On Stage

Capsule reviews of current area theater presentations.

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Aida -- Back in 1998, the folks at Disney Theatrical Productions thought it would be dandy to update Giuseppe Verdi's tale of doomed love and handed it off to rocker Elton John and his librettist, Tim Rice, to conjure their pop-music magic. The result is a bubblegum version that shares little more than three vowels and a consonant with the original. A largely capable Beck Center cast works diligently to bring this mummified colossus to life, but a sandstorm of banal tunes and too many sitcom-cute gags leave this show far below other musical-theater reinterpretations, such as the magnificent Disney creation The Lion King. The character of Aida, the Nubian princess-turned-captured-slave, is written and played fairly straight, and Colleen Longshaw has a few sterling moments in her songs. But she has a tendency to clump across the stage, belying the grace and stature that would bespeak her royal lineage. In addition, she is unable to spark even a flicker of sexual chemistry with crew-cut Ian Atwood, who plays her lover, Radames, with all the swagger and intensity of an overgrown junior-high kid at his first gym dance. Through August 14 at Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-521-2540. -- Christine Howey

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. -- Howey

Cymbeline -- If you're a fan of Shakespeare's plot contrivances and character flourishes, you may have found a treasure trove in this later play, a rather lumbering work featuring a nasty stepmother, underhanded trickery, cross-dressing, and a beheading. It's hard to ask for more from an evening of free theater -- but, alas, we do. In this case, we ask for more actors who have a clear sense of what they're saying and to whom. Nothing drags down Shakespeare faster than performers who are wrestling with the Bard's complex but glorious language and wind up losing two out of three falls. In this cast, there are some who manage to shine, but others who should be kept away from Will's work at the point of a sharp stick. Presented by the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival August 4 and 6 at the Willoughby Fine Arts Association, and August 12 and 14 at Lincoln Park in Tremont, 877-280-1646, www.cleveshakes.org. -- 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

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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