Black Nativity -- Karamu's annual presentation of Langston Hughes' gospel extravaganza has less of a plot than other versions. But the combination of spectacular singing and emotional, energetic dancing makes the evening memorable on many counts. In two clearly differentiated acts -- the first recounts the story of Jesus' birth, and the second takes place in a contemporary church filled with foot-stomping parishioners shouting call-and-response -- the show encompasses a lot of Christian history and a whole lot of fine gospel tunes. The 17 full-throated singers are supported by two polished dancers, Michael Medcalf and Kathleen Turner, as well as electrifying young hoofers from the Cleveland School of Performing Arts. Director-choreographer Terence M. Greene adds a little humor with an older couple that gets with the beat in the church, but he keeps the focus where it belongs: on exuberant music that can free the mind and nourish the spirit. From familiar standards such as "We Three Kings" and "O Come All Ye Faithful" to lesser-known anthems, the singers can lift audiences right out of their seats through an undisguised passion for music that captures the sound of faith. Through December 30 at Karamu Performing Arts Theatre, 2355 E. 89th St., 216-795-7070. -- Christine 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 Ave., 216-631-2727, www.clevelandtheater.com. -- Howey
Love, Janis -- Janis Joplin's six-pack-a-day voice and the gentle soul behind it are the undeniable stars of Love, Janis. Based on the book of the same name by Laura, Janis' sister, the play is in effect a full-blown concert, with short interludes that show the singer's quieter and more reflective side. Quoting liberally from the letters she sent home, a more three-dimensional picture of Janis emerges as she fights professionally to avoid becoming "the poor man's Cher." As adapted and directed by Randal Myler, two women portray Janis, one speaking and one primarily singing, to emphasize the bifurcation of her psyche (at one point the icon says, "I gotta go change into Janis; she's upstairs in a box"). Katrina Chester as the singing Janis (she shares the tonsil-ravaging role with Lauren Dragon) embodies the explosive energy and total commitment of Joplin's full-body-contact blues. Even when she's not singing during musical bridges, Chester's "going down" on the bass guitar or dry-humping the drum set, always making love to her music. Amazingly, Morgan Hallett, as the speaking Janis, matches Chester's intensity by stitching thoughts from the singer's missives and remembrances into a homespun quilt of surprising and poignant sweetness. This show is not to be missed. Through February 12 at the Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., 216-241-6000. -- 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
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