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Curtains Up 

Bringing up the lights on the top prospects of the '05-'06 theater season.

Ask anyone to name the best things about Cleveland, and the performing arts are sure to rank right up there with our pristine views of dead steel mills. That's not without good reason: From our orchestra to our dance companies to our boundless options for quality theater, our area is blessed with an embarrassment of riches, as far as cultural opportunities are concerned. The coming theater season appears especially attractive. New artistic management at the Play House is finally resulting in a more adventurous lineup, and other top companies, from Beck Center to Cleveland Public Theatre, are exploring works both challenging and comfortably familiar.

Following is an overview of the season's most promising offerings. For more information on upcoming shows, go to www.clevescene.com/Issues/current/culture/index.html.

Urinetown
(September 16-October 9 at Beck Center)
You'd think there'd be a lot of cheap bathroom humor in a show titled Urinetown. That there isn't is just one of the many surprises embedded in this high-energy, laugh-till-you-choke musical, which earned raves for its Cleveland debut at Playhouse Square in 2004. The plot offers a stream of possibilities: A water shortage has caused the government to privatize bathrooms, making it a costly privilege to pee. The citizens are up in arms, and the fight is on to restore the public's inalienable right to tinkle. Of course, it's all handled with a wink, since the "fourth wall" is broken and the cast discusses the play with the audience even as the action progresses (one song is called "Too Much Exposition"). Parodying many theatrical styles -- particularly Brecht and Weill -- Urinetown is incredibly funny, and it also makes a telling point about the government mania for privatizing damn near everything.

Top Dog/Underdog
(September 30-October 23 at Beck Center)
Top Dog, which garnered a Pulitzer for writer Suzan-Lori Parks, is a fascinating profile of two black brothers, now grown, named Lincoln and Booth by their impish father. One brother has given up his three-card-monte scam, while the other wants the con income to continue. Parks' incisive language draws insight from this premise, especially as it relates to winners and losers, both among the brothers' marks and in the larger game of life. Beck Center's version of the original Broadway smash will feature Ed Blunt -- fresh from performing with Denzel Washington in the Broadway production of Julius Caesar -- and local talent Jimmy Woodie.

I Am My Own Wife
(November 4-27 at the Cleveland Play House)
This one-person show won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Best Play for its run in New York City. It's based on the real story of antiques dealer Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a gay German fellow who was also a cross-dresser (called a transvestite then) and who managed to survive -- even thrive -- under the Nazi and Communist regimes of the 1940s and beyond. The flamboyant von Mahlsdorf was considered by some a cultural hero, but was also accused of colluding with the East German secret police. Doug Wright has written a multitiered piece that chronicles von Mahlsdorf's experiences, touching on issues of gender identity and personal political morality with wit and sensitivity. Visiting New York actor Mark Nelson (he's appeared in many TV shows, including Law & Order numerous times) will be called upon to play some 40 different characters in the course of the evening.

Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge & The Santaland Diaries
(November 23-December 18 at Cleveland Public Theatre)
In a festive double shot of programming designed to make good on last year's absence of a holiday production, Cleveland Public Theatre is staging the acidic satire Mrs. Bob Cratchit and David Sedaris' theatricalized essay The Santaland Diaries concurrently. Much of the cast from CPT's 2003 version of Mrs. Bob Cratchit will return, with director Randy Rollison doubling as Scrooge himself. Staged on a new set by inventive designer Trad A. Burns and presented in a cabaret-style setting, this sharp-edged work sticks a finger into everyone's plum pudding, and the results last time were hysterically funny. Equally acerbic, Santaland Diaries relates the author's exploits as an elf-for-hire at a department store's sit-on-Santa booth. Adapted from the original by Joe Mantello, this is extremely irreverent and definitely not for tykes. In the spirit of the season, CPT is offering discounted tickets to attend both shows.

Evita
(January 10-22 at the Palace Theatre)
Gloomy January could be just the right time for a lavish Broadway musical that's staged up the yin-yang. Lucky for you that Evita, winner of seven Tony Awards, will take the boards at Playhouse Square. The Latin-pop-jazz musical, forged by the team of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, follows Eva Perón in her rise to cultural and political überstardom in 1940s Argentina. Riding the coattails of hubby and dictator Juan Perón, Eva ascended to fame by championing the working class (imagine that) and was an adored and supremely tragic figure. And don't she sing nice?

Dream a Little Dream
(March 31-April 23 at the Cleveland Play House)
If you still long for the one-toke-over-the-line '60s, the Play House has the hit you're craving with this rock-doc chronicling the drug- and sex-addled Mamas and the Papas. Written by original Papa Denny Doherty, the show weaves the group's lush playlist through bits and pieces of the four singers' somewhat star-crossed lives. Doherty, now sober, doesn't sugarcoat his account of the band's excesses: He admits at one point that he drank enough Crown Royal to make drapes out of the little purple bags. What's more, he'll portray himself in this Play House production.

Sally
(May 30-June 8; performed by Ensemble Theatre)
Ensemble Theatre, performing for the past year in space provided by the Play House, has commissioned this original, tentatively titled work, based on the experiences of Sally Hemings, the slave mistress of Thomas Jefferson. Playwright Sandra Seaton has already been lauded for her lyrics in From the Diary of Sally Hemings, a song cycle composed by William Bolcom. For a theater without a home of its own, this promises to be a major achievement.

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