Arsenic and Old Lace -- What are the odds that Arsenic and Old Lace, that old warhorse of a comedy about grandmotherly serial killers, could still be one of the funniest stage shows in recent memory? The chances are good if you go to the production at the Great Lakes Theater Festival. It's almost unfailingly hilarious, thanks to inspired direction from Drew Barr and a talented cast. The strange, elderly Brewster sisters, Abby and Martha, have taken it upon themselves to usher their golden-age room renters off this mortal coil via arsenic-laced glasses of elderberry wine. Hey, they just want to save the old guys from a sad life of isolation and depression. In the roles of Abby and Martha, Lynn Allison and Laura Perrotta demonstrate a special chemistry: Sweetly supportive of each other, they wield their index fingers like punji sticks in the direction of anyone who dares interrupt their activities. Nephew Mortimer, played by Andrew May, becomes aware of his aunties' evil hobby and promptly becomes unglued. Let's face it, no local actor delaminates with quite the gusto of May, whose contorted double takes trigger gales of laughter. Kathryn Cherasaro plays his fiancée, Elaine, with energetic abandon, and David Anthony Smith, as the Brewsters' lunatic brother, who imagines himself Theodore Roosevelt, is a beaming and bounteous presence, providing an innocent counterpoint to the sisters' skulduggery. As sociopathic older brother Jonathan Brewster, Dougfred Miller is scary, his greasy black hair emblazoned with a skunklike stripe of white. His murderous competition with the sisters is one of many continuing jokes in this darkly amusing romp. Through October 21 at the Great Lakes Theater Festival, Ohio Theatre, Playhouse Square Center, 1511 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000. -- Howey
Forbidden Broadway: Special Victims Unit -- As musical-revue franchises go, they don't come much healthier than Forbidden Broadway, which has enjoyed several iterations over the past 25 years. Featuring comedy knockoffs of popular musicals, this most recent version is a mix of old material (Les Miz lampoons) and newer stuff, like spoofs poking The Lion King, wherein headdress-abused actors bemoan their lot in "Can You Feel the Pain Tonight?" The hardworking players throw themselves into one costume and wig change after another, with Greg Violand crooning a clever Robert Goulet parody and Tricia Bestic spoofing hyper Liza Minnelli. Also fine are Brian Marshall (his Cameron Mackintosh peddles show souvenirs such as chocolates shaped like orphans) and Carmen Keels, who nails a brassy Ethel Merman. Keels and Bestic also turn in a great duet as dueling Anitas (Chita Rivera vs. Rita Moreno) in West Side Story. Some jokes are fresh, as when they make fun of all the shows featuring puppets ("If you want a Tony/Flash a cloth cojone"). But a lot of the lyric gibes are repetitive, and some Broadway in-jokes get lost here in the hinterland. But it's fast and fun, and the voices are Broadway-quality. Through December 2 at the Hanna Theatre, 2067 East 14th Street, 216-241-6000. -- Howey
Holy Ghosts -- This Romulus Linney play at the Beck Center admirably takes on religion without a whiff of condescension. Still, the structural flaws of the script, as well as overheated performances and production effects, drain the passion from the play. All the action takes place in a one-room building that serves as home for the Amalgamation Holiness Church of God. This is where young Nancy Shedman has come, seeking shelter from her abusive husband Coleman. But an enraged Coleman, eager to get his stuff back and file for a divorce, shows up at the church with a fusty country lawyer named Rogers Canfield (Michael Regnier). By beginning the play with so much exposition (first Coleman tells his side of the story, then Nancy, then Canfield), the energy level lowers later in the show, and the whole play feels outlined like a high-school report. There are some interesting stories (one man is obsessed with the ghost of his dead dog; another fellow is dying of cancer). But all are used as snapshot cameos, so we aren't able to get involved with any of them. And the culminating snake-handling scene, drenched in screams and moans, suffers from the awkward miming of invisible snakes and a snake-cage platform that lights up red, like a Vegas slot machine, every time the lid is lifted. The passion of faith deserves better effects -- and a more insightful storyline. Through October 21 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540. -- Howey
Pump Boys and Dinettes -- Pump Boys is about some rumpled gas-station grease monkeys and the darlin' waitresses next door, and it's challenging to pull off: Its songs are only serviceable, and the jokes are old. If it's going to work, it needs down-home simplicity. But director Sean Cercone and lighting designer Paul Black are too fond of the haze machine, which fills the stage area with a light mist and makes visible the colored beams from swiveling and pivoting spotlights. The southern rednecks and rubes who sing the show's blues/country/rock/ gospel tunes are attacked by shafts of hot pink and throbbing purple. Playing the lead Boy is Pat McRoberts; he hits the notes, as do most of his compatriots, but the meanings of some songs disappear in the ever-present mist. Pianist and singer Steven Ray Watkins turns in a diggin' version of "Serve Yourself," even though he comes up dreadfully short in two other featured songs that require him to be amusing. And as for the Cupp sisters, hot Rhetta (Kate Margaret) is only lukewarm, and pixie-ish Prudie (Sarah Nischwitz) finds herself groping for the right melodies. If only this production had the straightforward honesty of director Cercone's program notes, in which he recalls the bluegrass music his dad played and shared with him -- now that could be a great show, no swiveling spotlights required. Through October 27 at the Carousel Dinner Theatre, 1275 East Waterloo Road, Akron, 800-362-4100. -- Howey
Purlie Victorious -- Some 45-year-old shows are creakier than others, and this play by Ossie Davis is fairly bent over with osteoporosis. Later adapted into the musical Purlie, this original story plays openly with racial stereotypes, which was a bold move back in 1961, but now just seems weird. So director Terrence Spivey has decided to drop any pretense of verisimilitude and trots his cast out to play their parts as broadly as possible -- on a scale of 1 to 10, this is a 14. The basic story -- a charismatic preacher returns to his family's sharecropper home to wrest a local church from the hands of the white overlord -- is a serviceable vehicle. And some of the actors are able to handle this extreme style of overacting. Stephanie Stovall as Idella is a trip, managing to fit a dozen expression changes into a few seconds. And her disjointed pigeon walk is a sight to behold. Also entertaining are fulminating John Lynch as bigot-to-the-bone Ol' Cap'n Cotchipee and Doug Pratt as the sly, Uncle Tom-ish Gitlow Judson. Neal Hodges brings a slick stage presence to the title role, but moments of rushed enunciation, repetitive physical postures, and an inability to shape his long speeches kick a hole in his characterization. Through October 21 at Karamu Performing Arts Theatre, 2355 East 89th Street, 216-795-7077. -- Howey
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