Arts » Theater

Capsule reviews of current area theater presentations.

Amadeus -- If your mortal enemy were in the same profession as you, chances are you'd wish him every failure possible, so that you could wallow in all the attendant misery. But Amadeus author Peter Shaffer might advise that you be careful what you wish for. Indeed, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a giant thorn in the side of Antonio Salieri, court composer to the emperor of Austria. And for a long time in this drama, Salieri's dreams do come true: Mozart's brilliant music is often greeted with a shrug by his patron and the public, while Salieri's comparatively primitive tunes were hailed and richly rewarded. Yet this becomes Salieri's most exquisite torment, since only he appears able to recognize Mozart's genius. In the linchpin role, Andrew May stows many of his theatrical pyrotechnics and crafts a cramped and hollow Salieri. He is well matched by Ben Nordstrom's wildly careening yet believable Mozart, a man who, for all his excesses, still knows the score. The entire cast, under the deft direction of Gordon Reinhart, is so accomplished, one almost doesn't notice how unnecessarily padded and overlong the script is, landing at three hours with intermission. Presented by the Great Lakes Theater Festival through October 22 at the Ohio Theatre, 1517 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000. -- Christine Howey

As You Like It -- This rendering of one of Shakespeare's tastiest comedies -- set amid the tangles of disguised identities and loopy crushes -- is spirited, but less than thoroughly inspired. Under the direction of gifted Risa Brainin, it generates merriment in myriad ways while following the convoluted love trail of Rosalind and Orlando. Even so, some of the characterizations don't exhibit the sharpness and snap that one would desire in this crowd-pleasing romantic comedy. Julie Evan Smith is a willowy Rosalind, with just enough fire, wit, and spine to make her drag-king masquerade as Ganymede borderline credible. And while Jeff Cribbs is entirely likable as Orlando, he doesn't quite ignite the spark necessary to light up Rosalind's life. Brainin employs some original 1930s-style music by Brad Carroll, sung by suave Scott Plate with his backup crew, to help place the time. But that mood is broken when the singers launch into a contemporary hip-hop number. Presented by the Great Lakes Theater Festival through October 22 at the Ohio Theatre, 1519 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000. -- Howey

Dark Room -- The conventional image we have of playwrights and poets is of lonely souls slaving away in a poorly lit basement. Well, you've got the location and the illumination right, but everything else about the Dark Room project is much cheerier. Sponsored by the Cleveland Theater Collective, it's a once-a-month workshop/cabaret for writers who want to try out their new efforts on a small but extremely encouraging audience. On this night, in a basement room in the Parish Hall at Cleveland Public Theatre, the quality of the pieces varied widely, as is to be expected with scenes or verses that are still being developed (thus, the dark room). But one monologue by Tom Huggins, describing the burnout of nurses dealing with psycho patients in hospitals, was as irreverent and hilarious as a David Sedaris essay. Other offerings, each under 10 minutes, touched on the obnoxious questions asked of "little people," a musical take on holiday haters, and a little girl's imaginary friend, who is a middle-aged Dame Edna type. Reading from scripts (and dragooning anyone nearby to fill out a cast), the writers express, share, and support. And that's a terrific environment for any embryonic artistic endeavor. Takes place the second Thursday of every month at Cleveland Public Theatre's Parish Hall, 6205 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727, www.clevelandtheater.com. -- Howey

The Designated Mourner -- The plays of Wallace Shawn boast scripts that distill the essence of arguments about morality and self-awareness into poetically compressed streams of thought. This largely static play centers on three characters who move only incidentally, but whose minds are feverishly at work. Set in an unnamed country where the government is hostile to intellectuals, Jack is a recovering member of the inner circle of the educated. He decides to desert the sinking ship of those who adore books and revere art; thus he avoids the fate of many friends, who are eventually arrested and either die in prison or are executed by the state. These ghastly events are never seen and only mentioned in passing, as Jack obsesses about his disconnection from his body and the tumultuous world around him. One of the undeniable pleasures in this production is the language the playwright uses to spin his static tale of dread. As Jack, Randy Rollison masterfully conveys the impotent rage of a man who considers the thoughts and memories that make up his very self as a random collection of bric-a-brac, signifying less than nothing. Through October 22 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727. -- Howey

Footloose -- Twenty years ago, as Kevin Bacon shook his booty to film stardom, this story about a small town's dancing ban seemed far-fetched. But these days, who knows? The stage version, now at the Carousel Dinner Theatre, is a faithful retelling of the yarn, down to young Ren McCormack's (Mike Backes) mischievous needling, Reverend Shaw Moore's (Paul Floriano) grim Christian rectitude, and his daughter Ariel's (Kyli Rae) swooning crush on Ren, the rebel with the prancing feet. This production has a strangely enervating feeling in the first act, a combination of an uneven sound system and a couple of less than dynamic characterizations. But it hits the ground kicking in the second stanza, with an energetic "Still Rockin'" and an appealing rendition of "Let's Hear It for the Boy" by Vanessa Ray, who brings a bundle of fun to her portrayal of Rusty. SuEllen Estey, as the Reverend's wife, Vi, nails two of the quieter songs, evoking genuine sentiment from "Learning to Be Silent" and "Can You Find It in Your Heart?" Although the singing voices of Backes and Rae seem a bit thin at times, the final result makes you want to hit the dance floor. Through November 12 at Carousel Dinner Theatre, 1275 E. Waterloo Rd., Akron, 800-362-4100. -- Howey

