On Stage

Capsule reviews of current area shows.

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The Chorus Cedar Lee Theatre
Adaptation -- Shakespeare once outlined the seven ages of man in his play As You Like It, but he probably never imagined them being acted out as a game show hosted by a Wink Martindale clone. That's OK, since Elaine May had the idea herself back in the 1960s and turned it into a one-act that's now being presented by the Other Theater Project. A winning and eagerly multitasking cast of six performers race through various characterizations, as we follow Phil Benson's progress from a mewling infant to dead guy. In between, playwright (and former comedian) May takes many satirical shots at a number of evergreen targets such as urban education ("We're substandard, but equal!"), shallow parents, awkward sexual liaisons, and hotel management as a career. Thanks to May's relentless wit and some nice performances by Jimmy Helms, Natalie Stefanek, Rose Leininger, Allen Branstein, and Gilgamesh A. Taggett, there are many funny moments. But for this slim progression of skits to really fly, the actor playing Phil has to be a comic force. Unfortunately, director Russel Stich allows Chris Hegedus's Phil to remain passively comatose in many scenes, grinding down the edge of May's irrepressible and often surprising mini-parodies. Through February 14 at Cleveland Black Box Theater at Cabaret Dada, 1210 West 6th St., 216-696-4242, extension 3. -- Christine Howey

The Children¹s Hour -- Set in a private school for girls, Lillian Hellman's 1934 play about the power of a lie meanders slowly through its first two acts, establishing the school's two dedicated owner-instructors, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, along with their demon-seed student, Mary Tilford (played wonderfully by Heather Farr). An Ann Coulter mini-me, Mary bullies her trembling peers, cons her ditzy teacher, Mrs. Lily Mortar, and seeks revenge on the two women, who see through her petulant, manipulative antics. She finds her opening when she hears gossip about an argument between Martha and Lily, pertaining to Martha's sour attitude whenever Karen's fiancé is around. Lily accuses Martha of being jealous, and Mary builds that small nugget of truth into a boulder-sized lie, culminating in the false claim that she saw the two women kissing. Once Mary lays this whopper on her doting grandmother, phones around town start ringing, and Karen and Martha's quiet, orderly world disintegrates. While this controversy might have seemed quaintly out-of-date even five years ago, it takes on new relevance now, due to the obsession of religious fundamentalists over anything they claim to be gender-suspicious. Also setting this production apart are the deft performances that director Sarah May evokes from her cast. Through February 13 at Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-521-2540. -- Howey

The Honky Tonk Angels -- Dinner theater, unfortunately, has come to mean an ill-conceived meal followed by a half-baked stage performance. For many years, the fine folks at Carousel have been trying to defy that conventional wisdom, blending these two elements to the delight of loyal followers. And they're at it again with this rather carelessly assembled, virtually plotless musical, featuring three women crooning a selection of country-western favorites. The down-on-their-luck Southern damsels meet on a transcontinental bus and decide to take the Nashville music scene by storm; in a trice, they land on stage at the Hillbilly Heaven nightclub. Among the three game New York performers, Elizabeth Stanley has the best voice, and her evocative second-act rendition of Bobbie Gentry's "Fancy" is as close to a heart-stopper as there is. Barbara Helms twangs her songs appropriately and has deft comic timing, but Trudi Posey layers too much nasal edge and leg-splaying oafishness on her character, turning a possibly endearing good old gal into a minor irritant. When they perform as a trio, though, the results are often pleasant -- especially in the fragile and almost ethereal "Sittin' on the Front Porch Swing." Through March 6 at Carousel Dinner Theatre, 1275 East Waterloo Road, Akron, 800-362-4100. -- Howey

Johnnie Taylor Is Gone -- Insult comedians often say they kid because they care, and the same holds true for the rest of us -- we joke with our friends simply because we like them and it would be too cloying to do anything else. This world premiere at Karamu is built on that same taunting gamesmanship. Playwright Gregory S. Carr has fashioned a delightful if not particularly insightful evening around 10 denizens of the Golden Zodiac Lounge (picture a black Cheers) in north St. Louis. Within these cozy confines, the employees and patrons spend their idle time signifying, playing the dozens, and generally tormenting each other -- usually for fun. The serious thread running below the steady stream of gibes is the fact that the faltering Zodiac caters to an aging clientele, while the hot clubs are attracting the Nelly and Ashanti crowd. That fact is accentuated by photos adorning the walls of Johnnie Taylor, an old-school gospel and blues singer, now deceased, who once stopped by the joint when his limo broke down. This lively production is a fortuitous convergence of a hilarious script, several finely calibrated performances, and pace-perfect direction by Caroline Jackson Smith. Through February 20 at Karamu House, 2355 E. 89th St., 216-795-7070. -- 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

Triple Espresso -- If Lawrence Welk had been a jokester and not a bandleader, this is the kind of comedy show he would have created. Squeaky-clean and with all the edge of a Nerf ball, this mildly humorous pastiche of familiar gags, magical flimflam, and shadow puppets (yes, shadow puppets!) is the perfect production to send your not-so-hip grandparents to on their anniversary. The plotless exercise is based on the entirely believable premise of a miserably unfunny 1970s comedy trio, back for a reunion at a coffeehouse owned by an unseen native of Zaire with a funny, African-sounding name (ha-ha). Thus the reason for a title that does not, alas, refer to the level of stimulation provided. Co-authors (with the absent Bill Arnold) Michael Pearce Donley and Bob Stromberg overdo their signature mugging, with the latter working his baffled-Dickie-Smothers double takes way too hard. Triple Espresso has been playing for a long time in some cities, thanks to its genial good humor. But if you like your comedy with bite, this one will gum you to death. Through February 13 at the Hanna Theater, 2067 E. 14th St., 216-241-6000. -- Howey

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