Monday, January 17, 2011

Boyz in the band

(The cast of "Altar Boyz" at the Hanna Theatre. Photo courtesy of PlayhouseSquare.)
Beck Center is to be commended for so well preserving the small pleasures that abounded two years ago in their rendering of "Altar Boyz." We'd even go so far as to hosanna the Lakewood institution for scaling the evolutionary ladder in the artful way they've replanted the show in the cozy environs of the Hanna Theatre in downtown Cleveland. Yet if we did so, those eponymous boyz would take us to task for evoking the Satanic teachings of Mr. Darwin.

This off-off-Broadway lark chronicles the breakup of a Christian boy band. Ostensibly, it's a swipe at pious rock 'n' roll. Yet, in spite of its satiric pokes at chastity, gay crushes, Jews who shill for Jesus and soul-saving theatrics, the show is about as subversive as a rerun of "A Charlie Brown Christmas." The score, by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, keeps its flavor for approximately the same length of time as a stick of Wrigley chewing gum.

What keeps these boyz afloat for 90 minutes is the show's unabashed, Glee-ish bonhomie. On the Hanna stage, this giddiness is brought to winking, but never obnoxious, fruition by director Scott Spence and his obliging cast. As the group's leader, Josh Rhett Noble hypnotizes with his Elmer Gantry-on-steroids grin. As Juan, Ryan Jagru pulverizes English with a nutty, Desi Arnaz aplomb. Connor O'Brien confounds us with a  Yiddishkeit worthy of Bing Crosby. And as the smitten Mark, Matthew Ryan Thompson out-twinkles Tinker Bell.

To make it all glow, lighting designer Trad A Burns imbues the stage with a Jesus Christ Superstar radiance. Best of all, choreographer Hernando Cortez manages to maneuver his boyz as if they were the Bill Baird Marionettes dancing for the delectation of Captain von Trapp and guests.

"Altar Boyz" may not save your soul, but it will do much to banish the chill from a wintry Saturday night.

"Altar Boyz" runs through Sunday, Jan. 30 at the Hanna Theatre. For tickets, go to or call 216-241-6000.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Muses in my midst IX

(Ginger Rogers in the 1940s.)
The only time I saw Ginger Rogers in the flesh, she was featured in a speakers series at the Cleveland Play House, forlornly painted like a cupie doll, reliving past glories in the manner of a Yankee cousin of the madwoman of Chaillot.

Then last night I had a vision of a distraught Rogers banging on the gates of my pantheon, using decidedly un-Hayes Code invective, demanding retribution for the ersatz Rogers currently on the Play House stage. The only way I could calm this perturbed spirit was to invite her to reign in my pantheon and to reprint excerpts from the tribute I had written at her demise in 1995:

"Rumor has it that it was Katharine Hepburn that coined the defining explanation for the perfection of the Astaire-Rogers partnership: 'He gave her class. She gave him sex appeal.'

"Yet like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes, Ginger somewhat resented being revered for only one aspect of a spectacular career, for Rogers excelled not only in musicals but also '30s Depression working-girl dramas, screwball comedy and poignant soap opera. If she had only been Fred's dance partner, there would be no need for JFG (Jews for Ginger). The group is formed to honor the great human precept that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. To the Hebrews, she is the great American Christian goddess at her natural best, the great other, the vivacious blonde, blue-eyed girl of the neighborhood, wise-cracking at the corner drugstore, sipping a soda and figuring the angles to get ahead.

"The most effortless Ginger was the tough, wholesome shop girl, portrayed at its best in Billy Wilder's first movie as a director, the glorious "The Major and the Minor" - gifted but not intellectual, eminently likable, but never grand, never distant, never Garbo.

"The most revered Rogers memory is the Ginger in feathered evening gown gliding with Fred to 'Cheek to Cheek,' but to the connoisseurs her peak is when the camera would zoom in for her world-famous, knowing look - the arched eyebrow, the turned-up, tight-closed mouth all saying, 'I've seen it all - here we go again.' Other Astaire partners may have danced with more panache, but none reacted to his musical wooing with more wit, more yearning or more tenderness. Her greatest friend was the close-up.

"Some venal political and personal sins during the McCarthy era and the ravishes of time and taste drove the final coffin nails into her career. The Hollywood liberals declared her passe. Her 15 years of top stardom were brushed under the carpet. But the charming reality remains fixed in celluloid to be joyously rediscovered by each generation."

Let's call the whole thing off

(Matthew LaBanca and Anna Aimee White in "Backwards in High Heels" at The Cleveland Play House. Photo by Tim Fuller.)

"Backwards in High Heels: The Ginger Musical," at the Cleveland Play House, is a due-for-oblivion, bargain-basement musical desecration of the piquant luster that was Ginger Rogers. However, it serves a purpose as a tawdry object lesson. First and foremost, it helps us understand the reasons why some venerable religions have forbidden portrayals of its deities.

Speaking on a personal level, as founder and sole parishioner of Jews for Ginger, the show's flagrant disregard for taste, fact and smarts has sent me into a deep melancholia. The only solace is that virtually every successful show-biz icon, from Jerome Kern to Marilyn Monroe, has gone through the same form of mortification. We can only think of a handful who have escaped this fate: Irving Berlin forbade any dramatization of his life; George M. Cohan had Jimmy Cagney; Fanny Brice had Barbra Streisand; and Gypsy Rose Lee was outstripped by her Mom and Merman...

There is another useful purpose for "Backwards in High Heels." It is a shining example for theater professors across the land of how not to create a musical. Do not try to resurrect magic that's available on Netflix. Avoid squeezing original songs into the neighborhood of classic tunes by the Gershwins, Kern, Berlin and Warren. When doing a show about a musical icon, do not make the gross miscalculation of employing beloved songs associated with other icons, i.e. the first music we hear in "Backwards in High Heels" is "You'll Never Know," which was immortalized by Alice Faye. At all costs, avoid Mad Magazine caricatures of household saints like Jimmy Stewart, Bette Davis and, especially, Fred Astaire.

Admittedly, the real story of the red-baiting Lela Rogers and her brilliant tabula rasa daughter is the thing of  fascinating Hollywood folklore, but ruthlessly forced into the template of "Gypsy" - that towering realization of mother-daughter angst - makes it come across as a stale leftover. Even the final image of Lela and Ginger walking offstage arm in arm gives off the waft of desperate thievery.

Pinned on the bulletin board in these groves of musical-theater academia will be Wanted: Dead of Alive posters of those notorious "Backwards in High Heels" creators Lynnette Barkley and Christopher McGovern. Down the hall, in directing and dance classes, will be equally large posters of one Scott Schwartz for grievous staging offenses and of one Patti Colombo for choreographic shop-lifting.

To the six-member cast, we offer a heartfelt sympathy card for the loss of their dignity as they face the impossible tasks of evoking the unevokable. We have high hopes that Anna Aimee White, who plays Ginger, someday will able to share her talents in a flesh-and-blood role and not a freeze-dried icon. Heather Lee's Lela somehow manages moments of reality, indicating a genuine actress behind the show's mask.

The Cleveland Play House, halfway through the final season in its longtime edifice, needs to get over its unhealthy preoccupation with the Silver Screen. The season thus far has gone from Hitchcock to Astaire and Rogers. Let's hope the upcoming production of Horton Foote's "The Trip to Bountiful" brings us back into the world of bona fide theater.

"Backwards in High Heels: The Ginger Musical" runs through Sunday, Jan. 30. For tickets, call 216-795-7000, ext. 4.