Three for the Road 

Among a wealth of options, theatergoers will do fine with these.

James A. Washington Sr. and Trinidad - Rosado-Henry in Once on This Island.
  • James A. Washington Sr. and Trinidad Rosado-Henry in Once on This Island.
Some theatrical traffic light has gone haywire this month. Including the shows that have already opened and those due to open within the next few days, audiences have 10 works to choose from. This thespian pile-up may be typical for Chicago, but for Clevelanders, such overstimulation could send dedicated culture vultures into nervous collapse.

With so many choices, audiences almost need a traffic cop to show them which direction to head. To wit, here are three of the more intriguing possibilities.

Beck Center for the Arts is, hands down, Northeast Ohio's most ambitious theater. To garner attention, it will attempt to do anything short of restaging the Russian Revolution. With imagination, ambition, and talent happily joining forces, Once on This Island shows what Beck Center can accomplish at its best.

This 1990 musical is a faux-Caribbean fable by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the gifted, chameleon-like creators of Ragtime and Seussical. It's loaded with more tropical delights than the deluxe luau at the Honolulu Hilton. Chronicling a fierce battle between the goddess of love and the demon of death over the fate of an island Cinderella, it has the unearthly whimsicality of a Cocteau dream play.

Director/choreographer/performer Gustavo E. Urdaneta has spent years spinning community theater dross into gold. He's always been adept, but here he becomes Cleveland's premier auteur of musical ambrosia. Urdaneta has taken a sparkling little trifle and infused it with the opalescent luster of an MGM musical. After collecting an impeccable cast, he directs his performers to unearth fires with a samba, recall the essence of voodoo eroticism with the lifting of a skirt, and create a sense of play with an upturned shoulder or an insouciantly turned-out hip.

As the sylphlike, lovestruck heroine Ti Moune, Trinidad Rosado-Henry radiates exuberance and passion, filling the stage like a tropical thunderstorm. Singing "Mama Will Provide," an ode to native cunning, Tina Stump's Asaka explodes in the way champagne is supposed to but rarely does.

Set designer Richard Gould and light designer Erik M. Seidel create a phosphorescent paradise to contain the jubilation. Alison Hernan's costumes infuse joie de vivre into the very fabrics that clothe the exultant performers. Music director Larry Goodpaster turns a handful of instruments into a Bahama Mama bash. Here is an extravaganza to snatch the chill from anyone's winterized bones.

Herb Gardner's Conversations With My Father, now playing at the Jewish Community Center, is a hard-edged comedy bordering on epic. It's a memory play in which a grown son, trying to fathom his life's failures, engages in a series of conversations with his dead father. The play proceeds in a series of flashbacks that go from the midst of the Depression through the '70s.

Shakespearean in its breadth, given a vivid pulse with wry muscular dialogue evocative of Clifford Odets's Semitic street poetry, Conversations shows how the after-effects of a pogrom can ripple through generations.

In Eddie Ross, the character of the father, Gardner has created an angry lodge brother to Willie Loman. Like Loman, he cannot comprehend why all those around him achieve riches and contentment while he continues to flounder. Ross, a Russian immigrant bartender, is a fierce, explosive Jewish patriarch who attempts to turn assimilation into protective armor. Decorating his shabby neighborhood bar in garish Fourth of July Americana, he attempts to Yankee Doodle-ize his wife, sons, and even the kosher dishes he serves by giving them new Anglicized names.

This is a big play in the best sense of the word. It tells the saga of first-generation American Jews who came of age in the '30s, gave their lives in World War II, and subsequently lost their bearings trying to conform to a culture that never totally accepts them.

It is directed by Fred Steinfeld, with the same verisimilitude he has brought to countless productions of Fiddler on the Roof. Heading a finely seasoned cast, Bernard Canepari as the father brews a potent mixture of anger, dignity, and fierce charisma.

Far from a convivial exercise in schmaltzy family history, it goes down like a shot of strong bourbon.

Seth Greenland's Jerusalem is a world premiere at the Cleveland Play House. It chronicles the travails of a family of hyperactive zanies who seek salvation through denial, bickering, and one-liners. Greenland's heart is in the right place; he sweetly tries to drum up some form of redemption for all his suffering marionettes, yet he writes like someone who has spent his formative years chained to cable TV. There isn't a moment that doesn't owe allegiance to vintage showbiz, from the Jews and Catholics of Abie's Irish Rose, the archetypal comic epoch of intermarriage, through the spoofed suburban foibles of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.

This production's comic masterpiece of a set by Michael Ganio has the wit and biting satire that the play lacks. Peter Hackett directs efficiently and broadly, fanning the play's tendency to flaming overkill. The cast couldn't be more obliging and appealing. Ann Guilbert, who played neighbor Millie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, portrays a deliciously ungrandmotherly grandmother. Puckered like a kosher dill pickle, she gives a performance of brilliant comic understatement worthy of Imogene Coca -- an undisputed grace note that momentarily lifts the evening to celestial heights.

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More by Keith A. Joseph


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