagant gift.

"Tigers Be Still" runs at Dobama Theatre through Sunday, Nov. 13. For tickets, call 216-932-3396.

"Daddy Long Legs" runs at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare through Sunday, Nov. 13. For tickets, call 216-241-6000.

"A Little Night Music" runs at Fairmount Center for the Arts through Sunday, Nov. 13. For tickets, call 440-338-3171.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Muck up your Shakespeare

(Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel in the 1953 MGM movie version of "Kiss Me, Kate.")
Every classic worthy of its Cliff's Notes has been hurtled through the centuries. Some of the happier landings have included Jane Austen's "Emma" in a Beverly Hills High School retitled "Clueless." With a Jones added to her name, Bizet's Carmen burned up a commissary in a World War II parachute factory. And in each case, the creators made sure that the original values logically flowered in its new soil.

(Broadway's fabled acting couple, Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt, do it the Elizabethan way.)
When the producers Saint Subber and Lemuel Ayers decided to update Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" in a theater in post-war Baltimore, they had book writers Sam and Bella Spewack carefully parallel the original story with two feuding, egomaniacal theater folk, who were once married, and a parcel of Burlesque rogues that precisely mirror the Bard's Elizabethan madcaps. Most importantly, the work was imbued with the caviar of Cole Porter's score, which justified the transformation with its high style, romance and innuendo. For example, "If your baby is begging for pleasure, let her sample your measure for measure." Still, the creators had the integrity and sagacity to retitle the work "Kiss Me, Kate."
(Phyllis Diller is one of the many odd references shoe-horned into the Great Lakes' production.)
If the Great Lakes Theater had embraced the same truth in advertising, they would have retitled their take on the play "Gag Me with a Spoon, Bitch." For this production uses the antics of Katherine and Petruchio to function as the grand marshals of a pageant of '80s mayhem. Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect is the insertion of what seems to be a translation by the Bee Gees of such daunting couplets as "What, sweetie, all bummed out?" and "I've come to wive it wealthily in Hollywood." They even throw in a direct reference to Porter's "Where is the Life that Late I Led?"
(Jane Fonda, whose aerobics are the true muse of this production.)
Back in 1948, Porter pulled off the remarkable feat of spinning the Bard's poetry into musical rapture. In comparison, the updating of the dialogue in this production is akin to aesthetic vandalism for cheap laughs. Admittedly, director Tracy Young's '80s tomfoolery - with its use of Keith Haring's art, Jane Fonda aerobics classes breaking out on the streets of Hollywood, and a tongue-in-cheek spoof of Tom Cruise in "Risky Business" - have sass and energy. But they help bury Shakespeare, and the story of Kate and her Petrouchio doesn't begin to emerge until the last 20 minutes.
(That special age for whom this production has been fashioned.)
What the company has given us is an ideal production for Shakespeare-hating junior-high students, who are incapable of dealing with Elizabethan language or customs of another era. It's also an aphrodisiac for those who never got over their high-school crushes on Madonna.
(Jim Lichtscheidl and Sara M. Bruner, whom we hope to see in an authentic "Taming of the Shrew" someday. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.)
Underneath the Jamie Lee Curtis hairdo and the Hollywood running suit, Sara M. Bruner and Jim Lichtscheidl provide traces of a meaningful Kate and Petruchio amid the '80s detritus. By the end of the evening, their warm personalities and genuine chemistry help melt the production's cynical disdain for the play. Invariably, it's too darn cold and too darn funky.

"The Taming of the Shrew" runs through Saturday, Oct. 29. For tickets, call 216-241-6000.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Fruits of the Fuhrer

(Laura Perrotta is Fraulein Schneider and John Woodson is Herr Schultz in Great Lake Theater's production of "Cabaret" at the Hanna Theater in PlayhouseSquare. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.)
Cleveland Play House and Great Lakes Theater both commenced their season with whiffs of ol' Deutschland.They requisitioned works that owe their very existence to the machinations of the Fuhrer.

If Hitler hadn't wrought his havoc, many iconic masterpieces would never have come into existence. Humphrey Bogart would have had no excuse to woo Ingrid Bergman in "Casablanca," and a young Englishman named Christopher Isherwood wouldn't have had the opportunity to dally with a manic young English eccentric who later would be turned into Sally Bowles as the Nazis were coming to power. Without these "Berlin Stories," there would have been no subsequent "Cabaret," no Oscar for Liza Minnelli and Great Lakes would have had to resort to - horror, horror - yet a third production of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)."

Similarly, if Bertolt Brecht, the subversive librettist of "The Threepenny Opera," hadn't enraged the Nazis, he would not have had the chance to flee the homeland for the wilds of Hollywood. Thus, he would never had been able to reshape his opus about Galileo for the magnificent girth of Charles Laughton. And 64 years later, Cleveland Play House would not be moving to its new digs, the renovated Allen Theatre, with its most fully realized production since "Of Thee I Sing" almost two decades ago.

(Adolf Hitler, without whom these works would never have been written.)
Both theaters have taken decidedly different approaches to their season openers. Kander and Ebb's musical, "Cabaret," like egg foo young, is constantly being reinvented, and no matter what recipe always remains wildly popular.

"The Life of Galileo" is one of those academically worshipped classics that rarely leaves the shelf. It is one of those massive work, if done successfully, guaranteed to enhance any ambitious theater company's reputation, though not fill the coffers.

Great Lakes' "Cabaret" has the disadvantage of being a bargain-basement knockoff of an haute-couture gown. The production is an admitted recreation of Sam Mendes' 1998 New York revival. Director Victoria Bussert is better known for effects than shaping felicitious performances, resulting in a smudged ghost of Mendes' original.

The evening is not without grace notes. One of the joys of a local company is watching a performer grow with the years. From the beginning, Laura Perrota has been a stunning stage presence, but as time has passed she has taken on the translucent quality of fine crystal. As the world-weary Fraulein Schneider, Perrotta radiates a lifetime of loneliness transformed into wondrous fulfillment when Herr Schultz (the Gepetto-like John Woodson) offers escape through marriage. Their tender rendition of Kander and Ebb's exquisite "Married" is the evening's oasis in a desert of dime-store decadence.

In a representation of the Third Reich as menacing as a junior-high Halloween party, only Sara M. Bruner's George Grosz-like Fraulein Kost evokes the moral rot taking root in Germany. Unfortunately, these three stellar performances illuminate only a fraction of the prolonged proceedings.

Painfully, we have to deal with Eduardo Placer's grotesque, baby-like attempts at squalor as the Master of Ceremonies. Even more vexing is Jodi Dominick's excruciating Sally Bowles. In the Mendes revival, Sally was turned into a charming but pitiful neurotic. Dominick, however, has come up with a performance so shrill that it brings to mind the screeching violins of Bernard Herrmann's classic score for "Psycho." Ultimately, her offense against the title tune brings to mind Norman Bates' slicing and dicing of Janet Leigh in the shower. This is one "Willkommen" that is hardly welcome.

