Jolson & Company -- For those of us not invited to the first half of the 20th century, the mesmerizing attraction of singer Al Jolson to his thousands of fans seems an absolute enigma. Jolson's grandiose, cloyingly sentimental style, as well as his penchant for performing in blackface, played well some 90 years ago. Now the Jewish Community Center of Cleveland, in cooperation with Tri-C East, is trying to harness that lightning bolt in Jolson & Company. But despite solid work from the three-person cast, this production never truly conveys the rush that a Jolson performance generated. Structured as a series of flashbacks by authors Stephen Mo Hanan and Jay Berkow, the show traces Jolson's 40-year path as the self-described "World's Greatest Performer" through various signature songs ("Swanee," "Toot Toot Tootsie," "Sonny Boy," and 13 others), plus his collection of failed marriages. But in this effort, director Fred Sternfeld feels cramped and uninspired, not pushing his cast or himself to find interesting ways to tell the story. This is a show that needs an electrifying performance in the pivotal role, and Marc Moritz as Jolson does a thoroughly respectable job. His baritone is powerful and rich, but the neediness and insecurity that drove Jolson's relentless ego are largely missing. Playing an assortment of supporting roles, George Roth and Kristin Netzband are generally spot-on, quickly creating identifiable characters from Jolson's life. In short, however, this Jolson is a carefully sketched portrait, when exuberant splashes of tone and texture were what was needed. When dealing with such a larger-than-life person, it's not advisable to color inside the lines. Presented by the Jewish Community Center of Cleveland and Cuyahoga Community College Eastern Campus through May 20 at Tri-C East, 4250 Richmond Rd., Highland Hills, 800-766-6048. -- Howey
Our Town -- The juxtaposition of the richness of daily life and the payoff of nonexistence has rarely been captured as enduringly as it is in Thornton Wilder's Our Town, and under the direction of Raymond Bobgan, Cleveland Public Theatre mounts an enthralling interpretation that leans heavily on the illusory aspects of the story. Using a set of straight-backed wooden chairs, ghostly white makeup, and actors in early-1900s costumes, Bobgan brings the famous last-act cemetery scene forward, placing all of Wilder's prosaic small-town details, homespun humor, and romance in the grip of imminent death. That atmosphere pervades the performance, as many of the dialogue scenes are stylized, with actors making only occasional eye contact and sometimes being distracted by a passing thought or an unexpected glance. Director Bobgan's inventiveness continues in his casting, with the two fresh-faced lovers George Gibbs and Emily Webb played by seventyish Len Lieber, who captures the charming awkwardness of George, and young Chris Seibert, who is affecting as the one character we accompany through all stages of life and afterlife. Steven Hoffman also gives a finely detailed performance as Dr. Gibbs, and Dennis Sullivan finds all the humor and pathos in Mr. Webb's marriage speech to George. While the director's vision is arresting, some characterizations are a bit muted. But this is an Our Town that will bring you close to the core of the work and the sweet irony of life: We are given so many moments that we can never enjoy enough. Through May 12 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727. -- Howey
References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot -- Sex is a vital part of any intimate relationship, but it's often how two people relate to each other when not exchanging DNA that determines how well they fit together. This subject is dealt with in José Rivera's References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot, now being presented by Convergence-Continuum. At times dense with beautifully poetic imagery, this production dissects a fairly run-of-the-mill couple and finds moments of genuine truth. Gabriela has been married for 11 years to career soldier Benito, but the past decade has taken its toll on the couple, and Gabriela is looking for something more. Stuck in a small house in a California desert, she feels deprived of imagination and wonder, so we share her dream life as her cat and a horny coyote negotiate their own love tryst, while at night, the ever-present desert moon tries to seduce her in ways far more than metaphoric. Director Clyde Simon brings effective performances out of the cast: As Gabriela, Jennifer Turpeau smolders with anger and swoons under the ministrations of Benito and the moon man. Tom Kondilas plays Benito with understatement, allowing the character's strength to show through. As the cat and coyote, Amy Bistok and Geoffrey Hoffman capture a quadrupedal authenticity as they tease about devouring each other, sexually and otherwise. And Wes Shofner, a most tumescent full moon, gets off some good gibes. There is plenty to chew on in this production, which is enhanced by colorful screen graphics, designed by Eric Wahl, of an ever-so-slightly-changing desert and moon. Salvador, we're guessing, would approve. Presented by Convergence-Continuum through May 26 at the Liminis, 2438 Scranton Road, 216-687-0074. -- Howey.
Roulette -- A fast round of Russian roulette is a bracing beginning for any play, but Roulette by Paul Weitz, now at the Bang and the Clatter Theatre in Akron, is too often a predictable, plodding cruise through the familiar geography of contemporary anomie. Suburban dad Jon (Ralph Cooley), your typical distant father, shares a split-level with his gin-and-tonic-slurping wife, Enid (Dede Klein), and two stereotypes, er, teenage kids with problems, son Jock (Ryan McMullen) and daughter Jenny (Nicole Davies). Their lives of not-so-quiet desperation are further rankled by the folks across the street: Steve (who's having an affair with Enid) and his happily addled wife, Virginia. Jon invites the neighbors over for dinner, Steve and Virginia get blotto and adjourn to the bathroom for a very audible quickie, followed by roulette-happy Jon's decision to bring out his gun and end it all in front of family and friends. Turns out later he just blew away part of his cranial matter, and after seven months in rehab, he's back home. But now he doesn't know who he is, morphing from waiter to casino guest to insurance agent as fast as you can say "contrived comic premise." For the remainder of the second act the other characters are left to flounder, since the central character has gone AWOL. Playwright Paul Weitz tries to plumb the depths of family malaise and redemption with this kludge, but his frequently clever writing is stuck in second gear. And that's too bad, because director Sean McConaha and the B&C players work valiantly to save this material from itself, performing with great pluck, if not unerring precision. Clearly, playwright Weitz wants the frenzied second act to end with a family reunited by its concern for brain-scrambled dad. Trouble is, interest wanes long before we get there. Through May 12 at the Bang and the Clatter Theatre, 140 E. Market St., Akron, 330-606-5317. -- Howey
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