Dark Room -- The conventional image we have of playwrights and poets is of lonely souls slaving away in a poorly lit basement. Well, you've got the location and the illumination right, but everything else about the Dark Room project is much cheerier. Sponsored by the Cleveland Theater Collective, it's a once-a-month workshop/cabaret for writers who want to try out their new efforts on a small but extremely encouraging audience. On this night, in a basement room in the Parish Hall at Cleveland Public Theatre, the quality of the pieces varied widely, as is to be expected with scenes or verses that are still being developed (thus, the dark room). But one monologue by Tom Huggins, describing the burnout of nurses dealing with psycho patients in hospitals, was as irreverent and hilarious as a David Sedaris essay. Other offerings, each under 10 minutes, touched on the obnoxious questions asked of "little people," a musical take on holiday haters, and a little girl's imaginary friend, who is a middle-aged Dame Edna type. Reading from scripts (and dragooning anyone nearby to fill out a cast), the writers express, share, and support. And that's a terrific environment for any embryonic artistic endeavor. Takes place the second Thursday of every month at Cleveland Public Theatre's Parish Hall, 6205 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727, www.clevelandtheater.com. -- Christine Howey
The Merry Wives of Windsor -- There are plenty of folks who wouldn't want to touch the complicated language of Shakespeare with a 10-meter pole. But now and then, a production of one of his works displays so much spirited action and so many irrepressible sight gags that the words cease to be an obstacle. The Merry Wives of Windsor, now presented by the Great Lakes Theater Festival, is such a show. There are so many pratfalls, slap-and-tickles, and chases up the aisles that one might mistake this classic comedy for an out-of-control sitcom. Aiding that perception is director Sari Ketter's concept of setting all the action at the Garter Resort, which looks like a 1950s-era Howard Johnson's restaurant. The image is on target, right down to the orange-and-turquoise color scheme and period pop music. Likewise, the cast of 30 is uniformly sensational, each performer catching Ketter's frolicsome approach and making it his own. This Wives is as fresh and buzzy as a Key lime martini on a hot summer day. Presented by the Great Lakes Theater Festival through September 3 at the Ohio Theatre, 1519 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000. -- Howey
Midnight Martini Show -- There is a strange attraction in 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 so easy. 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 downtown on a Friday or Saturday night. 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. Fridays and Saturdays at Pickwick & Frolic, 2035 East 4th St., 216-241-7425. -- Howey
The Sound of Music -- Carousel Dinner Theater's latest production excels at bringing forth the humanity in this classic, in which the von Trapp family is forced to abandon its home and flee to the U.S. in 1938, just as the Nazis are goose-stepping their way through Austria. But the show narrowly misses some of the smaller moments, both dramatically and musically, that can wring a tear or two out of the most hardened cynic. The result is a solid staging of an old favorite that doesn't quite bring up all the goose bumps it might. Using the vast expanse of the Carousel stage to maximum effect, director/choreographer Mitzi Hamilton creates postcard-pretty tableaux and helps shape a few intriguing performances -- most notably Cristin Mortenson, who crafts a convincing portrayal of lively young Maria. The seven von Trapp children are played by kids who never get so cheek-pinchingly cutesy as to trigger an involuntary gag reflex in audience members -- a real danger with some productions. Through September 10 at Carousel Dinner Theater, 1275 Waterloo Road, Akron, 800-362-4100. -- Howey
Waiting for Lefty -- With a title that could be interpreted as the plaintive cry of progressives looking for a politician to carry their banner, this Clifford Odets play from the 1930s is far out on that same political wing. Charenton Theater's free offering for August is an episodic and none-too-subtle screed from the working class, which in this post-Depression time was being dominated and abused by jackals of the capitalist state. A group of taxi drivers has gathered to protest; then the action breaks into flashbacks, showing various workers scrabbling to survive while the Man keeps them down. Odets' dialogue still displays a lively wit: "I don't know what's up your sleeve." "It'd be my arm, if I had a shirt to wear." And the Charenton cast, directed by Bill Hoffman, carves some sharp characterizations, particularly Brian Pedaci as the bloated union bigwig Henry Fatt and a Broadway producer who loves his wolfhound more than his fellow man. But all the scenes play the same chord, just in different octaves, and that begins to feel repetitious -- even in a show that's only 75 minutes long. Presented by Charenton Theater August 25-27 at Superior Viaduct, W. 25th and Detroit; www.charenton.org. -- Howey
You Can¹t Take It With You -- Written in 1936 by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, this flat-out hilarious play could be considered the starter kit for countless sitcom scripts. Set in the Sycamore family home in New York City, this halfway house for slightly batty individualists is headed by Grandpa Martin Vanderhof, a live-for-the-moment fellow who exited the hurly-burly of corporate life long ago to spend his days going to the zoo, tending his pet snakes, practicing darts, and just enjoying himself. It's a pleasure to see how the talented Great Lakes Theater Festival crew, under the direction of Drew Barr, creates a believably unhinged herd of folks that you're eager to spend three acts observing. Though some of the topical jokes of the time are faded beyond recognition, the actors prove their mettle by focusing on the humanity, not the peculiarities, of their characters. This makes the situations even funnier and the evening an untrammeled delight. Presented by the Great Lakes Theater Festival through September 3 at the Ohio Theatre, 1519 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000. -- Howey
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