(Paul Whitworth plays the title role in "The Life of Galileo" at the Cleveland Play House. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.)
There are many parallels between Brecht and his Galileo. Both were genius scoundrels who not only redefined the universe but were also magnificent escape artists. "Galileo" is one of those plays that demonstrates that great art has a grain of autobiographical truth. The title character was a 17th-century scientist who was able to survive the wrath of the Pope and the Inquisition. Twentieth-century playwright Brecht escaped the Nazis and the McCarthy era and took advantage of almost every opportunity and artist he ever met.

Play House artistic director Michael Bloom, utilizing Brechtian wisdom, handed this production to a director, Michael Donald Edwards, who not only understands the playwright's epic theater, but also how to make it fresh and new. Edwards, employing Brecht's idea of alienation, fills the stage with hip-hop clergy, slides of corrupt Cleveland politicians and Gershwin's "Fascinatin' Rhythm." These techniques, which have been overused in everything from Bayreuth to Shakespeare, here seems newly minted, keeping the work as current as a broadcast on CNN and as exciting as a carnival.

Most importantly, the production's center is Paul Whitworth's luminous Galileo, who is indeed the heavenly body around which everything spins. It's rare when a theater is able to turn a masterpiece into a reflection of the heavens.

"Cabaret" runs at the Hanna Theatre through Sunday, Oct. 30. For tickets, call 216-241-6000.

"The Life of Galileo" runs at the Allen Theatre through Sunday, Oct. 9. For tickets, call 216-241-6000.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Jesus goes to Canada, Palin comes to Cleveland

(Heather Anderson Boll, left, is Deb and Caitlin Lewins is her daughter, Hannah, in Dobama Theatre's production of "Grizzly Mama." Photo by Steve Wagner.)
After feasting on the giddy cha-chas, ditzy drag and gorgeous goosing of Beck Center's "Hairspray," there was no way I could live through another Cleveland summer. The endless ethnic festivals, outdoor rock concerts and Porthouse Theatre's squalid tattering of "Hello, Dolly!" were sure to curdle any facsimile of a soul I might possess.

So I took flight, looking for salvation through theatrical splendor. Landing at Canada's Stratford Festival, I found, to my horror, that the poisonous brewings of the Tea Party had infected this sacred institution. In a fit of Republican greed, the festival decided to go for star lucre by featuring the well-known kisser of Brian Dennehy on all of its advertisements.

Director Des McAnuff used Dennehy to corrupt Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night." In the manner of a new-age Boss Tweed, Dennehy's Toby Belch, like a smiling demon, turned "The food of love" into "the ham of theatrical egotism." We still scream at the image of Dennehy as a road-company Jackie Gleason in golf togs, a mugging Big Daddy in a white suit or an Old-West claim jumper hogging center stage, as if it were his private gold mine. Making matters worse were the addition of a dozen songs, stretching the evening to over three hours and further burying the love story, which should be the play's beating heart.

Speaking of Republican takeovers, the festival gave us a "Camelot" with an Arthur and Guinevere with the hormonal appeal of Ike and Mamie. Even with a genuine hawk and a Lancelot with Canadian-Mountie dash, the whole affair played like an endless Medieval Rotary Club pageant.

However, we do offer hosannas for a production of "Jesus Star Superstar," also directed by McAnuff, every bit as divine and revelatory as the 2000-year-old best seller on which it is based. Yet we have to mention that it is a frightening indication of the apocalypse when Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice out-trump Shakespeare and Lerner & Loewe.

Coming back to Cleveland, we find Dobama Theatre tenaciously sticking to its mandate to live in the present. So instead of a hoped-for Kaufman and Hart-type farce about Franklin and Eleanor, we have "Grizzly Mama," a political spoof commissioned by the theater to eviscerate liberals, conservatives and everything else mentioned on CNN. Playwright George Brant's dark farce has the punch of a savvy political cartoon. Among his delightfully exploded targets are Blackberry-addicted teenage girls who literally speak in Twitterese, feckless liberals who spoil their children and implacable conservatives who sacrifice their children on the altar of right-wing values.

In Brant's helium-filled, anything-goes universe, the daughter of a fictionalized Gloria-Steinem liberal rents a cabin in Alaska next to a suspiciously Palin-esque politician. To avenge her dead mother's feminist honor, the liberal must figure out a way to assassinate the Palin stand-in. The evening never offers substantial insights into anything that approaches the human condition, but those who thrive on the Comedy Central skits of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert will be more than satiated by Brant's skewering of everything from hunting and psychiatry to mother-daughter rivalries.

Directed by Laura Kepley, the production moves with a sure-footed velocity that camouflages the ephemeral material, which is designed to implode a week from Tuesday. As the avenging liberal, Heather Anderson Boll has the Meryl-Streep aquiline grace to exude a wounded dignity and a Lucy Ricardo flair for pratfall-a-minute zaniness. Caitlin Lewins, as her daughter, Hannah, manages the picturesque balance of wide-eyed radiance and adolescent arrogance. As the unseen Palin daughter, Erin Scerbak humanizes the evening with ingratiating, gum-chewing pathos.

If the play were revived in 20 years, it would serve as a perfect time capsule for a world besotted by technology and momentary values. Perhaps this is why some of us choose to dwell in lost literary lands.

"Grizzly Mama" runs at Dobama Theatre through through Sunday, Oct. 2. For tickets, call 216-932-3396.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Of Drag I Sing!

(The finale of "Hairspray" at the Beck Center in Lakewood. Photo by Kathy Sandham.)
You might as well don your lime-green flip flops and ride your Schwinn over to Beck Center's production of "Hairspray." The evening overflows with pleasures akin to a tall glass of strawberry-watermelon Crystal Lite on a humid summer day - wonderfully refreshing in myriad fruity, artificial ways. This 2002 musical is taken from John Waters' 1988 ode to chubby girl-power, desegregation and early '60s fashion faux pas. Waters is America's own heart-of-gold cinematic flasher, sort of a Tourette Norman Rockwell indulging in pastel,  subversive Americana ranging from drag-queen housewives to pink flamingos, all utilized to champion the obese and disenfranchised.

After almost a decade, "Hairspray" is joining the ranks of "Bye Bye Birdie" as a perennial, warm-hearted teen romp spawning a superb movie adaptation and endless productions from civic centers to summer camps. Thanks to Martin Cespedes' homage-laden musical staging giddily merged with Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's popsical score, the evening takes on the aura of a summer costume party, which is wildly appropriate in a show whose Big Mama is in reality a Big Papa. What makes the show so charming is the effortless manner in which it combines the bubble-gum fantasies of a fat girl who wants to dance on a fictionalized teenage TV dance show with the historical urgency of the early '60s Civil Rights movement, pulling off that rare tightrope walk of being profoundly silly.

