Sternfeld's Folly

An overzealous director turns a classic farce into a joke.

The Man Who Came to Dinner
Through August 17 at Baldwin-Wallace College's Kleist Center, 95 East Bagley Road, Berea; 440-826-2240.

Avenue X
Through August 18 at Cain Park's Alma Theater, Superior Avenue and Lee Road, Cleveland Heights; 216-371-3000.

Through August 10 at the Civic, 3130 Mayfield Road, Cleveland Heights; 216-732-3370.

The Man Who Made Everyone Miserable: Dudley - Swetland is a humorless Sheridan Whiteside.
The Man Who Made Everyone Miserable: Dudley Swetland is a humorless Sheridan Whiteside.
Midsummer theater in Cleveland has become like a weekend in Windsor: an intriguing crapshoot, where sure things turn up as snake eyes and long shots yield unexpected payoffs.

Fred Sternfeld's production of Kaufman and Hart's The Man Who Came to Dinner, an imperishable ode to our obsession with fame, should have been a safe bet. Sternfeld, who in the past has excelled in breathing life into ancient relics, should have been a guarantee of success, yet here he has created a fascinating misfire out of a work that has flourished in high schools everywhere. This is not a case of incompetence, but of willful desecration.

The director's first crime is his attempt to make flesh and blood from what was conceived as a perfect caricature: Sheridan Whiteside is a parody of Alexander Woollcott, a columnist and radio raconteur who was famous for being famous. It doesn't take a great actor to inhabit this role -- just a charismatic life force who projects a glow fed by adoration. Last year, columnist Dick Feagler stormed the town as Whiteside. Dudley Swetland is admittedly a far more accomplished performer, yet here he is incapable of projecting anything but the most frozen scowl. His Whiteside suggests Nixon at the height of his Watergate paranoia. Every comic barb that has amused audiences for 63 years emerges from his coldhearted character like a threat written on a subpoena.

Sternfeld has worked a perverse kind of genius on the play: destroying it as farce, turning a perfect cartoon into a Chekhovian study of insecure celebrities and stifled small-town life. A work that should be fueled by speed and the eternal charisma of its central character becomes a slow, painful study of a frozen bastard infecting an entire town: The hearty nurse Preen (played by Jean Colerider) becomes a delicate old lady, whose abuse by Whiteside makes the audience cringe; the monstrous femme fatale (Barbara Corlette), whose eventual comeuppance should be the comic climax, is turned into a misguidedly radiant wounded swan -- and another hapless victim of the maniacal Whiteside. An overage juvenile hero renders the central romance superfluous and grotesque, and throwaway characters, such as the Stanley children, become the emotional heart of the show.

Only Jim McCormack's deliriously obtuse blimp of a small-town doctor, Nick Koesters's manic compendium of the Marx Brothers, and Kevin Joseph Kelly's fey goose of Noël Coward manage to preserve the playwrights' antic spirit. Everything else has been sacrificed to the ego of a director who refuses to honor the spirit of farce.

Director Victoria Bussert is the undisputed dominatrix of Cleveland musicals. She can whip anything from Sondheim to calypso into an erotic frenzy. At Baldwin-Wallace, where she's head of the musical theater department, she specializes in turning amateurs into Broadway babies. Unfortunately, her latest choice, Avenue X, is another cautionary tale in the wake of West Side Story, about what happens when members of opposite races try to harmonize together. Its local premiere at Cain Park's Alma Theater suggests that it's too leaky a vehicle to hold the steam heat Bussert pours into it. It's a ghastly combination of a cappella singing and relentless pouting, preened to resemble suffering; it leaves enervated audiences staggering out of the theater in a haze of early Martin Scorsese clichés and Spike Lee angst.

There are no victors here, just the fetid odor of wasted effort, wasted vocalizing, and sexual hysteria that lingers in the air.

Mercury Summer Stock has emerged in the Civic with the most unlikely of surprises: a children's musical that's too good for children. Honk!, based on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Ugly Duckling," brings to mind the golden age of Disney in the way it combines showbiz shtick with aching humanity. The British musical, which has been steadily spreading across the States since its 1999 debut, features a Busby Berkeley-like chorus of tadpoles bouncing hula hoops, an Al Jolson frog croaking cheer-up numbers, a heartbreaking mallard with a Scottish accent, and a selfless Mother Duck who could give Mrs. Dumbo a lesson in maternal devotion.

The puns float by like 20 seasons of prime Jack Benny. George Stiles's music, combined with Anthony Drewe's book and lyrics, embodies the essence of Broadway panache and Victorian whimsy. Director Pierre-Jacques Brault and an astounding company make Gap threads and cardboard scenery glow with the radiance of vintage animation. Most astounding of all is a huge cast that pours out endlessly onto the tiny stage, like luminous clowns popping out of a Volkswagen. Somehow, it achieves a miraculous combination of carnival spectacle and sublimity.

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