Favorite

Capsule reviews of current area theater presentations. 

Burn This -- There are times when performers are called upon to surmount extraordinary obstacles, as happened to the Charenton group when their opening-night playing space was yanked out from under them by city functionaries. Undaunted, they transplanted this remarkable show to a different location in a couple of hours and turned in an astonishing and compelling effort. Written by Lanford Wilson, the play is an exploration of the distances between -- and inside -- people who fear connection. Robbie, a young gay dancer, has died in a boating accident, and his roommates, fellow hoofer Anna (Liz Conway) and fey Larry (Dan Kilbane), have just returned from the funeral. They are soon joined by wealthy screenwriter pal Burton (Andrew Narten), who cares for Anna, and Robbie's coke-wired brother Pale, who soon uses his slithery charm to bed Anna. Jason Markouc is as oily as the straight black hair he keeps flipping behind his ears, prowling the loft where the brother he never really knew has now left a permanent hole. Grasping each other like drowning people reaching for the last life preserver, these four players, under the direction of Christopher Johnston, turn in a tender and witty ode to urban loneliness. Presented by Charenton Theater Company through October 28 at 324 Gallery, 1301 E. 9th St., 216-469-9160, www.charenton.org. -- Christine Howey

Gospel! Gospel! Gospel! -- This Karamu show is the theatrical version of an empty-headed PowerPoint presentation. Billed as "a history lesson for the entire family," it's actually a bloodless chronological march through the history of gospel music that turns the avatars of this compelling musical idiom (Thomas Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, et al.) into ciphers on a timeline. And it's a shame, because gospel music deserves a much more thoughtful and compelling tribute. Clearly, all those involved have their hearts in the right place. Writer-director Otis Sallid wants to honor those who wrote and performed gospel music over the years, but by trying to encompass so much calendar time, he runs out of performance time -- cutting many songs down to 30-second snippets that don't allow the music to grab hold. Also, there's virtually no insight into any of the personalities who have made gospel the transcendent spiritual force that it is. The uneven 10-person cast does hit some high points and gets the audience shouting their responses. But the effect created by much of the music feels oddly muted, either by flaccid arrangements or awkward performances. Through November 5 at Karamu House, 2355 E. 98th St., 216-795-7077. -- Howey

My Fair Lady -- There are a number of reasons My Fair Lady played for more than 2,700 performances on Broadway before closing in 1963. And one of them is undeniably the unique core relationship, expressed in the book and lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner, which flashes insults and indignation almost until the final curtain. In this remarkably fresh and invigorating production, that contentious male-female dynamic is captured exquisitely. But this is not a staging that's easy to cozy up to right away. Director Amanda Dehnert strips away all of the usual tufted settees and bric-a-brac that place the action circa 1900, and opts for a couple metal staircases and plenty of places to hang costumes. In addition, she plunks the entire ensemble onstage, and there they stay, sitting on bleacher seats when not involved in the action -- which often swirls around the two grand pianos (and pianists) in the center. This streamlined approach frees both Dehnert and her cast to bring a new energy to songs that may sound as if they've been pried out of a rusty time capsule. But even though it's some 50 years old, Frederick Loewe's music is enduringly lovely, even without full orchestral accompaniment. Through October 29 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Ave., 216-795-7000. -- Howey

The Pillowman -- Martin McDonagh's rather overwritten comedy features many pillow suffocations and is blacker than a lump of anthracite. But under the intense artistic pressure of director Sonya Robbins and some fiercely intelligent performances, it turns into a diamond that blazes brilliantly for almost the entire three-hour playing time. So what's black about it? Well, how about a little girl swallowing razors shoved inside an apple, a little boy getting his toes cut off, and another little girl, who thinks she is Jesus, being crucified by her cruel step-parents. That's pretty dark kiddie mayhem, but who cares? It's all fiction, so it doesn't really matter. Or does it? Those gruesome events take place in the creepy stories authored by Katurian K. Katurian, who is being interrogated by two tough cops in an unnamed police state. K-3 is on the seat of heat because actual children in the area have been murdered in the exact ways spelled out in his mostly unpublished works. Given the rank unpleasantness of the subject matter, this production manages to keep the laughter rolling, with much of the humor provided by Joel Hammer's neatly pressed and casually malevolent turn as an interrogator. Presented by Dobama Theatre through November 5 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Ave., 216-932-3396. -- Howey

Urinetown -- Artistic director Sean Cercone is to be commended for his courage: Given songs titled "Privilege to Pee" and "Snuff That Girl," it couldn't have been easy deciding to mount this edgy and hilarious show in the frequently placid confines of Carousel Dinner Theatre. In this piece about a desperate water shortage and restrictions on free peeing, director Jennifer Cody keeps the dialogue pace very slow -- consider it the "large-print" version -- presumably to make sure that no one in the sprawling, well-fed audience loses track of the proceedings. But fine performances abound, particularly from tiny Karen Katz, who brings a feisty vibe to Little Sally. Al Bundonis handles Officer Lockstock's meta-narration ("Welcome to Urinetown . . . not the town, the musical!") with slick precision. And Robert Stoeckle is a cloyingly venal presence as Caldwell B. Cladwell. Although Michele Ragusa is a bit too petite for restroom-diva Penelope Pennywise, she works her powerful voice to maximum effect. Thanks to excellent singing voices from top to bottom, some dazzling dance numbers choreographed by Brian Loeffler, and taut execution from a talented chorus, this Urinetown is a golden shower of pleasant surprises. Through November 4 at Carousel Dinner Theatre, 1275 E. Waterloo Rd., Akron, 800-362-4100. -- Howey

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