(Tracy Turnblad's older sister, that forgotten inamorata of the '70s and '80s, better known as Linda Ronstadt.)
The most felicitous aspect of the Beck Center realization is the way every cast member suggests a past icon and every dance seems reminiscent of a beach-party movie, a cut scene from "Birdie" or a Michael Kidd frolic out of "L'il Abner." In synch with this approach is our heroine, Tracy Turnblad, played with melting ardor by one Brittany Lynne Eckstrom, who could be Linda Ronstadt's chubby little sister. In the same costume-party mode, Kevin Joseph Kelly's Edna Turnblad evokes Ernest Borgnine as McHale dressed for the Navy Drag Ball. Continuing the merry masquerade, we have a TV-show host, Corny Collins, played by a Pee-Wee Herman look-alike named Matthew Ryan Thompson; a teen hero, Link Larkin, played by Cody Zak as a lithe, young Val Kilmer; and a gospel diva, Motormouth Maybelle, played by Tina D. Stump as a jubilant cross between Hattie McDaniel and Aretha Franklin. And for pure comic eccentricity and charm, we have Anna Bradley's Penny Pingleton, looking like an eroticized Pippi Longstocking filching the evening with every gigantic crack of her bubble gum.

This is not to be thought of merely as an evening of period laughing gas. For the show, particularly in this incarnation, cherishes the Waters template of tolerance and inclusion, offering the same kind of delicious paradox as finding Granny in her bustier baking legendary apple pies in a leather bar.

"Hairspray" runs at Beck Center through Sunday, August 14. For tickets, call 216-521-2540.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Home Again

(The national tour of "Jersey Boys" is at PlayhouseSquare through Sunday, July 17)

The brand of reader who would gander at the Eunuch undoubtedly realizes by now its intent is to supply a portal to our forebears' joys. It is a site to proclaim hosannas when local theater manages to encapsulate those flashes of insight or madcap Charlestons that took Grandma Sadie's mind off the butcher bill. For our core belief is that which was once valuable endures like pan-gold nuggets and the dross from Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Me and Juliet" to the new Spider-Man extravaganza will sink into murky oblivion.

For example, at PlayhouseSquare, "Jersey Boys" - in a month-long run - has become the equivalent of a nostalgic trip to the seashore loaded with sex and sass. It's an evening intended to thrill anyone old enough to have worn or embraced anyone in a leisure suit. In reality, it is the best of a sub-specimen of musical theater known as the jukebox musical, where the canon of a one-time pop phenomenon, in this case Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, is fired ad nauseum.

One would think it would be a Herculean task to imbue emotional heft to a show whose heart beats in the melodies of "Sherry" and "Walk Like a Man." However, the creators, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, have been savvy enough to mythologize Valli's Brooklyn wailings much the same way Warner Bros. rhapsodized George M. Cohan to stand for an entire era. Just as the Cohan film utilized the skill of director Michael Curtiz and the undying charisma of its star, James Cagney, "Jersey Boys" uses the propulsive energy and falsetto Valli dynamism to create a neurotic epic of mobsters, small-time gamblers and drug-store Casanovas. It's what would have happened if Martin Scorsese had taken on "Yankee Doodle Dandy."

(Raine Thorne, left, as Karen O'Kane and Jacob Allen as Prince James in the Ohio Light Opera production of "Jubilee." Photo by Matt Dilyard.)

The Ohio Light Opera in Wooster caters to a far more silken, crinoline taste. It is one of the few places left in the United States to satiate those who still have loving and vague recollections of Jeanette McDonald singing Friml or Bobby Short crooning Porter. Commencing with Gilbert and Sullivan, evolving into European-strudel operetta and eventually segueing into Broadway, they have performed a hit-and-miss archeology through the decades. "Jubilee," written in 1935 by Cole Porter and Moss Hart, proves to be one of their most successful excavations. It chronicles that time when operetta was giving way to red-hot-and-blue Americana. The company tends to falter when presenting post-Rodgers and Hammerstein book musicals, but fortunately "Jubilee" still partly clings to operetta tradition. The book - with its royal blue-bloods on the lam from responsibility, sultry dancers and zany bad-boy playwright (Hart's first fictionalization of Noel Coward)- brings to mind the screwball comedies you can see any night on Turner Movie Classics.

(Jackie Kelk, left, and Montgomery Clift as the young princes in the original 1935 production of Cole Porter and Moss Hart's "Jubilee.")

However, the moment that makes the long drive to Wooster worth it is when the petulant princess and fun-loving playwright airily rise out of bed and perform one of Porter's lesser-known but delightful list songs, "A Picture of Me Without You." It is here that we not only experience the DNA of Porter's magical touch, we also see the raison d'etre of the pre-1950s musical comedy. Utilizing a 25-cent budget on a show that begs for a small fortune, thanks to the Ohio Light Opera's bonhomie, the production is given life by Julie Wright Costa's vintage eccentricity as the queen, Ted Christopher's endearing goofball of a king and choreographer Carol Hageman's adept unearthing of lost joie de vivre. Both Woody Allen and Thomas Wolfe claim it's fruitless to try and go back, but Wooster proves them partially wrong.

"Jersey Boys" runs through Sunday, July 17 at Playhouse Square. For tickets, call 216-241-6000.

"Jubilee" runs in repertory with eight other works at the College of Wooster through Saturday, Aug. 13. For tickets, call 330-263-2345.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Soaring Above Average

(Alice Ripley in the national tour of "Next to Normal." Photo by Craig Schwartz.)
"Next to Normal," currently at PlayhouseSquare, is a musical chronicling the same suburban angst you find in any Dr. Phil show: mom's having another breakdown while daughter turns to drugs. Yet in its short life span, it has managed to snap a Tony and a Pulitzer, and it has been proclaimed a critic's darling and a paragon of theatrical virtues. Surprisingly, there is little here new to the musical stage or to subscribers of The New Yorker.

(Agnes de Mille's dream sequence is a highlight of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!")

It's all been done before. In 1943, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Laurie (in "Oklahoma!") worked out her own night sweats with dream doubles and Agnes de Mille's terpsichore. Two years before, in "Lady in the Dark," fashion magazine editor Liza Elliott sought help from a psychoanalyst for her romantic traumas. She worked them out in three tres elegant, Kurt Weill-Ira Gershwin dream sequences.

(Gertrude Lawrence, center, and Danny Kaye, right, in the original 1941 production of "Lady in the Dark.")
On the literary front, Henry James dealt with disturbing ghostly aberrations, and a half century later, Edward Albee demonstrated the power of unseen children. Ibsen had already given us a heroine who slammed the door on her family. And William Finn had demonstrated, in his "In Trousers" musical trilogy, how aptly lyrics and music can italicize neurosis.

So what makes "Next to Normal" the new Gandhi of musical theater? Perhaps this is best illustrated in a rare moment of referential levity when the show's deeply troubled mother, Diana, is foraging through her medicine cabinet while the rest of the cast comments - a la "The Sound of Music" - that these are her favorite things. This is remarkable discipline and integrity in an age when musical theater - from "The Producers" to "The Book of Mormon" - thrives on a "Forbidden Broadway" mentality of spoofing other shows. We appreciate "Next to Normal" for what it embraces and what it eschews - emotional honesty rather than box-office catharsis - and for using its sophisticated soft-rock score (by composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey) exclusively to tell a story rather than pander to teenage hormones.

