For any of us raised in Cleveland and weaned on the mythology of theater, the Hanna has always been a reason for awe and celebration. It's fueled our lives like a grand aunt who married a Ziegfeldish entrepreneur and beguiled our youth and adolescence by constantly introducing us to the creme de la creme of showbiz.
Under her jeweled ceiling, the Hanna played hostess to Gertrude Lawrence (a goddess if there ever was one) as she shimmied through "The Saga of Jenny." Here, as well, Noel Coward exchanged quips with the dazzling Lunts, the Marx Brothers wreaked havoc, Katharine Cornell daintily coughed as Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Mae West delivered her patented innuendos as a bawdy Catherine the Great. In later years, Judith Anderson elevated male drag as the Melancholy Dane, Deborah Kerr glowingly resurrected a hoary chestnut in The Last of Mrs. Cheney and the stately dowager even went so far as to "Let the Sun Shine In" with Hair - though it also brought a protesting bomb blast that blew the letters off her marquee.
Then in the '80s, senility set in. Broadway road tours petered out, and with competition from the other newly restored PlayhouseSquare theaters, the old girl went dark in 1989.
Seven years later, Ray Shepardson, the man who'd been mainly responsible for saving those other venues, stepped in and reopened the Hanna as a cabaret, partially rehabilitating it in the process. Unfortunately, he also ruinously yanked out all the orchestra seats and leveled its raked floor. After the cabaret experiment failed, PlayhouseSquare Center took over the theater and filled it with such novelty trinkets as Tony n' Tina's Wedding, debasing the grande dame to her final indignity.
But, as in any good melodrama, rescue was on the way. One implacable optimist, Charlie Fee, Great Lakes Theater Festival's artistic director, found the Ohio Theatre too cavernous for his purposes. Peering around the corner, he coveted the Hanna as a new home for his company. After extensive negotiations with the sympathetic PlayhouseSquare Center, he secured that goal and, along with it, an ambitious plan for a glorious renovation of the playhouse. Last week, the bandages were unwrapped from the grandiose facelift to reveal a stunning new state-of-the-art theater.
Perhaps the most obvious symbol of this harmonious merger between a glamorous past and a technology-obsessed present is the retooled exterior. Stretching perpendicularly over the marquee remains the familiar curvilinear art deco Hanna sign, shining out as it must have in the days of FDR, while underneath is the updated marquee, emblazoned with streaming projections of GLTF's upcoming theatrical delights.
What strikes you on entering the lobby is how everything has been streamlined for maximum efficiency. The box office has been cunningly combined with a charming gift shop that stocks the obligatory Shakespearean greeting cards and T-shirts. (Also available is John Vacha's trusty history of the Hanna.) The former formality of our grandparents play-going has given way to the current generation's addiction to comfort and convenience. A massive bar practically begs patrons to imbibe while watching the show, even offering accompanying loge couches. The original seating capacity of 1,400 has been reduced to a comfortable 550, providing ideal viewing and enough leg room for LeBron James.
Fortuitously surviving, however, are the exquisitely decorated ceiling, walls and boxes, in addition to a newly installed plaque commemorating the distinguished reign of Milton Krantz, the Hanna's manager from '41 to '83. The raison d'etre for this lavish refurbishing is the creation of a large-scale, classic thrust stage. Its main value is to bring the audience closer to the actors, while simultaneously allowing it an encompassing wide-screen view of the proceedings. Add to this a new expansive pallet of lighting effects, vastly improved acoustics and, most enjoyable of all, a hydraulic stage, adjustable in sections, which miraculously brings performers in and out of sight. Thus, the possibilities for future musicals, epics and fantasias leave us in giddy anticipation.
TO CHRISTEN his new edifice, Fee could've given us an eclectic spectacle featuring circus elephants and Busby Berkeley-type production numbers. But instead he chose something truly difficult: Shakespeare's Macbeth, probably the most cursed drama in theatrical history. The play opens the GLTF season in rotating repertory with the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods. Traditionally, there are three ways to successfully realize Macbeth. First, employ high-wattage star power (ˆ la Olivier and Leigh); second, turn it young, hot and sexy (think Polanski's film); or last, go Japanese (emulating Kurosawa). Fee borrows from all three.
It was his original intention to star his company's leading couple, Andrew May and Laura Perrotta, who have become Cleveland luminaries.
Unfortunately, fate intervened, and May, due to an incapacitating back injury, was replaced by Dougfred Miller. We have no way of knowing what May might have brought to the role, but Miller emerges as a strictly Teflon thane. Though he has a fine aquiline profile, looks good in armor and speaks confidently, he continually seems to disappear into a black hole, invisible and unaffecting, leaving us unmoved to the point of paralysis. With no flint to strike her spark, the always charismatic Perrotta is left in a bind. The main characters are thus critically mismatched, not only in age but in chemistry.
Exacerbating this problem is Fee's drawing on the second prototype. He places the actress in Maid Marian braids and has her comport herself in a faded vamp manner that Norma Desmond might have employed as the hot blooded Lady. I do, though, advise those who see the show to sit in the balcony, where you'll be able to gaze down on the full effect of the evening's highlight: Perrotta, in a white shroud of a nightdress, sprawled on a blood-red platform looking like a Varga girl in distress.
Fee primarily draws on the third approach, framing the drama as a samurai epic with well-worn devices from Noh and Kabuki theater (flowing red scarves signifying blood and witches who resemble stick-figure vultures) that he nonetheless uses effectively. Although this approach has its virtues (which the vast majority of the audience seemed to relish) and showed off the assets of the restructured venue, it ultimately tended to defuse the tightly honed focus of this sleekly fashioned classic - especially in a rendition that lacks a commanding central performance. But, oh, that hydraulic thrust stage and the wonders it portends.
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