On Stage

Capsule reviews of current area theater presentations.

The Devil's Rejects
Baby -- This energetic comic musical deals with the ways three very different couples handle their personal journeys, once they determine there's a bun in the oven. The play, which had a respectable run on Broadway in the early 1980s, features a bundle of charming songs with music by David Shire and lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. And even though the book by Sybille Pearson doesn't quite manage to tie all the elements together into a satisfying story arc, there are more than enough engaging performances to pacify even the crankiest observer. As young rocker Danny, Andrew Smith fairly crackles with energetic good spirits and is especially appealing in the show-stopping tune "Fatherhood Blues." And John Jensen is a thorough delight as fortysomething Alan, using his angular good looks and rich voice to bring depth to his material. Director Paul F. Gurgol brings out all the joy this show has to offer, and that's quite a bit. It's a bright and breezy evening that works as a tribute to the people who, against a lot of financial logic, continue to bring tiny human beings into the world. Through July 31 at Kalliope Stage, 2134 Lee Rd., Cleveland Hts., 216-321-0870. -- Christine Howey

The Boys Next Door -- It's very easy for portrayals of handicapped characters to turn into mawkish caricatures, and that danger is multiplied by five in Tom Griffin's play, which portrays a New England group home for men who are minimally functional but who need daily assistance from a paid counselor. Director John Woodson manages to keep each of the characters grounded, warmly amusing, and ultimately very affecting. Griffin has created an insightful and often hilarious script, beautifully rendered by a talented company. Among them, Brian Zoldessy is absolutely perfect as Arnold, the edgy de facto leader of the home, who snaps out empty threats ("I'll move all my stuff to Russia!") whenever he's faced with a situation he can't handle. As counselor Jack says about the dances his charges attend: "I can't decide if it's the saddest place I've ever seen, or the happiest." The answer, of course, is both. Through July 23 at the Porthouse Theatre, Blossom Music Center, 1145 W. Steels Corners Rd., Cuyahoga Falls, 330-929-4416. -- Howey

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. -- 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. Extended through July at 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

A Midsummer Night's Dream -- Some people, it seems, are born to do Shakespeare, and so must it be for Terry Burgler. As director, set designer, and Nick Bottom in this fabulous production by the Ohio Shakespeare Festival at Stan Hywet Hall, Burgler fashions a fantasy come true. Under his guidance, a dazzling cast makes Shakespeare as easily enjoyable as if the play had been written last year by someone in, well, Ohio. Squeezing every dram of physical slapstick and verbal wordplay from this lilting script, the company makes one understand why so many make a fuss about dear old Will. In a galaxy of stellar performances, Jason Marr is a mischievous and magnetic Oberon in a Rod Stewart wig, Meg Cavanaugh is tortured to a T as Helena, and Eric Lualdi and Patrick Midgley are a stitch as the swooning suitors Lysander and Demetrius. But it's Burgler's boastful Nick Bottom and his band of blue-collar thespians that almost steal the show -- and you're happy to let them have it. Set outside in the Hywet lagoon, it is also gorgeous to the eye. Through July 24 at Stan Hywet Hall, 714 North Portage Path, Akron, 330-836-5533. -- Howey

Peter Pan -- When J.M. Barrie wrote this classic, there wasn't a score by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and no "I'm Flying" song to accompany the aerial acrobatics of the boy who would not grow up. Lakeland Theatre is now presenting a new version of Barrie's tuneless original, written by John Caird and Trevor Nunn, that has plenty of charm on its own. All the familiar story elements are here, and in some ways it may even be more understandable for a young audience, in that two storytellers guide the narrative and clear up some plot points. While director Martin Friedman has put many of the necessary elements in place -- a charming Wendy (Magdalyn Donnelly), a scenery-chewing Captain Hook (Mark Cipra, who is also, of course, Mr. Darling), and a real athletic boy as Peter Pan (Brian Bowers) -- the pace of the show is a tad sluggish. This arises from some dialogue scenes that lumber rather than flit and a couple of overly laborious set changes with too many people standing around. Here's hoping more performances -- or a shovelful of fairy dust sprinkled on everyone -- can help this production levitate as it should. Through July 24 at Lakeland Theatre, Lakeland Community College, I-90 and Route 306, Kirtland, 440-525-7034. -- Howey

Summer Evening and What Is Making Gilda So Gray? -- The verbal intricacies of personal relationships are explored in these two intriguing one-acts, expertly directed by Greg Cesear. In Wallace Shawn's Summer Evening, a man and woman are staying in a resort hotel, each simmering in a stew of repressed sexuality. When alone and speaking to the audience (or themselves), they express their desires with bold clarity. But when they're together, she avoids his touch, while he aches for contact. Scott Esposito and Kat McIntosh handle this arm's-length relationship with civilized obliqueness. But the unvocalized passion in Shawn's script could be enhanced with more physical attitude, while the dialogue scenes seem a bit choreographed. What Is Making Gilda So Gray (by Tom Eyen) ratchets up the absurdity, as a film director and his wife keep mistaking each other for their fantasy lovers. Each picks on the other's vulnerability (her small paunch, his height), and they quickly forget each other's personal preferences (he takes his coffee black) as they meet, separate, and rejoin. John Kolibab and Bernadette Clemens are enormously engaging as two people who are trying so hard to compensate that they never connect. Presented by Cesear's Forum through July 30 at Kennedy's Down Under, 1519 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000. -- Howey

Tales of the Lost Formicans -- If suburbia is the antithesis of everything that has value in life, why the hell are so many people living there? This question piques the interest of aliens in this delightfully off-center play by Constance Congdon. Utilizing multiple playing areas, a large video screen, and a small monitor, restlessly inventive director Clyde Simon smoothly slaloms through myriad scenes depicting the numb, unrelenting despair faced by Humanus americanus. But amazingly, the production is never downbeat or depressive -- we sympathize with the trapped souls even as we rue their dead-end existence. Perhaps one saving grace is that the lead alien who narrates the piece (performed with a stoned, HAL-like synthetic warmth by Arthur Grothe) is pretty much as dumb as a brick himself. With all the nuanced perception of Donald Rumsfeld analyzing Iraqi culture, the chief Formican is continually puzzled by observed behavior and even a bit flummoxed by the design of a dinette set, noting that the wobbly table and chairs must indicate the unreliable nature of the planet's existence. Each of the performances is crisp and distinct, but all merge deftly into Simon's overall style, swerving between parody and earnestness, but never overdoing either. Presented by Convergence-Continuum through August 6 at the Liminis, 2438 Scranton Rd., 216-687-0074. -- Howey

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