The triumph of its realization is how it takes a clinical sob story and makes it poetic through sensitive writing, staging, lighting and casting. Set designer Mark Wendland gives us a steel and plexiglass scaffolding that puts us inside the heroine's mind and physical reality. Kevin Adams' lighting suggests everything from mental breakdowns to - in an exhilarating visual feast - electric shock therapy. Director Michael Greif and choreographer Sergio Trujillo keep the show in a fevered dream state that illuminates Diana's divergent disintegrations and recuperations.

As Diana, Alice Ripley has been justly acclaimed. On tour, her exhaustion - whether feigned or the result of performance and travel fatigue - contributes poignant intensity to the character's frayed grandeur. But Ripley doesn't dominate in an ensemble of estimable actors who appear smitten with the complexities and raw shadings of their respective characters.

Some of us value musical theater as a means of escape. Some of us value it as a truth teller. "Next to Normal" shows us that the rumor of the death of the musical is unfounded - and that it remains a protean art form that combines the best of these worlds.

"Next to Normal" runs at PlayhouseSquare through Sunday, June 19. For tickets, call 216-241-6000.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Beckett's flawed music

(Samuel Beckett at a Paris bistro.)

When I was young, I identified with every Neil Simon guffaw at the human condition. Yet I was blissfully oblivious to what I thought was every humorless Samuel Beckett observation concerning the ennui that envelopes our lives. Over the decades, a frightening transformation has occurred: Simon's wry comedy has shrunk, while Beckett's clowns "astride the grave" have become massively pertinent and, yes, even morbidly hilarious, as if they were Laurel & Hardy on downers.

Anyone who's ever gotten above a B in Intro to Theater class knows that the Irish, particularly Beckett, are theater's great Yoricks, showing us our foibles and mortality, while amusing and bemusing us with the tinkle of jester bells. "Waiting for Godot" is, in all probability, the most influential and revered play of the second half of the 20th century not written by Eugene O'Neil or Tennessee Williams. One way to regard Beckett's genius is to view him as the polar opposite of Wagner. Whereas the German myth maker utilized his transcendent music to create a massive world of conflicted gods, Beckett employs his bleak poetry to summon a godless universe of parched humans seeking nourishment and meaning in a landscape devoid of illumination.

Beckett's "Endgame," which is receiving a vibrant production at the Cleveland Play House presented by the Cleveland Museum of Art, proves itself to be a weak cousin to the fabled "Godot." In spite of Massoud Saidpour's stately direction and an exceptionally gifted cast, it doesn't take a Sherlock Holmes to detect that the play is a painful 90 minutes with a brilliant 20 minutes buried inside. In Beckett tradition, it is set in a dismal, post-apocalyptic world equipped with archetypal masochistic servant and master and, in a corner in two garbage cans, the master's cast-off, aged parents. To give a whiff of its dark humor, we only have to mention that its master and servant are named Hamm and Clov. Hamm's decaying parents are Nagg and Nell.

The action is confined to Hamm periodically calling out for his pain killer and Nagg and Nell occasionally popping out of their individual cans to ask for a biscuit and to break into tears, which inspires Hamm's observation: "Nothing is as funny as unhappiness." Despite its brilliant writing, there is no dramatic progression, and even though it may get this writer sentenced to literary purgatory, we have to declare that this Beckett work makes one yearn for the same medication that Hamm lusts after. To illustrate the point, the aged professor of literature sitting to my right moaned that he would rather be watching "Lassie Come Home."

(Dorothy Silver as Nell in Beckett’s "Endgame." Photo by Peter Jennings, courtesy the Cleveland Museum of Art.)
Although it is my duty to remind even the most ardent fans of the MGM collie that any Beckett is good for your character, you will rarely see him performed with such brio. Director Saidpour has found the perfect role model for each character. Terence Cranendonk whimsically plays the beleaguered Clov in the manner of Boris Karloff performing the monster mash - endearingly gruesome. Last year, George Roth gave us a thoroughly kosher Tevye and this year is equally effective, in sun glasses and Harpo wig, playing Hamm. One of the great pleasures of being a Clevelander is the enduring excellence of Dorothy Silver. In this, her first Beckett performance, she plays with the melancholy yet elegant woe of an El Greco Madonna. And as her garbage-can husband, Mark Seven evokes the ruined grandeur of a Rembrandt beggar.

Perhaps no writer so defined our post-war blues as Samuel Beckett. Even his flawed music deserves our consideration.

"Endgame" plays until Saturday, June 11. For tickets, call 216-421-7350.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Little Theater That Could

(Kristi Little and Daniel Caraballo in the Ensemble Theatre production of Ravij Joseph's "Huck and Holden.")
Ever since Julius Caesar almost choked on a grape, guffawing at that now-lost farce about a messy Etruscan rooming with a compulsively neat, neurotic Spartan, it's been endlessly demonstrated that only a handful of plots exist. Judging by the two plays this writer has seen by Rajiv Joseph (no relation), the Cleveland-born playwright seems to have fixated on a "King and I"-"Teahouse of the August Moon" clash-of-cultures motif that he epitomizes as Western-people-funny.

On Broadway, in Joseph's Pulitzer-nominated "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," Robin Williams' star-studded bombast and director Moises Kaufman's thicker-than-molasses metaphysics smother the playwright's gentle humanity. Thankfully, in Ensemble Theatre's lean production of Joseph's first work, "Huck and Holden," his exuberant imagination and delicate scheming emerge unimpeded.

As in the aforementioned "King and I" and so many other works, the play tells of how an arrogant foreigner is defrosted by down-home (here American) virtues, which include liberated sexual mores and a lack of social distinctions. At the same time, the repressed foreigner teaches the American the glories of literature and that sex must be tempered by romance.

Joseph begins his play on a series of delightful ironies and cultural criss crosses: an American college student working in a library, fascinated by the Kama Sutra yet unaware of who Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield are, meets an Indian foreign exchange student who is terrified by sex and every aspect of American life. Utilizing a ghost, an Indian god and several flights of fantasy, Joseph chronicles two cultures liberating each other with all the charm one could hope for in a first play.

"Huck and Holden" is directed by Celeste Cosentino, daughter of Ensemble's late founder, Lucia Colombi. Cosentino began the theater season with an adept production of old-master Horton Foote's "Dividing the Estate." Her season-ending production of Joseph's play is equally skilled, with a cast so good we can't resist calling them adorable - and proving that Ensemble remains the little theater that could.

"Huck and Holden" runs at Ensemble Theatre through Sunday, May 29 at the Cleveland Play House. For tickets, call 216-321-2930.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Curtain Down

(Arthur Laurents, who died May 12 at age 93, wrote two the books for two of Broadway's most indelible musicals, "West Side Story" and Gypsy.")

Last week, Arthur Laurents, one of Broadway and Hollywood's most ferocious and erratic craftsman, expired of pneumonia at the age of 93. For any normal human, this would be the expected conclusion of a long life. However, for a man who had a genius for making collaborators into foes and shaping the mundane detritus of existence into blazing confrontation, this is a yawning disappointment. If Laurents had managed to succumb under mysterious circumstances, his long line of show-biz enemies would have made for a whodunit worthy of Agatha Christie.

