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On Stage 

Capsule reviews of current area stage shows.

Cookin' at the Cookery: The Music and Times of Alberta Hunter -- At 82, blues legend Alberta Hunter mounted a remarkable career comeback, performing at the Greenwich Village nightspot the Cookery for seven years. That alone would justify a musical tribute, which is now on the boards at the Play House. The two women who compose this show's captivating cast win your heart with their portrayals of Alberta, some of her contemporaries, and their lusty re-creations of her song stylings. Gail Nelson is billed as Alberta and Carla Woods as the Narrator, but each actor plays Alberta at different ages, and Woods takes on most of the character cameos. Nelson is considerably better-looking than Alberta and brings a polished, resonant gloss to her songs. But Marion J. Caffey's script is too glancing and superficial to bring the real Alberta Hunter to wholly believable life. The major flaw is its lockstep recitation of Alberta's chronology: Organized like a dutiful eighth-grader's book report, it touches on every milestone of this iron-willed singer's life, but skims over the parts that beg for deeper exploration. That said, Cookin' offers a plateful of 20 blues and jazz treats that shouldn't be missed. Through May 30 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Ave., 216-795-7000. -- Christine Howey

Entanglement/Thief's Knot -- As Jerry Seinfeld once famously said, when you utter the words "I love you" to another person, you put a big matzo ball out there. At Dobama's New Works Festival, presented in the Night Kitchen format, two short pieces grapple with that dreaded gesture of commitment. In Entanglement, choreographed and danced by Marissa Nesbit with others, feelings of attraction are expressed to music ranging from Patsy Cline to Rachmaninoff -- and reach a strong crescendo in the last dance, featuring Nesbit and Jenny Burnett. This leads into the one-act play Thief's Knot by Steven Christopher Yockey, a gymnastically convoluted confrontation in which two men and two women declare their love for each other, in all directions, with tightly engineered overlapping dialogue. More tone poem than traditional play, Yockey's script raises some poignant questions, among them: "What if you never hear ['I love you'] again?" Under the direction of Adrienne Moon, the cast of Scott Esposito, Sadie Grossman, John DiAntonio, and Christa Heidrick admirably conveys the tension created by our urge to connect, along with the fear of rejection. It all just shows that productions don't have to be long or involved (this all takes less than an hour) to express profound ideas. Through May 16 at Dobama Theatre, 1846 Coventry Rd., Cleveland Hts., 216-932-3396. -- Howey

The Last Five Years -- There's only one thing wrong with relationships: They too often require the participation of others. Perhaps this is the conundrum Jason Robert Brown had in mind when he wrote this two-person musical about a relationship in which the characters almost never relate to each other. Their separation is further exaggerated by the artificial structure of having the husband, Jamie (played by Scott Plate), croon his side of the story in chronological order, ending in the present, while his wife, Cathy (Sandy Simon), sings her experiences in the opposite direction. The result is more intellectually satisfying than emotionally fulfilling, since the actors hardly ever bounce off each other. But there are so many telling, wistful, and hilarious moments along the way that the show succeeds in spite of its arch conceits. The undeniable star is Brown's song cycle, and director Victoria Bussert's staging is detailed and briskly paced. Through May 16 at Dobama Theatre, 1846 Coventry Rd., Cleveland Hts., 216-932-3396. -- Howey

I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change -- The promotional material dubs this musical revue "Seinfeld set to music." But in reality, it's more like The Bachelor set to a metronome, with predictable book and lyrics by Joe DiPetro and a mechanically repetitive musical score by Jimmy Roberts. Just pick your courtship cliché, and there's a song to address it, whether it be the serious shortage of desirable single men or the characteristics of testosterone-poisoned males who date chicks. The first act focuses on the foibles of the dating scene, and the second plumbs about an inch or two into the depths of marital misunderstandings. It's rescued by some amusing dating and family-life gibes, and a cast of Cleveland-based performers that squeezes every ounce of good humor out of what, in lesser hands, would come off as threadbare material. Larry Nehring, in particular, is a delight to watch in every role, from dazed boyfriend one moment to TV huckster the next. Through June 27 at the Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., 216-771-4444. -- Howey

Nickel and Dimed -- The plight of the working poor in benignly indifferent America is the subject of this dramatic adaptation of Barbara Ehrenreich's popular non-fiction book of the same title. For one year, Ehrenreich embedded herself in the ranks of low-income workers, laboring as a waitress, a house cleaner, and a retail clerk to experience the workaday humiliations and the cash-flow challenges firsthand. She was able to convey with telling immediacy the cruel conundrums of low-wage life. This reworking hews closely to the source material, which doesn't always work dramatically. But it sparkles like a restaurant's well-scrubbed kitchen counter, thanks to imaginative direction by Melissa Kievman and an ever-inventive six-person cast. Jill Levin is perfectly believable as Barbara herself, but the supporting players, all of whom play multiple roles, furnish much of the sting of Ehrenreich's discoveries and loads of the humor. Produced by Cleveland Public Theatre in association with Great Lakes Theater Festival through May 29 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727. -- Howey

Oliver Twisted -- It has been claimed that there's a gene in some people's DNA spiral that compels them to seek out risky, potentially harmful activities, such as rock climbing, deep-sea diving, and parking at expired meters in Cleveland Heights. True to their risk-adoring genes, the seven-member group titled Oliver Twisted (made up of former members of the now-defunct Second City Cleveland) does audience-inspired material exclusively, without the safety net of scripted modules. And thanks to a fortunate blending of physical types and personalities among the performers -- along with their determined insistence on yanking every loose comedic thread -- this is an improv experience that will leave you laughing far more often than wincing. The troupe's resident nutcase, Randall Harr, is a fairly normal-looking fellow who transforms into a maniacally, often hilariously intense embodiment of whatever animal, vegetable, or mineral he's been assigned. Mondays at Hilarities Comedy Club at Pickwick & Frolic, 2035 E. 4th St., 216-736-4242. -- Howey

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