Forbidden -- It is interesting and noble to want to produce theater by and about women, as the mission statement of Red Hen Productions promises. But it would be wise to add the codicil that these productions must also be well written and competently directed. Unfortunately, Red Hen's current play lays an egg of such ample dimensions that it would have frightened Chicken Little more than a crashing sky. Written by British journalist and playwright Pat Rowe, Forbidden makes a hash of extremely rich source material and turns a passionate love story between two women living in Nazi Germany into a banal exercise, with a little kissy-face and grab-ass thrown in for grins. Capable actors Liz Conway, Elizabeth R. Wood, and Dan Kilbane are victimized by the dull script and leaden direction, as are any attendees who might wander in. Feminist theater deserves better fare than this. Presented by Red Hen Productions through October 23 at the Black Box Theatre, 1210 West Sixth St., 216-556-0910. -- Christine Howey

Menopause, the Musical -- Everybody enjoys musicals dealing with energetic young people on the brink of conquering the world. But what about the people in the audience: the nearsighted, overweight, and wrinkled denizens of middle age, who rarely see their own physiological mysteries put into song? For them, there is Menopause, the Musical, a hoot of a show written by Jeanie Linders. It's a foot-stomping 90-minute revival meeting for women who've had to deal with The Change while also trying to maintain their careers and family relationships. Menopause is frequently repetitious, even teetering on the brink of tiresome, but the energetic cast of four and spirited direction by Patty Bender and Kathryn Conte maintain the flow, so to speak. All women with a few decades on them -- even those who only use "menopause" as an excuse to get out of going to football games -- will probably get a stiff neck from nodding in agreement and a tender side from all the laughter. Playhouse Square Center's 14th Street Theatre, 2037 East 14th St., 216-241-6000. -- Howey

Midnight Martini Show -- There is a strange attraction in Frank Sinatra's loosely organized Rat Pack and their infamous, loopily disorganized Las Vegas shows that ran for a few golden years back in the 1960s. Frank, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. mixed pop songs, corny jokes, and Johnnie Walker into an irreverent, hip evening that seemed so easy. What the Midnight Martini Show at Pickwick & Frolic proves is that it ain't easy at all. This one-hour set attempts to capture the bored-with-it-all sophistication and the slightly inebriated intimacy that the Rat Packers achieved, but it fails on several counts, from the overly eager performers to the florid songs and lame drinking jokes. Which is not to say that this no-cover show doesn't provide a convenient glide path for those downtown on a Friday or Saturday night. Indeed, some of the American standards are sung well enough. Now the task is to find directors and performers who understand that being casually funny while delivering classic tunes takes a lot of work. Fridays and Saturdays at Pickwick & Frolic, 2035 East 4th St., 216-241-7425. -- Howey

The Odd Couple -- There's an old joke where you tell someone to ask you, "What's the most important part of comedy?" And before they can finish the question, you answer "Timing!" If Karamu director Jean Hawkins is familiar with the importance of timing, it's not in evidence here. This 20-year-old update of the Neil Simon classic turns the battling pals into gals and the poker players into distaff Trivial Pursuit buffs, and there are plenty of potential laughs in the feminized script. But an interesting cast, featuring strong comedic types, is sunk by an almost total breakdown of timing and concentration. Lines are continually blown, transposed, and delayed, which eventually sinks even Simon's surefire wit. In the lead roles, Eva Withers-Evans (as slob Olive Madison) has the attitude right, but is half a beat late with many of her gibes. And super-intense Kate Duffield (prissy Florence Unger) must learn how to throw away a line in order to get a chuckle. Mary Dismuke's Sylvie gets a few titters, and Tim Squirek is sharp and amusing as one of the sexy Costazuela brothers, but they can't save this limp exercise. Through November 6 at Karamu Performing Arts Theatre, 2355 East 89th St., 216-795-7070. -- Howey

Top Dog/Underdog -- When a black dad names his two sons Lincoln and Booth, you just know there's going to be hell to pay down the road. Those brothers, now grown, make up the complete cast and the major reason to experience this Pulitzer Prize-winning comic drama from playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. It echoes Shel Silverstein's "A Boy Named Sue" in another way, since Lincoln and Booth's parents abandoned them before they were fully grown. The men's background has marked them indelibly, and their search for inner stability has led each to engage in con games and masquerades that offer control -- even when playing the victim. The thematic beauty of Parks' script is that this is a deal we all make, since we are all running a "con" in our public personas to deal with the wrenching realities that life deals us. The profoundly intuitive performances by Ed Blunt and Jimmie D. Woody, under the sure-handed direction of Dale Ricardo Shields, are entirely credible throughout, even when the action borders on the absurd. Through October 23 at Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-521-2540. -- Howey

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