His output included screenplays for Hitchcock, an Oscar-winning vehicle for Ingrid Bergman and one of Olivia de Havilland's juiciest roles. Alas, they linger in the twilight of semi-oblivion. The Streisand-Redford "The Way We Were" endures mainly due to its title song, plus Laurents claims it as a bastardization of his original political intentions.

(The gym scene from the touring production of "West Side Story" now at PlayhouseSquare.)

The key to the firebrand's immortality is the pact he made with song and dance in the '50s. With two titanic musicals, "West Side Story" and "Gypsy," he formed a holy trinity with Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins, with inspired music by Leonard Bernstein on the first and Jule Styne on the latter. These are the works that will forever keep his name in crossword puzzles.

If there were no Jet-Shark rumbles, macho men would find snapping their fingers to be a hollow gesture. If Laurents had not had the inspiration to turn Gypsy Rose Lee's mother into a Shakespearean gorgon, torturing her offspring to "sing out" and performing musical monologues of filial betrayal, anguished homosexuals would have no role model on which to pin their mishegas.

(A scene from the movie version of "West Side Story.")
Together, these works are the peaks of musical drama. Their book writer spent over half a century clinging to them with a tenacity that would make Mama Rose proud. Every few decades, he would reshape and redirect another revival of "Gypsy," and weeks before his death he was badgering Sondheim to let Streisand star in a third filmed adaptation. His last stage project was to try to put what he thought to be some verisimilitude into "West Side Story" by injecting Spanish into the book and lyrics and making the kids raunchier and less poetic. Due to his pathological possessiveness of his two children, he virulently rejected their film versions, ignoring the superb acting of Rosalind Russell's elegantly rendered Rose and Natalie Woods' luminous Maria and moving Gypsy, dwelling ad nauseum on a particular pair of high-heeled pumps Russell wore while performing "Rose's Turn." Concerning "West Side Story," he did astutely point out that the movie was too pretty and weakened by the gross inadequacies of Richard Beymer's Tony.

(Rosalind Russell showing off those fatal pumps in the 1962 film version of "Gypsy.")
But the years have shown that "West Side Story" is akin to an expensive, perfectly designed sports car that often fails to fire on all cylinders, despite Laurents' complaints that the movie seems to have come closest to bringing the show's virtues to fruition. This is amply demonstrated in the touring production currently playing Cleveland's Palace Theatre. Only Robbins' choreography and the romantic and rhythmic sublimity of Bernstein's music are gloriously intact. Laurents appeared to be laboring under the delusion that such realities as feigned masturbation during "Gee, Officer Krupke," the elimination of the indelible moment when the warring gangs put aside their differences to carry of the dead Tony, and T-shirts with holes will imbue the show with a more up-to-date sensibility. Instead, this spoils the pacing and mars the ideal stylization achieved in 1957.

The ultimate irony is that, at the end of Laurents' life, he was the real Mama Rose, unable to leave his brilliant offspring to flourish on their own.

Monday, May 2, 2011

S.S. Company

(Lydia Hall, left, as Jenny; Ursula Cataan as Amy; Connor O'Brien as Bobby; Tracee Patterson as Joanne; Abigail Alwein as Susan; and Megan Elk as Sarah in the Fairmount Performing Arts Conservatory production of "Company." Photo by Kathy Sandham.)
Those with a predilection for kitsch might fondly recall Frank Wildhorn's rock revamp of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. On screen, Robert Louis Stevenson's born-in-a-nightmare embodiment of schizophrenia has been most notably split between the talents of John Barrymore, Fredric March and Spencer Tracy. However, the undying parable's most visceral manifestation comes in a 1970 musical by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth known as "Company," now at Fairmount Center for the Arts. It would be nearly impossible in the annals of Broadway to find a work so conflicted between the numbing banality and ersatz hipness of its book and the melodic invention, salient wit and psychological insights of its score.

(Fredric March in the 1931 film version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.")
We speculate that this strange malady is due to the work's bizarre birth pangs. It is based on a series of vignettes about the vicissitudes of marriage. To draw together these pieces, the creators inserted a neurotic bachelor, Bobby. But ultimately the character, as written, was never more than a cipher who is not interesting enough to be the focal point of the show's disparate parts.

(Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman in the 1941film version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.")
But, oh, that score. With nods to boogie woogie and rollicking choruses to ballads of alienation and commitment phobia, Sondheim's cornucopia remains startling and fresh even after 41 years. Unless someday there's a rewritten version of the book, there will never be a "Company" you'd want to invite over for dinner.

So perhaps it is appropriate that Fred Sternfeld's Fairmount Performing Arts Conservatory production is dizzyingly erratic, blowing hot and cold - a ship that docks triumphantly in spite of its many leaks. Indicative of the inconsistency is Connor O'Brien's blatantly insincere Bobby. Some may find his performance hollow, but others may relish his life-of-the-party obsequiousness as a justification for his emotional neediness. His original approach comes to fruition when he seems to be dancing to save his soul in "Side by Side by Side."

Among the evening's undisputed highlights is Ursula Cataan's felicitously frazzled Amy in wedding dress and boots victoriously conquering Sondheim's tongue-twisting lyrics in "Getting Married Today." Adding flash to "Another Hundred People," that love-hate ode to New York, is Natalie Green, ready to pack her bags and go on tour as Marta.

Where the production encounters rough sailing is the unexpected faltering of the usually wondrous Tracee Patterson. As Joanne, the musical's bitter fulcrum, Patterson is giving us one of the bleakest showstoppers in all of theater, "The Ladies Who Lunch," a dark reflection of rich, alienated Manhattan life. Sadly, she opts to play up the character's inebriation and winds up defanging the song's gut-wrenching impact.

Still, it is an unanticipated reward to find stellar Sondheim on the proverbial head of a pin in a civic center - get this - next to a Heinen's. It's a paradox worthy of our beloved Steve.

"Company" runs at Fairmount Center for the Arts through Saturday, May 14. For tickets, call 440-338-3171. 440-338-3171

Monday, April 25, 2011

Improvising Your Life

(Dobama Theatre is presenting Annie Baker's "Circle Mirror Transformation" through Sunday, May 15.)
Dobama Theatre ends its season with "Circle Mirror Transformation," a play so warm, humanistic and forthright that you wish it could date your sister. Playwright Annie Baker has come up with the interesting concept of replacing the Bible and Freud with the improvisational theater games of Viola Spolin. The play works as an updated version of "Marty," but instead of seeking companionship in a dance hall, its small-town, lonely denizens take a theater improv class. Set in a community center in Shirley, Vermont, "Circle" chronicles a summer session.

(Ernest Borgnine in the 1955 movie version of Paddy Chavefsky's "Marty.")
The playwright's clever conceit is to reveal the characters' lives through the process of Spolin's games. Baker is particularly adept at capturing the verisimilitude of thwarted lives: a recently divorced man; a high-school girl from an abusive family trying to find the courage to audition for her school's production of "West Side Story"; a kooky actress recovering from a toxic relationship; an aging hippie who never got over the '60s; and, as the teacher, one of those earth-mother Bohemians you can see at any table at Tommy's.

