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Near West Theatre’s Black Box is Exploited in All Its Glory with The Fantasticks

Near West Theatre
Community Theatre

Review by: Whitney Miller
Published: June 19, 2022

The Fantasticks dives into the lives of two neighbors in a long con aimed at getting their children to fall in love and get married. Luisa and Matt have only known their fathers as bitter rivals. As they quietly steal glances and whisper sweet nothings to each other over a fence that divides their backyards, their fathers secretly watch and manipulate the children. The men wait for the moment they can finally put an end to the fake feud, hoping to become family and openly play cards together.

Near West Theatre has finally taken advantage of their black box space. Typically, the space is used as a dressing room for the main stage shows, however the production staff were able to transform the open space into a thrust stage, seating 69 audience members.

The choice of The Fantasticks as the inaugural show was perfect. After being postponed and recast multiple times, Director Darius Stubbs was able to piece together an ideal ensemble. The approach was simplistic, clever, and ultimately an uproar of a good time.

While the cast had some incredible standouts, the theme of the entire night was chemistry. In an early number, Jabri Johnson (Hucklebee) and Stephen Berg (Bellomy) sing, dance, and plot schemes as if they are built of the same comedic DNA. Meanwhile, Kevin Kelly (Henry) and Roman Novosel (Mortimer) performed chaotically in-sync with each other, never allowing the air to be without a laugh. The actors’ ability to wholeheartedly inhibit these personalities allowed for rich character development at first glance.

Carlos Cruz (El Gallo) balanced the tone and voices on stage in a way that beautifully pulled everything together. Acting as both a character and narrator, Cruz presents a stark contrast to the over the top ensemble that beautifully grounds the show. Mack van Lier was able to embody a clever and hilarious Mute. Being the center of attention one second and melting into the background the next. They were able to add subtle and delightful details that enhanced everything else around them. The comedy of a stick becoming a fence or confetti taking the place of rain and snow was timed perfectly to make it all simply brilliant.

The cast took the majority of the songs and scenes directly to the audience, breaking the 4th wall. Kelly’s lines, in particular, allowed him to pull in audience members to his ridiculous antics and create localized inside jokes. As a whole, this exploited the small audience and close space to create an intimate environment where everyone was along for the ride.

The movement of stage dressing and some design details were handled by van Lier; however at the end of the show an effect is started by van Lier and transitions to a true tech moment. It created a little theatre magic to perfectly end the show.

With its last few shows, Near West Theatre has been able to attract not only great talent, but diverse talent, The Fantasticks is no exception. Diversity tends to be a topic of conversation on a regular basis throughout the Cleveland Theatre community. While this reviewer is personally grateful for that (as long as it’s not due to another ignorant casting decision), changes and consistency haven’t been seen universally like they have at Near West. First and foremost, they are a community organization that not only says they are focused on diversity and inclusion, but actually follow through on their promises. If only more theatres in this community understood the true art that could be created when you have a mix of people of various races, sexual orientations, and gender identities. Promoting individuals to be who they truly are and utilizing those aspects to create new and extraordinary theatre is what we all should be striving for.

The Fantasticks runs through June 26th in Near West Theatre’s black box.

Wit at Western Reserve Playhouse Offers Insight into Cancer’s Lonely Inner Monologue

Western Reserve Playhouse
Community Theatre

Review by: Whitney Miller
Published: May 22, 2022

Wit by Margaret Edson explores an English professor’s last moments of life as she’s dying of ovarian cancer. The professor, Vivian Bearing, serves as the narrator, breaking the 4th wall to give the audience insight to her inner thoughts. As she navigates her diagnosis, her teaching method, her hospitalizations, and even her first book, she comes to terms with her reality.

The set, designed by Director and Executive Artistic Director, Dawn Sniadak-Yamokoski, was simple, yet effective. The use of a hospital curtain was an especially clever approach to transition on an otherwise stagnant set.

While the lighting was simple and minimal, it was a critical vehicle to transition between narration, past memories, and present scenes. Many of these transitions, however, were late or slow. It was not clear whether the design played into it or if it was simply a stage management issue, but this created confusion as Bearing moves quickly between various points in time. Though I suspect the show will tighten up as the run moves forward, it was unfortunate to see it happen so often on opening night.

