Monday, August 12, 2019

Let's Mock-n-Roll


Let’s Mock-n-Roll


(l. to r.) Sean Fleming, Todd Cooper, Allen Cruz

Carly Ameling, Sean Fleming

Sean Fleming


By Tom Wachunas

   I don’t know where I’m going / But I sure know where I’ve been / Hanging on the promises / in songs of yesterday …”  lyrics from “Here I Go Again,” By David Coverdale and Bernie Marsden, of Whitesnake  

   Here they go again. They’ve been waiting for a show like this – to hit us with their best shot and fire away. They just couldn’t fight the feeling to feel the noize. Workin’ hard to get their fill, they all want a thrill and they don’t stop believin’. The final countdown to nothin’ but a good time and high energy is on. They wanna rock. They’re the ones who want to be with you with too much time on their hands, to kiss you deadly, and to melt your face in the heat of the moment with more than words. Yikes.

   The ‘they’ is Players Guild Theatre’s Jonathan Tisevich, directing Rock of Ages, with a scalding-hot cast of 14 performers, and an equally sizzling onstage six-piece band conducted by keyboardist Steve Parsons. The show is a jukebox musical, written by Chris D'Arienzo with music arrangements and orchestrations by Ethan Popp, constructed around famous “glam metal” hits of the 1980s, with snippets of more than 30 power ballads and gushy love songs woven into the action. The original Broadway production opened in 2009 and ran for 2,328 performances before closing in 2015.

  An insanely twisted tale set in 1987, Rock of Ages is about life and love in and around The Bourbon Room, a Sunset Strip rock club on the verge of being torn down to make room for retail stores. We hear from screeching, big-haired, crotch-grinding men and watch slinky parades of pole-dancing, derriere-wagging waitresses clad in neon-colored lingerie (costumes by Suwatana Rockland). If you look closely enough behind this elaborately constructed bar room façade (scenic design by Joshua Erichsen), however, you’re sure to find that much of the show is a deeply probing metaphor for… screeching, big-haired, crotch-grinding men and pole-dancing, derriere-wagging waitresses clad in neon-colored lingerie.

   The story is narrated by the infectiously goofy and mischievous Allen Cruz. He plays Lonny, the Bourdon Room house manager and sound man who has a noisy habit of disrupting the small number of genuinely tender moments the show has to offer. Most of those moments center on Carly Ameling - instantly charismatic and shining in her portrayal of Sherrie, the proverbial small-town girl who comes to L.A. to be an actress but reluctantly settles for doing lap dances – and Sean Fleming in his role of Drew, an aspiring rock singer whose high-range vocals could peel paint. Their could-be romance is sidetracked when Sherrie succumbs to the sexual prowess of the hopelessly self-absorbed, swaggering bad- boy megastar Stacee Jaxx, played with lascivious ferocity by Brandon Michael. Talk about breaching the fourth wall - as very much of the action does in this sprawling production - at one point he slingshots a pair of panties into the audience.

   There’s something of the mellowed hippie peeking through Todd Cooper’s portrayal of Dennis, the Bourbon Room owner who decides to mentor Drew in his efforts to be a successful rocker. Paralleling Cooper’s magnetism is that of Leiah Lewis in her role of Justice, owner of the strip joint that hires Sherrie.  And then there’s Morgan Brown as Regina (pronounced RegEYEna, she’s oh so careful to point out), an impish gadfly protesting the impending destruction of the Bourbon Room by greedy German mother and son developers, Hertz und Franz, played with chillingly cartoonish intensity by Hannah Kyriakides and Dylan Berkshire.

  Through it all is the titillating choreography by Brandon Leffler – a raucous mash-up of apparent spontaneity and studied stereotypes that leave few visual clichés unexplored, including some absolutely hilarious scenes that imitate classic cinematic slow-motion effects to exaggerate if not dismiss the kitschy sentimentality of the moment.

   So the show is a lurid yet not overly- loud caricature. On one level it’s a silly burlesque, an unapologetic parody, and an otherwise self-mocking Declaration of Dependence on Dopamine. Interestingly enough, the cast members seem to have made a serious business out of not taking this business of sex and drugs and rock-n-roll too seriously. Maybe you could think of them as Journey’s streetlights people, aboard a midnight train, this one headed to where the laughs go on and on and on…

PHOTOS by Dominic Iudiciani

Rock of Ages / Through Sept. 1, 2019,  at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday / no show on Aug. 10, and shows at 7 and 11 p.m. on Aug. 31 / at Players Guild Theatre Downstage, Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Ave. N, Canton, Ohio / TICKETS: $34 ($31 for seniors 65 and older), may be ordered at www.PlayersGuildTheatre.com  and 330-453-7619.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Remembering the Glory of Living


Remembering the Glory of Living

Kelly Strand, Andrew Gorell

Andrew Gorell, Bob McCoy

Aaron Brown (l), Andrew Gorell

(l.. to r.) Kelly Strand, Andrew Gorell, Heidi Swinford, Bob McCoy, Aaron Brown


BY Tom Wachunas

Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past.
 - T.S Eliot, from “BURNT NORTON” (No. 1 of ‘Four Quartets’)

Isn’t it rich? / Are we a pair? / Me here at last on the ground /You in mid-air/Send in the clowns  -  Stephen Sondheim

   There is certainly a conceptual kinship between Noah Haidle’s Smokefall and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Both plays are piquant narratives that explore, in varying degrees, the bittersweet dynamics of the ties that bind us to each other, and to simply being alive. But Haidle’s narrative -  chronicling four generations of a quirky family in Grand Rapids, Michigan – is a much more layered and complex journey through time. The play is mounted here by Seat of the Pants Productions and directed by Craig Joseph, who’s always on the look-out for powerful, challenging stage literature. He’s found it again. And again, he has assembled a superbly accomplished ensemble to articulate it. The play is an unflinching conflation of the mundane and the metaphysical, and profoundly rich in the way it melds together preposterous whimsicality, dark hilarity, and soulful tenderness.