The play is sometimes done in by its own integrity. With dozens of glimpses into the theater process, the work doesn't develop in a conventional manner. Like eavesdroppers in a coffee shop, the audience is force to piece together the minutiae of the characters' lives. This is a process that can be frustratingly slow, but ultimately it pays off by making us privileged voyeurs.

Befitting the script, the cast is especially deft at capturing the universal pain of average people trying to crack the shell of their inhibitions. Director Juliette Begnier, an experienced local actress, shows great sensitivity in finding the delicate pain and joy in this fragmented, but tender work. If you happen to spot someone nearby sans wedding ring who seems to have been moved by the evening's proceedings, fly right to their side and make him/her your own.

Dobama Theatre presents "Circle Mirror Transformation" through Sunday, May 15. For tickets, call 216-932-3396.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Paradise Refound

(Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison in the original Broadway production of "Kiss Me, Kate.")
We all have our own special hopes for that Paradise at the end of the tunnel. Muslims dream of virgins, boozers envision hangover-free Martini guisers, fatties fantasize about Godivas that slim the hips, and ponytailed rockers yearn for a Beatles reunion. Then there are those esoteric Mermanites weaned on Sondheim and cast albums who imagine the pearly gates as the entrance to the Alvin Theatre circa 1941.

In this Paradise Refound, Dante has given way to Cole Porter, and here the Broadway spectaculars, raped by Hollywood vulgarians, play in unmiked original-cast perpetuity. In the Art Deco lounge, the TV spectaculars that once delighted Aunt Flo have returned to again spread their kinescope ecstasies. If this be your impossible dream, light the candles and hop in your surrey with the fringe on top. For three musical holy grails have been unearthed and refurbished on DVD. Those of you who remember MGM's surprisingly well-made and faithful "Kiss Me Kate" in 1953 may think of its leads, Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel, as the equivalent of good, solid technicolor sirloin steak. Five years after the movie, the Hallmark Hall of Fame restored the show's original comma and Broadway leads. If caviar could sing and emote, it would be the performances that Patricia Morison and Alfred Drake gave on the television adaptation of this show in 1958, a decade after its Broadway premiere. Although sadly cut to 78 minutes, every moment reminds us of the delight that the archeologists must have felt when they found the glories that lay hidden for centuries in King Tut's Tomb. Aside from the two leads, we have jazz diva Julie Wilson's incorrigibly naughty take on Lois Lane singing "Tom, Dick or Harry" and Jack Klugman brushing up his Shakespeare a few months before he would join Merman in "Gypsy." Anyone raised on distant legends of Broadway sophistication will find this DVD a key to a lost civilization of giddy elegance.

On a more bizarre note, we have an unlikely meeting of three legends in a 1953 TV production of "Anything Goes." The idea of Frank Sinatra, the idol of saddle-shoed millions, ardently wooing Broadway's own belting Bruennhilde (Ethel Merman) with Porter-ish ardor seems surrealistic beyond the dreams of Groucho. Add to this Dorothy's own Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) joining his former "DuBarry Was a Lady" co-star for an interpolated performance of "Friendship." What we have here is the ultimate happy talk - a dream come true.

To top off our triumvirate, imagine a Sondheim-penned episode of "The Twilight Zone" populated by the original Mother in "Life With Father" (Dorothy Stickney), the cinematic Liesl from "The Sound of Music" (Charmian Carr) and a crooning Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). It's called "Evening Primrose," which aired once on ABC's Stage 67 in 1966. Needless to say, fascinating.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Legacy of the Light-Fingered

(Michelle Duffy, right, as Olivia, confers with Lenny Van Dohlen, as Voltaire, in the Cleveland Play House production of Karen Zacarias' "Legacy of Light." Photo by Roger Mastroianni.)
The Cleveland Play House is on the verge of painting its wagon and hitting the Euclid Avenue trail to its new Allen Theatre digs at PlayhouseSquare. Its final production finds the company in a self-congratulatory state of mind, paying tribute to its own Lady Bountiful - Roe Green. Following the advice of that great oracle, Dolly Levi, Green is "spreading money around like manure to help young things grow." In this case, her fertilizer is providing scholarships for fledgling playwrights. Judging by the Play House's current production, Karen Zacarias' "Legacy of Light," this fund is sorely needed to cultivate a better class of play.

God knows, as playwright-in-residence at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and instructor of playwriting at Georgetown University, Zacarias is no novice. Yet the work on stage at the Play House, a "metaphysical" farce spanning two centuries, depicting the plight of two female scientists and graced by the presence of the ghost of Voltaire, shows a penchant for cerebral whimsy and winking ethics lessons that would only be forgivable through your freshman year. Listing the play's grievous sins would consume more than its actual length. But most offensive of all to this audience member is a work that contains the ghost of Voltaire with constant, smug references to "the best of all possible worlds" and yet not a single mention of the greatest posthumous boon ever bestowed on a French philosopher's reputation, Leonard Bernstein's magnificent musicalization of "Candide."

We must admit that director Bart Delorenzo, set designer Takeshi Kata and costume designer David Kay Mickelsen imbue the production with the cheerful plushness of a Martha Stewart layout. The falling Newton apples and Little Bo Peep bodices offer lagniappes to atone for the script's falls from dramatic grace. As to the cast, all second Broadway leads, their Juilliard training is on evident display and they all bear finely tuned bodies and voices that make the peek-a-boo, Beaumarchais-like sex scenes a pleasure unto themselves.

(A scene from the current Broadway production of "Arcadia" by Tom Stoppard - Karen Zacarias' obvious muse.)
 However, the real ghost that haunts the play is not a dead French philosopher but a very-much-alive British playwright, Tom Stoppard. It's ironic that a writer who has made a career of playing with a variety of poets, including Shakespeare and Wilde, finds himself so blatantly imitated. On the Play House stage are constant references to Stoppard's gleeful use of the illustrious deceased, fixation on science and echoes of torrential wordplay. We feel he would not consider this play to be the sincerest form of flattery. If Zacarias can be so obvious in her adulation of Stoppard, this gives me the courage to go back to that epic I've been toiling on for decades - "Pussy on a Glass Streetcar."

"Legacy of Light" runs at the Cleveland Play House through Sunday, May 1. For tickets, call 216-795-7000.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Vic and Will for the masses

(Michael Redgrave as Jack and Margaret Rutherford as Miss Prism  in the 1952 film version of "The Importance of Being Earnest.")

If we defer to the dictates of Oscar Wilde's inimitable governess and authoress manque, Miss Prism, concerning the nature of literature, "The good ended happily and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means," then we must regard Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg's bombastic, anthem-laden 1985 musicalization of Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" - at PlayhouseSquare through April 17 - as a worthy endeavor. For its larger-than-life tenor hero, Jean Valjean, peddles nobility, kindness and redemption with the fervor that the Marlboro Man once endorsed smokes. His interminable goodness drives his sanctimonious nemesis, Javert, to suicide, enables him to hit ungodly high notes and causes him to spread enough sunshine to give all of Paris sunstroke.

