Four More to Adore

Another week, another bonanza of intriguing choices.

Say Goodnight, Gracie Cleveland Music Hall, 500 Lakeside Avenue Through April 8


From the Mississippi Delta

The Ohio Theatre, Playhouse Square, 1519 Euclid Avenue

Through April 1


Fiddler on the Roof

The Palace Theatre, Playhouse Square, 1519 Euclid Avenue

Through April 1


The Cripple of Inishmaan

Dobama Theatre, 1846 Coventry Road, Cleveland Hts

Through April 7


Amazing Gracie: Frank Gorshin as a convincingly - dead George Burns.
Amazing Gracie: Frank Gorshin as a convincingly dead George Burns.
The biggest theater blitzkrieg in Cleveland history continues, with producers indiscriminately dropping shows from the sky, hurtling patrons into diverse dreamscapes and universes. Among the most successful is a pair of odes to the American past, both comic and tragic.

Frank Gorshin once reigned supreme as The Riddler on TV's Batman. Now, as one of Western Civilization's most adept impressionists, he is twice-over a dead ringer in Say Goodnight, Gracie, the pre-Broadway production currently sharpening its edges at Cleveland Music Hall's Little Theatre. Gorshin is first an eerie replication of the century-old George Burns, king of shtick, waving his cigar as a baton to a symphony of wry comedy and sentimental recollections. He is also a more literal dead ringer: The evening begins with his Burns, newly deceased, in show-biz purgatory. He is auditioning for the big producer in the sky, dredging up memories in a divinely ordered performance aimed at winning himself an afterlife gig in paradise with his beloved Gracie, whom he lost some 32 years earlier.

Producer William Franzblau generates solo pieces that effectively pander to the different ages of man. A few months ago at the same theater, his The Male Intellect, an Oxymoron was a sop to relationship-famished singles. For those 30 and under, it was a tentative first step out of the singles bars and into the theater.

Gracie should be equally potent for the silver-haired progenitors of these amorous singles and anyone savvy enough to take pleasure in pre-World War II variety turns. Though a one-man show, it is a sweet reverie of one of pop history's most flowering partnerships -- between archetypal dizzy dame Gracie Allen and Burns, the ultimate gravel-voiced-pixie straight man.

Rupert Holmes's script evokes a live episode of Biography. Gorshin walks a dangerous line between illusion and reality by competing against film clips and photos of the real Burns. The illusion at times becomes so real, it takes on the quality of a drug-induced hallucination. When a mechanical gaffe occurs in a film clip, Gorshin eerily sends his protagonist into what appears to be a near-stroke.

For the uninitiated, this show is no more than a lukewarm stroll down someone else's memory lane. Yet, for those who grew up nourished by the fruits of vaudeville, vintage radio, and early talkie farces, Gracie radiates as a love affair, both for a Borscht Belt Orpheus waiting to be reunited with his Eurydice and for an aged America and its beloved court jesters.

One would have to be catatonic or overdosed not to feel some tingling in the spine at From the Mississippi Delta. The Great Lakes Theater Festival, busy trying to Clevelandize Peter Pan, has appropriated this firecracker of a drama from the Merrimack Repertory Theater of Lowell, Massachusetts, for what comes off as a postmortem celebration of Black History Month.

Based on one of those triumph-over-adversity memoirs usually assigned by overzealous history teachers, Dr. Endesha Ida Mae Holland's play lets the oppression fly fast and thick. It's all here: the childhood rape, the bawdy frolics at the traveling freak show, the mandatory clan torching, the suffering in the big city, the first stirrings of the civil rights movement, and finally, sanctification of the put-upon heroine at her college graduation. Fiercely directed by Kaia Calhoun, the play is carried entirely by three high-powered actresses: Nicole Hill, Tonye Patano, and April Yvette Thompson, all of whom switch roles with the swiftness of balls at a ping-pong tournament.

Without original director/choreographer Jerome Robbins's input, Fiddler on the Roof today would likely be little more than a vague recollection. Robbins's flair for dramatizing the pull of tradition, coupled with original designer Boris Aronson's plangent Chagall imagery, exudes an irresistible nostalgia for lost community. When performed with any kind of sincerity, Fiddler is an unkillable work.

The touring company camped at the Palace is a must for Fiddler addicts, with two notable attributes: director Sammy Dallas Bayes's loyal replication of Robbins's magic and Theodore Bikel's remarkably pure, unshowbusiness take on Tevye, America's most beloved singing and dancing milkman. While many Tevyes -- including Zero Mostel's -- tend to morph into musical comedy hogs, Bikel, who has played everything from the original Captain Von Trapp to revered Israeli folk singers, manages to keep it strictly kosher.

Longer than brawny sailors have been carving up their bars of Irish Spring, the Irish have been churning out rough-hewn poetry, and Dobama's The Cripple of Inishmaan is no exception. In their flinty village, the townsfolk take collective satisfaction from tormenting the local cripple. The tortured young man makes an unsuccessful bid for fame in the movies and, by evening's end, nearly bumps himself off. It's a tribute to the Irish abhorrence of self-pity and Dobama's resourcefulness that Martin McDonagh's black-hearted play is profoundly funny. As the twisted title character, Todd Krispinsky gives a concentrated performance that blends the best aspects of Lon Chaney and James Dean. The rest of the cast whoops it up like revelers at a witches' convention.

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