Capsule reviews of current area theater presentations.

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On stage
An interracial cast offers a gender-reversed take on The - Odd Couple at Karamu.
An interracial cast offers a gender-reversed take on The Odd Couple at Karamu.
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, -- Christine Howey

Footloose -- Twenty years ago, as Kevin Bacon shook his booty to film stardom, this story about a small town's dancing ban seemed far-fetched. But these days, who knows? The stage version, now at the Carousel Dinner Theatre, is a faithful retelling of the yarn, down to young Ren McCormack's (Mike Backes) mischievous needling, Reverend Shaw Moore's (Paul Floriano) grim Christian rectitude, and his daughter Ariel's (Kyli Rae) swooning crush on Ren, the rebel with the prancing feet. This production has a strangely enervating feeling in the first act, a combination of an uneven sound system and a couple of less than dynamic characterizations. But it hits the ground kicking in the second stanza, with an energetic "Still Rockin'" and an appealing rendition of "Let's Hear It for the Boy" by Vanessa Ray, who brings a bundle of fun to her portrayal of Rusty. SuEllen Estey, as the Reverend's wife, Vi, nails two of the quieter songs, evoking genuine sentiment from "Learning to Be Silent" and "Can You Find It in Your Heart?" Although the singing voices of Backes and Rae seem a bit thin at times, the final result makes you want to hit the dance floor. Through November 12 at Carousel Dinner Theatre, 1275 E. Waterloo Rd., Akron, 800-362-4100. -- Howey

Mambo Italiano -- A regrettable legacy of the old loosey-goosey Rat Pack days is that people think a great cabaret show should be laid-back. That's how it should look, of course, but it can't be how it's executed, which is proven in this show at the Cleveland Play House Club. Although they're backed by a solid three-piece combo, the trio of performers suffer from a lack of stage presence, uneven vocal ability, and minimal comedic talent. That adds up to a rather dreary hour and a half for a $20 cover. The tissue-thin premise from writer-director Bill Hoffman -- that the Mafia-lite Biancamano brothers have taken the place of a missing girl duo -- can't save songs that often fall flat. Playing lead crooner Tony, expressionless Donnie Long hits the notes, but his shallow baritone is all throat and no gut, and he doesn't coax the boozy melancholy out of "One for My Baby." As for the supposed gangster brothers, Ted Losito does a nice job on "Teach Me Tonight" and gets off a couple cute punch lines, but Gary Siciliano sleeps with the fishes, whether acting or singing. Through November 19 at the Cleveland Play House Club, 8500 Euclid Ave., 216-795-7000. -- 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. Playhouse Square Center's 14th Street Theatre, 2037 East 14th St., 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 Odd Couple -- There's an old joke where you tell someone to ask you, "What's the most important part of comedy?" And before they can finish the question, you answer "Timing!" If Karamu director Jean Hawkins is familiar with the importance of timing, it's not in evidence here. This 20-year-old update of the Neil Simon classic turns the battling pals into gals and the poker players into distaff Trivial Pursuit buffs, and there are plenty of potential laughs in the feminized script. But an interesting cast, featuring strong comedic types, is sunk by an almost total breakdown of timing and concentration. Lines are continually blown, transposed, and delayed, which eventually sinks even Simon's surefire wit. In the lead roles, Eva Withers-Evans (as slob Olive Madison) has the attitude right, but is half a beat late with many of her jibes. And super-intense Kate Duffield (prissy Florence Unger) must learn how to throw away a line in order to get a chuckle. Mary Dismuke's Sylvie gets a few titters and Tim Squirek is sharp and amusing as one of the sexy Costazuela brothers, but they can't save this limp exercise. Through November 6 at Karamu Performing Arts Theatre, 2355 East 89th St., 216-795-7070. -- Howey

Room Service -- A Broadway farce made famous in film by the Marx Brothers, Room Service depends on fast-twitch timing and the semi-crazed pacing of a caffeine-addled chain-saw juggler. Instead, director Jeff Steitzer has fashioned a rather leisurely stroll through this frequently dated material, which drains a good bit of fun from the frolic. It's 1937, and the White Way Hotel in New York is home to producer Gordon Miller, who is trying to mount a production of Godspeed so that he can pay off his mounting bills. Those IOUs are accumulating at warp speed, since his entire cast of 21 actors is also bunking at the hotel, attacking the dining room like a herd of wildebeests and dropping it all on Miller's tab. Though many of the jokes are familiar and some of the topical references have faded into obscurity, there are enough comic situations to give supporting characters plenty of room to show their stuff. But at the center of it all is Miller, a role played in the flick by Groucho and in this production by Todd Gearhart, who is largely unexpressive and devoid of virtually any comic sensibility or ironic edge. Through October 30 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Ave., 216-795-7000. -- Howey

South Pacific -- Director Fred Sternfeld manages to highlight the many strengths of this deceptively deep musical drama, and where there are weaknesses, he finds a way to minimize the damage. Maneuvering his immense 60-person cast around the Tri-C stage, Sternfeld does justice to the romance, the comedy, the incredible songs, and the underlying issue of racism that makes this work so enduringly resonant. The signature romantic duo consists of Nellie, a young ensign in the U.S. Army on a tropical isle during World War II, and Emile de Becque, a middle-aged French plantation owner. Tom Fulton invests de Becque with a world-weary but charming sophistication as he woos naive Nellie from Arkansas, employing his hearty baritone magnificently on the love-struck "Some Enchanted Evening" and later in quiet despair with "This Nearly Was Mine." While Joan Ellison handles Nellie's singing duties superbly, she is never able to completely relax into her role, remaining a bit starched and standoffish when she's with Emile. Fortunately, Fulton's love jones is bubbling over and his amour is so convincing, he makes their relationship work. Presented by the Jewish Community Center through November 6 at the Tri-C Eastern Campus, 4250 Richmond Rd., Highland Hills, 800-766-6048. -- Howey

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