Just around the corner at the Hanna Theatre, Great Lakes Theater Festival, for some esoteric reason, is presenting Shakespeare's "Two Gentlemen of Verona." This is one of those frustrating early works that shows us the messy, nascent stirrings of what would develop into genius. Parading as a comedy, it is as dark and vicious as any ABC mini-series and demonstrates that the shallow machinations of yuppies is as eternal as halitosis. And it fails to live up to Miss Prism's standards, for the bad or eternally insipid end up in what we assume to be wedded bliss.

(The touring production of "Les Miserables" is at PlayhouseSquare.)
 The latest tour of "Les Miz" proclaims itself as a reinterpretation, but for those of you energized by the original's blend of kitsch, pseudo-opera aspirations and "Masterpiece Theatre" grandiosity need have no fear. The only significant alteration is the removal of the turntable so poetically immortalized in "Forbidden Broadway's" peerless spoof. Those with a keen ear might detect a slightly leaner and more classical orchestration, which reduces the sonic thickness. However, this audience member had the misfortune of being in dangerous proximity to the speakers, which made everything sound more shrill than it needs to be. The cast, loaded with understudies the night I attended, ranged from piercing to ineptly earnest, with the exception of Andrew Varela's vigorous Javert and Ron Sharpe's affecting Valjean. However, even with the slight remixing of ingredients, "Les Miz" still brings to mind the cheap, but overpowering tang of Old Spice.

(David Anthony Smith as Launce and his canine companion Mojo in Great Lakes Theater Festival’s production of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” at the Hanna Theatre. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.)
Someone with a long memory at Great Lakes has noted that back in the 1970s, the rarely performed "Two Gentlemen of Verona" achieved surprising success as a do-your-own-thing ode to free love and Afros. With an infectious score by Galt McDermot (of "Hair" fame) and John Guare, this almost forgotten work took on a new reason for being. Trading on this idea, Great Lakes has taken the original script, add some jazz numbers and directed it to seem like another Friday night of swinging singles at Nighttown. The most optimistic thing you can say about a Charles Fee production of a Shakespeare comedy is the absence of bilious Three Stooges chicanery. The cast is proficient enough to make every line ring true and clear. But only two members of the cast give performances that can possibly endure past curtain calls. One of them is a homosapien, namely David Anthony Smith, as Launce, a trouble-making Shakespearean servant. The other, a glorious newcomer with an obvious pedigree, happens to be a purebred Newfoundland named Mojo in Shakespeare's only canine role. Together, Smith and Mojo have that chemistry you see in such enduring human-animal teams as Liz Taylor and Lassie and Wilbur and Mr. Ed. However, for those parched Bard-a-thons, even Shakespeare Lite makes for a nourishing brew.

"Les Miserables" runs through Sunday, April 17 at the Palace Theatre at PlayhouseSquare. For tickets, call 216-241-6000.

"Two Gentlemen of Verona" runs through Saturday, April 23 at the Hanna Theatre. For tickets, call 216-241-6000.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Broadway babies and Cleveland panties

(Daniel Radcliffe and Tammy Blanchard in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.")
Fortunately, musical rhapsodies to the glories of the Big Apple far outnumber those to Cleveland, land of the gauche anthems. At the forefront of these valentines are Kander and Ebb's "New York, New York," written for Liza Minnelli, and the opening to Leonard Bernstein's "On the Town." If you pledge your fidelity to original-cast renderings, New York is a "helluva town." If your taste runs more to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer technicolor, it's a "wonderful town." Either way, all this delicious musical froth periodically reminds us that we have to shuffle off from Cleveland-style deli to the banks of Manhattan in order to accrue knock-off purses in Chinatown, dine at Art Nouveau, Gigi-esque bistros and spend your annuity on original Broadway cast ambrosia.

Following in the footsteps of my New Testament predecessor, I will dispense some sage wisdom to my 12 followers (and whoever else may be peeking). First and foremost, forget about "The Book of Mormon." It's this decade's "The Producers," and any attempt to score tickets will cause untold humiliation waiting in cancellation lines, being mocked by condescending box-office personnel and losing your lucre, which could be better spent on weekly once-in-a-century bargains at that miracle on 34th Street, Macy's. Instead, you can achieve far more economical ecstasy by attending two sublime drag routines, one by a man (Brian Bedford) and one by an actual woman (Tammy Blanchard).

We, of course, define drag as the essence of caricaturing the foibles of a gender. Ironically, Oscar Wilde wrote the most savvy and perfect of English-language comedies in "The Importance of Being Earnest" and then was done in by the most unsavvy dictates of Victorian morality. Any well-acted production of "Earnest" would be worth the airfare to New York. But seeing Bedford, corseted and feathered, as Lady Bracknell would be worth your weight in gold, no matter how much you've cheated on your diet.

(Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell in "The Importance of Being Earnest.")

Bedford's gender-hopping is far more than a stunt. It is one of the comic performances of a lifetime. He quivers with the indignation of Margaret Dumont being goosed by Groucho, outdoes even the great Jack Benny in feminine exasperation and positions his mouth to suggest Olympian distastefulness, showing that he has been studying hundreds of kinescopes of Milton Berle drag routines. Every imperious move and swish of his skirt evokes the comic perfection that we dream of at the Comedie-Francaise. Beyond acting, Bedford has directed one of the most performed of comedies with new insights, eschewing the expected cliches of over-dandified heroes and Victorian puppets. One of the boons of technology is that superb stage productions no longer have to disappear into the ether of time. If you are not fortunate enough to catch this gift to the gods of comedy in person,  you can experience it at your local movie theater in June.

Director-choreographer Rob Ashford is proficient in an overstated Vegas manner. But his rambunctious vulgarity cannot do in the joys of the classic "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." No, Daniel "Harry Potter" Radcliffe does not have the wattage that Robert Morse radiated as the lead in the original 1961 production. If Morse was the human embodiment of a Hirschfeld caricature - all flashing eyes and impish smile - Radcliffe scores with a more subdued, Charlie Brown-like plaintiveness. Unlike Morse, he may not create lifetime memories, but his singing and dancing are more than winning.

What this second-row-center viewer will enshrine until senility is the crocodile smile of Tammy Blanchard as Hedy La Rue, the 60s variation on the ultimate man trap. Anyone who's seen Barbara Stanwyck play a stripper or Marilyn Monroe a gold digger will relate to this knowing spoof on sex: the self-loving twinkle as she reduces men to jelly and the radiating, palpable satisfaction as each hip twitch lands home. She pulls off the tightrope walk of making calculation lovable. Even a merely good revival of  "How to Succeed" - with its great Frank Loesser score the apogee of musical-comedy wit - will still show up most of what passes for Broadway levity today.

(Aaron Tweit and stewardesses in "Catch Me If You Can.")
The most audacious thing in "Catch Me If You Can" happens in the first five minutes, when a chase at the airport freezes and the fugitive hero comes forth to plead that a story can be re-rendered as a television spectacular - perhaps the most blatant subterfuge to turn a non-musical film into a song-and-dance show. This is one of those works that falls into the category of after-dinner mint - as forgettable as it is professional. With a score by "Hairspray's" Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, it has the same pizazz and amiability as its predecessor, as well as the feeling of an all-too-soon revival.