   Throughout Act 1, the character named Footnote (Andrew Gorell) walks about the stage like a veteran tour guide. He addresses the audience in a finessed attitude of serious authority peppered with curiosity and surprise as he voices enumerated annotations on the actions and thoughts of all the other characters.

    We meet the sweet and sensitive Violet (Heidi Swinford), pregnant with twin boys (“mistakes,” Footnote observes). As she contentedly goes about her daily tasks, she sings gentle songs to them, inviting her family to speak to her unborn “citizens of the heart.”   But the pregnancy has only added to the fragile psychological state of her husband, Daniel (Aaron Brown). He’s depressed, disillusioned, apparently feeling burdened by the ho-hum of everyday routines. At one point we see Violet setting the breakfast table, putting down the cups one by one in a loud rhythm, as if marching, while upstairs at the bathroom sink the dour-looking Daniel - who has no intention of ever returning home once he leaves for work on this day- slaps his razor on the sharpening strap in an equally march-like rhythm. Is this the relentless striding of cruel time? There are other similarly nuanced details in the play, wherein an otherwise ordinary sight or action acquires a deeper symbolism. Footnote tells us what Daniel whispers to the twins: “Help me remember the glory of living.”  We find out later that the twins hear every word spoken in this troubled household.

   Meanwhile, Bob McCoy delivers a genuinely affectionate portrait of The Colonel, a widowed career army man still very much in love with his departed wife even as he wanders in the mists of dementia. He tells the twins, “God exists. Remember I said that…and that the greatest possible act of courage is to love.” And then there’s Beauty, 16-year-old daughter of Violet and Daniel, played by Kelly Strand. She’s heard the marital arguments, along with her father’s constant lamenting the incessant cost and noise of life in their house. In a very odd act of love and self-sacrifice, she hasn’t uttered a word for the last three years, and subsists on a diet of dirt, twigs, and paint. It’s a thoroughly endearing eccentricity that Strand conveys. In her speechlessness, she lets her precise body language do the talking, her face a veritable enchanted landscape of emotional expressivity.

   The play’s most fantastical scene transpires at the end of Act 1, with Aaron Brown as Fetus One, and our narrator, Andrew Gorell, as Fetus Two. Dressed in garish red plaid suits like a Vaudeville comic duo, they kick, curl, push, and shove their way (oh, the labor pains!) through ridiculous (or is it miraculous?) in-utero philosophizing about their impending entry to humanity. In this manic mash-up of Shakespeare, Sondheim, Sartre, and Samuel Beckett, one twin (Brown) is fatalistic and fearful, while the other is all giddy optimism and courage as the two finally agree to take the plunge, as it were. The scene ends on an unexpectedly shocking note.

   When Act 2 begins, a whole generation has passed. In another of those aforementioned symbolic moments, we notice that through one of the floated window panes in the elegantly simple set designed by Kevin Anderson and Micah Harvey, the branches of an apple tree have grown into the family house. It’s a new tree, planted to replace the diseased one that once stood in the same spot in Act 1. The past grown into the present.  Bob McCoy has returned in the role of Johnny, that optimistic twin, now living alone in the family house and seemingly haunted - or obsessed – by ideas about genetic determinism he acquired in the womb. His kitchen floor is strewn with fallen, partially eaten apples; he prunes the invasive branches. He has an estranged son, Samuel (Gorell / Fetus Two), who has visited to reconcile with his father, saying at one point, “You’re alone because you drove everyone who cared for you away!” Johnny retorts “You can’t outrun a lineage.”

   Beauty also returns, effusively talking about her 40 years of searching for her father. She’s 95 by now, but still looks 16. Another symbol, or another miracle – to remain young by refusing to abandon familial love?

   Smokefall is an aptly intriguing title for this extraordinary drama. T.S. Eliot used the term in writing about the movement of time in his great poetic swansong, “Four Quartets.” It’s that fog that can rise in the fading light at close of day, before the dark sets in. Alluring, mysterious, and obscuring all at once, it can be nevertheless a cathartic, even sacred time, when past, present, and future join to become a singular, revelatory force.

    Just like being alive, experiencing Smokefall, the story, requires of us a vigilant attention to the idea of pursuing the redemptive power of love and its potential to reconcile broken, disconnected hearts. The effort can be exhausting, but also exhilarating. “The attempt is how we live,” as the title of the second act reminds us. Putting aside all its strange magic and brooding humor for a moment, here’s theatre that is ultimately, lovingly...real.

PHOTOS by Aimee Lambes

SMOKEFALL / shows on August 9, 10, 11, 2019 /
Friday and Saturday at 8 PM / Sunday at 2 PM /
At The Playground at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Boulevard, Cleveland Heights 44118 / Tickets $20 at: