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
Lincolnesque -- If there's an upside to the levels of chicanery in D.C., it's that a number of people have risen to the occasion and come out with incredible works of political theater. Unfortunately, Lincolnesque, a play written by John Strand and now at the Cleveland Play House, is left somewhat in the lurch by comparison. Leo and Francis are brothers pursuing their dream in Washington. Leo is a speechwriter for a cloddish congressman, while Francis is supposedly a master-of-the-universe-style political strategist, who has flipped out and now thinks he is Abe Lincoln. Leo helps monitor his bro's medications, takes him to his doctor's appointments, and tries to help him keep his job buffing office-building floors. All this time, Francis assumes various ramrod-stiff poses, as was Lincoln's wont, and communicates using quotes from Abe's canon. But when the congressman's consultant calls for a campaign renovation, a desperate Leo follows his brother's cue and begins weaving some of Francis/Lincoln's phrasing and noble sense of purpose into the congressman's scripts. This sounds more amusing than it actually is onstage, thanks to the playwright's reluctance to put any edge or point of view in his observations. No parties are defined, and no hot-button issues are addressed, so the play is essentially a political comedy without the politics. As Francis, handsome Donald Carrier has fine comic timing, but he never succeeds in creating a character we care about. And Leo's character is so mushy and malleable, it's hard for Brian Carter to fashion a recognizable person -- like trying to sculpt a bust from Cream of Wheat. On the plus side, director Michael Bloom keeps the pacing tight and wrings all the humor that he can out of this contrived vanilla script. In sum, this is pretty weak tea. Real politics are a lot funnier than Lincolnesque ever manages to be. Through May 20 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000. -- Howey
Lunacy -- Playwright Sandra Perlman has come up with an intriguing premise in Lunacy, now at Dobama Theatre: A lauded actor rehearsing to play King Lear is invited to interact with a man in an insane asylum who believes he is Lear. Although this piece has some interesting moments, the central conceit and an ever-shifting tone pose more questions than Perlman or director Mark Alan Gordon has answers for. Edwin Forrest is a confident young actor in 1827, preparing to portray the aged regent at a Philadelphia theater. As he struggles to remember his lines, he is interrupted by a woman, Cornelia, who has a request. Her father, Benjamin, has been ensconced in an asylum. Ben has taken on the identity of King Lear and speaks only in lines from Shakespeare's play. So Cornelia wants Edwin to use his knowledge of the play to lead Pops out of fantasyland. And to entice the actor, she suggests that Edwin can learn to be the perfect Lear by witnessing the "real" thing. Eventually, Edwin shows up at the loony bin and bats around some line readings with the old man. Trouble is, neither gent has anything at stake in these interchanges: Edwin has no compelling reason to help rescue the head case, and old Ben, for his part, is just out of it. That leaves Cornelia, who also gamely tries to act lines from the play to help her dad. But it's hard to care about people we aren't allowed to know on any realistic level. An engaging Dan Hammond plays Edwin broadly -- an odd fit with talented Bernadette Clemens, who plays Cornelia as straight as a mission chair. And with Michael Regnier chewing the scenery in his own world as Benjamin, the tone of the play continually flip-flops. Perhaps Perlman wants to make the point that all of us are merely actors, sane or otherwise. But Shakespeare did that long ago, and all in one line. Presented by Dobama Theatre through May 27 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-932-3396. -- Howey
References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot -- Sex is a vital part of any intimate relationship, but it's how two people relate when not exchanging DNA that determines whether 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 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 wonder, so we share her dream life as her cat and a horny coyote negotiate their own love tryst, while at night, the 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 tease about devouring each other, sexually and otherwise. And Wes Shofner, as a most tumescent full moon, gets off some good gibes. The production 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.
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