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On Stage 

Capsule reviews of current area theater presentations.

Midnight Martini Show -- There is a strange attraction toward Frank Sinatra's loosely organized Rat Pack and their infamous, loopily disorganized Las Vegas shows that ran for a few golden years back in the 1960s. Frank, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. mixed pop songs, corny jokes, and Johnnie Walker into an irreverent, hip evening that seemed to come so easy to the performers. What the Midnight Martini Show at Pickwick & Frolic proves is that it ain't easy at all. This one-hour set attempts to capture the bored-with-it-all sophistication and the slightly inebriated intimacy that the Rat Packers achieved, but it fails on several counts, from the overly eager performers to the florid songs and lame drinking jokes. Which is not to say that this no-cover show doesn't provide a convenient glide path for those who are downtown on a Friday or Saturday night and want to do something else before heading home. Indeed, some of the American standards are sung well enough. Now the task is to find directors and performers who understand that being casually funny while delivering classic tunes takes a lot of work. Or maybe a whole lot of real drinking. Fridays and Saturdays at Pickwick & Frolic, 2035 East 4th St., 216-241-7425. -- Christine Howey

The Piano Lesson -- August Wilson's Pulitzer-winning look at life in the post-Depression 1930s centers on a family that's migrated from the South to Pittsburgh, where railroad porter Doaker has offered a home for his niece Berniece and her daughter. Also occupying space is an old piano, on which Berniece's great-grandfather had long ago carved images of their family and its travails. It's a well-polished and omnipresent symbol of their contentious past -- both an item of pride and regret. Soon, their peaceful life is interrupted by Berniece's brother, Boy Willie, and his buddy, Lymon, who have just arrived with a truckload of watermelons to sell up north. Boy Willie plans to combine those profits with the sale of the piano to buy the farm where the family's forebears had been enslaved. Trouble is, Berniece won't part with the piano; to her, it represents a unique and powerful legacy that cannot be relinquished while, for Boy Willie, it's the key to a new life of freedom. Thus, controversy ensues. The strengths of Wilson's play reside in its compelling theme and finely crafted scenes, and director Chuck Patterson does a masterful job of helping his cast craft memorable characters. Still, due to an overlong, repetitive script, plus some curious staging decisions, this production never fully succeeds. Through February 27 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000. -- Howey

Rush Limbaugh in Night School -- If you're going to write a two-hour satire about right-wing commentator and fact-challenged hatemonger Rush Limbaugh, you've at least availed yourself of a big fat target. Even so, playwright Charlie Varon manages only a few political bull's-eyes in a show that attempts to humanize Limbaugh by having him fall in love with a radical lefty named Nina (without a single reference to Feminazis!). Even though the plot is tortured beyond all reason -- Limbaugh is supposedly losing ratings points to a barely understandable Hispanic broadcaster, so Rush and the ex-Weathermen chick meet in a Spanish class -- director Yvonne Pilarczyk's spare production benefits from an excellent Rush clone in Jim McCormack. Daniel McElhaney also stands out, nailing a number of roles, including a hilarious impression of Garrison Keillor playing Iago in Shakespeare in the Park. But McElhaney misses in a longer bit as a new-agey lecturer by playing funny instead of being funny. Pilarczyk doubles as Nina, employing a cutesy middle-aged sponginess that doesn't echo her character's past. If you cut out half the unbelievable plot contrivances, ditched the pseudo-dramatic minute-by-minute narration, and shrank the whole megillah down to 80 minutes, this could be quite a hoot. Through February 26 at Chagrin Valley Little Theatre's River Street Playhouse, 56 River Street, Chagrin Falls, 440-247-8955. -- Howey

Venus -- We're all familiar with the history of Africans captured in their native land and taken in chains to distant shores as slaves, but it's less well known that there were a few who actually signed on for the trip. One of them was Saartjie Baartman, a young woman with humongous buttocks who was lured to appear in Europe as a sideshow freak dubbed the Venus Hottentot. Since she was complicit in that journey, with the promise of riches held out to her, her story becomes one that can resonate with almost anyone, for who among us hasn't pimped ourselves out in some way for a paycheck? Of course, the import of Baartman's story goes deeper than that, touching on issues of racism, colonialism, misogyny, and the medical arts. This Ohio premiere is an immensely theatrical production, but Suzan-Lori Parks' script offers a story line that's entirely too repetitious. Plus, the main character never develops beyond her simply stated desire to be loved. We get that, but we would love to know so much more. Featuring excellent actor Nina Domingue as Venus. Through February 26 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727. -- Howey

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