(Robin Williams in "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.")
Because "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" was written by a Cleveland-bred playwright, was on the Pulitzer short list and stars Robin Williams as the tiger, you may feel compelled to see it. It is another in a long line of plays that have been inspired by this generation's theatrical guru, Tony Kirshner. Yes, Williams is ferocious and funny as the ghost of a departed tiger. For those who prefer metaphysics over flesh-and-blood characters and can find pleasure in imagery worthy of Gauguin, you should be well satiated. But for those old bores who still subscribe to the well-made play with protagonists you like or identify with, you may feel your time could have been more wisely spent gazing at Rembrandts at the Frick. To be frank, perhaps because I sat in a seat made for the proportions of Mickey Rooney (and I'm well over 30), it seemed to this audience member a rather chilly but well-crafted artifact of a distant civilization called youth.

(Katie Nabors as Louis Maske in "The Underpants" at the Beck Center. Photo by Kathy Sandham.)
For those of you who do not have the plane fare at the moment, Beck Center is presenting Steve Martin's adaptation of Carl Sternheim's 19th-century Teutonic farce, "The Underpants." Farce is all about the triumph of airy artificiality. Subsequently, it is as hard to concoct as a souffle and as easily prone to fall. A recent local example of a crestfallen souffle, "The Ladies Man" at Actors' Summit, left many in the audience scurrying out in search of Pepto Bismol. However, Beck Center has imported a master chef who has figured out an ingenious way to doctor up an old script. Director Matthew Earnest has come up with the cunning gimmick of italicizing the play's mechanical gears by utilizing German expressionism, ranging from "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" to "The Threepenny Opera."

The characters are all painted in cadaver-like makeup and made to move and react like giant windup dolls. The style of acting evokes silent cinema and the ominous Grand Guignol of Sweeney Todd. The director is taking a big risk in alienating his audience with this technique, but it pays off royally. When the same work was done at the Cleveland Play House a decade ago, it played like rancid Neil Simon. Here the story of a comely German hausfrau whose panties fall in public, causing de rigueur complications of the genre, unfolds with the merry synchronicity of a giant German bell tower clock. It's an evening of joyous anarchy, proving that one can still find happiness in one's own back yard.

(Conrad Veidt in the the 1920 silent film, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.")
"The Underpants" runs at Beck Center through Saturday, April 23. For tickets, call 216-521-2540 or go to www.beckcenter.org.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Of Plots Thick and Thin

(Scott Plate and Jeremy Kendall in "A Steady Rain.")

In Patrick Dennis' indispensable "Auntie Mame's Guide to World Cinema and Theater," we surmise from a survey of works ranging from "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" to "Zeus Surfeosis" that there are approximately eight plots to draw from in the universe. Currently in the hurly-burly of Cleveland theater, there are a total of eight exhausted performers spread throughout three economical productions, proving the validity of our madcap aunt's hypothesis.

At Dobama Theatre is Joel Hammer's peerlessly pressure-cooked production of Keith Huff's "A Steady Rain." Written and set in Chicago, it follows the violent downward spiral of two tough city cops. It reigns firmly in the category of Brotherly Betrayal 3B. This is where two emotionally ferocious men (think Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas) are bonded literally or figuratively as brothers. Gay lovers don't count. That comes under the special category The Love That Dare Not Speak It's Name Won't Shut Up. In this play's template, two macho hunks invariably cling together trying to survive in their corrupt, film-noirish universe. Consequently, strong drugs, bad broads and general malaise destroy the angrier of the two, leaving the other to eternally brood in a scalding lake of self-recrimination and jazz.

(An even more illustrious portrayal of Brother Betrayal 3B: Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront.")

Being a sufficiently raw and poetic example of this category, we can heartily recommend the two-character play. Here, Scott Plate trades in his patented bitchy and neurotic bounce for a melancholic, macho Weltschmerz perfectly symbolized by his droopy mustache. As his partner in degeneration, Jeremy Kendall exudes angst as effortlessly as Chevalier oozes Gallic charm. Recommended for anyone who confuses the three "Godfather" movies with godliness.

(Noel Joseph Allain as Asher in "My Name is Asher Lev"at the Cleveland Play House. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.)
Chaim Potak is the pious flip side of Philip Roth. He chronicles the torments of nice Jewish boys who play hooky from Hebrew school. "My Name is Asher Lev," at the Cleveland Play House, has been skillfully adapted (by Aaron Posner) in a well-built PBS manner. It comes from Plot 4J, or, to be more precise, think "The Jazz Singer," where a well-meaning but ambitious Jewish boy is so driven by his treif art that he dares to break away from his family's Talmudic tradition. This, of course, causes his Jewish mother to wail in her apron and his fierce father to tear at his beard. The main switcheroo here is that the little pischer is interested in being a painter, rather than a jazz singer in blackface. Instead of shocking his loved ones with a hammy Mammy, Asher humiliates his parents with a painting of his mother on the cross in a creation titled "The Brooklyn Crucifixion." Both works end in a form of emotional catharsis, with the two respective men taking their mother out for lox and bagel.

Director Laura Kepley elegantly fills the Bolton stage with Chagall-like imagery with a cast that evokes authentic Yiddishkeit. Ideal for people who still look forward to attending their cousin's Bar Mitzvah.

(Al Jolson in the original 1927 movie, "The Jazz Singer," as the archetypal breakaway Jewish boy.)

Proving that you can never have too much of a grotesque thing, Great Lakes Theater Festival gives us its second production of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)." This anemic attempt to resurrect vaudeville comes from Plot 7M, where talentless comedians, such as the Ritz Brothers, the Three Stooges and cast members of various "National Lampoon" movies, endeavor to score easy laughs by desecrating the glories of writers they can only begin to comprehend through "Cliff's Notes." To get an idea of the tone of this work, imagine three drunken frat boys who, in place of finishing their term papers, decide to write what they think is a madcap spoof of Shakespeare that will get them laid. Then, envision the mortification of the audiences who have to endure the fruits of their labor. Think of these hung-over frat boys later reading what they have written to their repulsed girlfriends.

(Paul Hurley, Jason O'Connell and M.A. Taylor in "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [Abridged]." Photo by Roger Mastroianni.)

Artistic director Charles Fee thrives on 100-proof vulgarity. He directs with the delicacy of a Mixmaster set on puree. He manages to annihilate any merit that may be hiding. The script, by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield, has been amended to include references to Tom Hanks' urinal, gay love that flourishes in Lakewood and the latest antics of Charlie Sheen, which make things only worse, if possible. The two merits that could be detected by this audience member were the Jerry Lewis-like physical grace of Paul Hurley and the visual wit of set designer Gage Williams. To quote a famous sports homily, if they do it again, "three strikes and you're out." Recommended for people who confuse the "Jackass" movies with the works of Moliere.

Dobama Theatre presents "A Steady Rain" through Sunday, March 20. For tickets, call 216-932-3396.

The Cleveland Playhouse presents "My Name is Asher Lev" through Sunday, April 3. For tickets, call 216-795-7000.

Great Lakes Theater Festival presents "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" through Sunday, March 27. For tickets, call 216-241-6000.