Candide -- At first thought, the idea of a hybrid community theater dedicated to musicals and a social-service mission might sound like a Salvation Army band with light cues. But Near West Theatre, under the executive direction of Stephanie Morrison-Hrbek and artistic guidance of Bob Navis Jr., clearly takes its theatrical goals as seriously as its humanitarian ones. Its formidable new production of Leonard Bernstein's musical rendering of Voltaire's Candide is a tribute to the inestimable talents of Navis, who is director, music director, and piano player for this complex tale of innocent young Candide's journey of discovery. The show boasts a spotty history since its debut on Broadway in the early 1950s, but that hardly seems to matter to this troupe, which lustily tackles every scene and sheds light on many of Voltaire's ideas, including the tyranny of wealth, religious hypocrisy, and the emptiness of philosophical theoreticians. It's a lot of entertainment for the ridiculously modest admission of $6. Through May 23 at St. Patrick's Club, 3606 Bridge Ave., 216-621-3242. -- Christine Howey
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. -- 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
Menopause the Musical -- Everybody enjoys musicals dealing with energetic young people on the brink of conquering the world. But what about the people in the audience: the nearsighted, overweight, and wrinkled denizens of middle age, who rarely see their own physiological mysteries put into song? For them, there is Menopause the Musical, a hoot of a show written by Jeanie Linders. It's a foot-stomping 90-minute revival meeting for women who've had to deal with The Change while also trying to maintain their careers and family relationships. Menopause is frequently repetitious, even teetering on the brink of tiresome, but the energetic cast of four and spirited direction by Patty Bender and Kathryn Conte maintain the flow, so to speak. All women with a few decades on them -- even those who only use "menopause" as an excuse to get out of going to football games -- will probably get a stiff neck from nodding in agreement and a tender side from all the laughter. Through May 30 at Playhouse Square Center's 14th Street Theatre, 2037 East 14th St., 216-241-6000. -- 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
Whose Mess Is This! -- In comedy, as in sports, on any given day you can be a winner or a chump. That's especially true when the comedy is partly improvised. This effort's two beer-bellied comedians, Jeff Blanchard and Don Mitri, lumbered onto the stage and performed (mostly) prepared skits and songs based on randomly selected subjects such as sex, romantic love, platonic love, and power. A lot of humor could spring from those concepts -- but not in this theater. Their incomprehensible bit about platonic love had something to do with a bed filled with money that they then replaced with stones. When it isn't being puzzling, the show features an overload of tired shtick, antique stereotype gags, and atonal songs -- although a parody titled "Everything's Beautiful at the Buffet" was cute. Blanchard and Mitri no doubt can be funny in other venues, or perhaps with this material on other evenings (although that strains credulity). But on this night, the mess was all theirs. Through May 29 and July 16-August 21 at Kennedy's Down Under, 1519 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000. -- Howey
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