The second the lights come up and Shari Ferry (Vivian Bearing) walks out talking to the audience directly, you know this is going to be an interesting ride. Ferry was able to embody the horrors of cancer and by the end of the performance had a tight grasp on the audience’s emotions. While Ferry had a tremendous part to conquer as the focus of the entire show, the standouts of the cast were August Scarpelli and Rose Gabriele. Scarpelli played every patient’s worst nightmare as Jason Posner, M.D. The success-obsessed, science-without-emotion approach to medicine made you ache for patients everywhere, especially as it reiterated the deeply problematic reality of our broken healthcare system. In a completely contradicting role, Gabriele played Susie Monahan, R.N. B.S.N as an empathetic, kind soul who ended up being the only constant comfort in Bearing’s care. The nuances she was able to bring to the stage built an incredible character that continuously strengthened every time she walked on.

In the design of the show, a projector is used center stage. The projector was on throughout the performance, which remained mostly unnoticeable as the show progressed. At the end of the last scene, Sniadak-Yamokoski creates a visually haunting image, but when the stage went to black, the projector remained on, grossly limiting the blackout as it still illuminated the actors. The inability to go to black minimized the moment significantly. As the audience remained silent from their confusion, someone from the staff or crew began clapping loudly to help cue the end of the show. You only wish someone was there to pull the kill switch on that projector. The show, on the surface, explores the terrifying reality of cancer and coming to terms with one’s fate. But looking closer, it examines what many of us wonder; when I’m at the end of my life, will I be happy with the legacy I left or will I suddenly see the error of my ways? Will I be remembered, but for all the wrong reasons?

Wit plays through June 4th at Western Reserve Playhouse.

CVLT’s A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder, Where the Womxn Bring the Heat

Chagrin Valley Little Theatre
Community Theatre

Review by: Whitney Miller
Published: April 2, 2022

A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder outlines the story of Monty Navarro as he attempts to enact revenge on his newly found bloodline that had disowned his, now deceased, mother. Navarro gains trust and respect from all he meets as he orchestrates scenarios to ensure their demise, while simultaneously navigating a very endearing love triangle with a married woman and his cousin. Based on a 1907 novel, this show exploits smart dialogue and sharp wit to create a wonderfully ridiculous story. It runs at Chagrin Valley Little Theatre through April 10th.

Overall, it was evident that this show was cast beautifully and put together with a lot of hard work. This reviewer’s only complaint was in the details. With the limitations at hand, the production overcame extraordinary odds but some details remained unfinished.

There are quite a few scenes throughout the show where I found myself holding my breath, witnessing moments of magnificent lighting design. It was obvious that Tom West (Production Designer/Technical Director) was inspired at times and was able to create beautiful moments on stage. However, like the whole show, some scenes were incomplete or quickly put together, creating harsh shadows and causing the audience to miss details on stage.

When the show opened I immediately worried about the sound, but hearing actors was never an issue. The pit was kept at a dim level, which melted into the background when paired with the tremendous vocals. It wasn’t until large orchestral moments when the sound suggested the pit may have been in a little over their heads.

I cannot say enough about the costumes. The womxn were impeccably dressed and Mayim Hamblem (Costume Designer) was able to pull together details that made entire looks masterpieces. The addition of a blue broach changed my life. My only regret is physically seeing the black, thin, clingy unitards in Act I. Unfortunately, I will never be able to unsee them.

Where the details affected the show the most was in the projections. The use of projections was clever and appropriately used to aid in the show’s scenery and stage design, but it seemed some visuals were not thoroughly vetted before being added to the deck. The backdrop was also constantly moving as actors and crew moved backstage, creating a distraction during many scenes.

Marc C. Howard (Director/Choreographer) did a great job at utilizing the space and creating moments all over the stage. He was also able to create surprising, visual gags that kept the audience laughing, present company included.

I cannot emphasize enough how wonderful this cast is. Musicals in this vein require perfectly timed physical comedy for a successful show and it’s one of the hardest things to nail. But this cast did it flawlessly and effortlessly. The ensemble was a powerhouse during harmonies, leaving the audience wanting more. Brian Diehl (as almost every character) is a workhorse and a master of subtlety. Playing 8 roles, all with the same last name, is a daunting task and he made it through with ease. He utilized similar themes to tie the characters together all while making them clear individuals. Allison Lehr (Sibella Hallward) and Leah Saltzer (Phoebe D’Ysquith) tore the house down in Act II. When they were on stage together, it was magic. Danny “King of the Facial Expression” Simpson drove an incredible performance as Monty Navarro. His knack for physical comedy and his remarkable chemistry with both Lehr and Saltzer made for a perfectly robust performance. The song “I’ve Decided to Marry You” is worth the price of admission alone.

While there may have been some unwanted ‘drama’ with the production of A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder, the crew, staff, and cast were able to put together a wonderful production. Do yourself a favor and go see the show, you’ll have a ball...or two.