Hurrahs And Bugaboos

By James Damico

Five times a week for what seemed an eternity, Walter Cronkite closed The CBS Evening News with his trademark sign off, "And that's the way it is, this [fill in the month, day and year]." He positively glowed with assurance that the previous half-hour had precisely summed up the day's important events and their ramifications.

It's with no such certainty, however, that a neat synopsis of the local '07-'08 theater season, let alone any lingering significance, can be drawn. Like the last several years, this one was a perplexing mix of a few artistic goodies dispersed among a less savory smorgasbord of very routine fodder; often diametrically contradictory indications of financial health and terminal bankruptcy; and - not to be outdone by the nation's mortgage miasma - a sometimes necessary, but aesthetically distracting, fixation on real estate.

That, it surely can be argued, is the way most theater seasons go. But, to at least one long-toothed observer, recent times have in general considerably ratcheted up the usual inertia and aimlessness. Which is not to say matters haven't been busy and even hectic. The biggest news on the real estate front - and of the season itself - was Great Lakes Theater Festival securing the Hanna as its permanent home base, in conjunction with the risky total gutting and renovation of the near 90-year-old treasure of a playhouse into what is promised to be a state-of-the-art facility. All theater devotees await the scheduled September rededication production of Macbeth with much hope and a smidgen of trepidation.

Also christening a new Cleveland location in April after numerous delays was the Akron-born Bang and the Clatter Theatre Company, which brought its aggressively contemporary repertory to a renovated site in trendy East 4th territory. Apparently the company intends to continue its monstrously ambitious aim of grinding out ever-changing monthly productions in both cities simultaneously - although the plan has already experienced multiple snags, the latest being the loss of its original Akron venue and a move into the University of Akron's Guzetta Hall.

Suffering its own real-estate woes, neighboring Actors' Summit recently concluded a few months of uncertainty by signing an agreement to stay in its Ohio premises for another year.

No outfit has been more plagued by the pesky realty bugaboo than Dobama, which has struggled for three homeless years to finance and finalize its contracted-for occupation of the former Lee Road YMCA. As it has before, the move is said to be imminent. Yet the theater's fortunes haven't exactly been buoyed by its past season's under-attended, four-play docket in which only Take Me Out (prominently featuring a stage full of naked males) made any box-office or artistic impression.

Perhaps also preoccupied with looming plans for a massive makeover of its present digs, Beck Center's offerings similarly seemed to waffle between the decent and the disastrous.

In the even more Draconian "money rules" category, Cain Park announced it would be canceling its 70-years-young tradition of full stagings of musicals in its venerable outdoor Evans Amphitheater; Beck and Karamu each abruptly canceled productions; and, most calamitously, Kalliope Stage not only canceled the last half of its season, but its entire existence. The much-to-be-mourned permanent departure of these specialists in obscure musicals was made particularly poignant by an enchanting production of Jerry Herman's rarely done Dear World as an unintended farewell.

For its own scaled-back part, Opera Cleveland performed a severely truncated calendar quite commendably, which only served to remind us how much enjoyment was forfeited with last year's complete elimination of the company's Lyric Opera Cleveland component, also for budgetary reasons.

On the other side of the financial ledger, the area's larger producers appear to be faring comfortably - in economic, if not so unfailingly artistic, terms. Both Great Lakes and the Cleveland Play House (the latter with new Managing Director Kevin Moore and an extended contract for Artistic Director Michael Bloom) again emerged with nicely balanced balance sheets, while, outstripping them in shekels and showblitz, Playhouse Square overflowed its coffers and filled its various stages with such attractive entries as The Drowsy Chaperone, The Color Purple and the record-breaking Jersey Boys.

Presumably due to the consistent leadership of their respective bosses (Raymond Bobgan and Terrence Spivey), Cleveland Public Theatre and Karamu again racked up respectable seasons replete with shows chosen to appeal to their faithful audiences. And more cheery news came with Cleveland State University's summer-stock experiment, under Michael Mauldin's stewardship, which returned for a second year and boldly expanded its agenda with an added production.

Next week we'll try to defrost our crystal ball to venture some guesses as to what the coming '08-'09 campaign portends.