Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Doubt at the Drury Theater at the Cleveland Playhouse on March 5, 2008

Running at the Cleveland Playhouse’s Drury Theater until March 23, Doubt delivers on its promise that it will lead to thought and discussion long after the curtain closes.
The play set in the world that I once grew up in, the absolute Catholicism of the 1960’s, where priests and monsignors ruled over parishes, and mother superiors and old school principals ran shotgun over convents and grade schools.
Doubt is a short (75 minutes without an intermission) look into the lives of four characters, a young charismatic priest Father Brendan Flynn (Michael Frederic), the old style school principal Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Barbara Andres), the young and enthusiastic but innocent eighth grade teacher Sister James (Jennifer Ruffner), and Mrs. Muller (Charene Snow), the mother of the half Italian half Irish parish school’s first black student.
The play revolves around gray matter in a world where everything was black and white, and everyone thought he or she knew his or her place. Before women’s lib, before the Beatles, before Vietnam, before the pill. It was the time of everyone having two parents at home, and no one would second guess a teacher or a parish priest. Sister Aloysuis suspects the young priest Father Flynn is getting “too close” to one of the students, the school’s only black student. Sister James gets caught in the middle as the boy’s teacher. Father Flynn comes off at first as just a priest reaching out to a confused and troubled youth. And the mom Mrs. Muller comes along and puts a whole different spin on the situation in the play’s best seen between her and Sister Aloysius.
The ending is surprisingly predictable because of the time period which the play is set in, but bearing to mind what has happened since then in the scandals of the Catholic Church it gets you really thinking of things that you once thought as gossip or hear say, and puts a little doubt into each and every one of them. It reminded me of when I finally left behind the convent I went to school at and finally made it to an all boys Catholic high school. A thousand boys from thirty different parishes, and as in all all male environments, nothing was sacred when it came to jokes and put-downs. And every so often someone would tell a joke about some dirty old priest doing something to an innocent alter boy and everyone would laugh, except for a couple of boys who would look and away and pretend the joke was funny.
The cast is almost perfect, and would meet the approval of anyone who did attend Catholic school. The play was written by John Patrick Shanley, who attended Catholic school in the Brooklyn in the 1960’s. He won both a Tony and a Pulitzer for Doubt. The Playhouse’s production is directed by Seth Gordon, with scenes designed by Russell Parkman. Up next at the Playhouse are an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice opening March 21, and their annual Fusion Fest from April 18 until May 11. For more info visit their website at www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

Nellie McKay at Nighttown on March 6

I saw someone at Nighttown last Thursday who some people think could be the next big thing. I’m not sure if she is main stream enough to be it, let along the luck and breaks and all those other things she’ll need, but jazz singer/piano player Nellie McKay gave a standing room only crowd a very enjoyable evening of music that I could best describe as Dianna Krall meeting Joan Rivers.
She’s good singer whose range got better as the night ran on. She sings mostly origins, but did a real good job with the standards she threw in. She is very witty between songs in her slight monologues on everything and anything, with a stutter and ramble very similar to Ms. Rivers. And she is unique…I’ve never before seen an artist borrow one of her own CD’s from an audience member because she didn’t remember the lyrics to one of the songs. Whether planned or not, it was down right funny.
As the night went on I heard a variety of influences in her music, from Lulu (she was born in England) to Marianne Faithful to a whole lot of early Rickie Lee Jones. As the night went on she reminded me more and more of Rickie Lee and the first few times I saw her way back in the 70’s and how the audience just loved her, much like the Night Town crowd adored young Ms. McKay.
When she played a serious ballad everyone listened, and when she got humorous the audience loved that too. Amongst her originals “Feminists Have Lost their Sense of Humor,” “Identity Theft” (from here most recent release Obligatory Visitors), and “Long Lazy River to your Soul” stood out. The covers that shined included Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In” which she did while playing the ukulele; Ella Fitzgerald’s “A Tisket a Tasket”; and a great version of “You Don’t know What It Means to Miss New Orleans.”
At Nighttown she was accompanied by two local musicians of note, Roy King on drums and Marty Block on bass. If the buzz about her continues, I assume the next time through town she’ll come with her own band. I guess we will have to wait and see.
Nighttown has some great shows coming up, check out their website www.clevelandnighttown.com for more information. Two of my favorite Nighttown regulars are appearing in the near future, St. Louis jazz singer Erin Bode on April 2 and Brian Auger on March 26 and 27. Erin Bode is another young female jazz singer, but what sets her apart is her own terrific song writing. Brian Auger of Oblivious Express fame is one of the true legends of the progressive rock/jazz era of the 70’s, who still is at the top of his game. I highly recommend either show.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Paul Thorn Band at the Beachland

Below is a review I wrote for CoolCleveland.com about the Paul Thorn Band's show at the Beachland on March 1. What a night, Paul is a great singer and an even better songwriter. After years in the business a lot of good things are finally happening to him.
Upcoming Shows I would recommend:
The Legendary Brian Auger at Nighttown on March 26 and 27
Shelby Lynne at Beachland on March 30
Erin Bode at Nighttown on April 2

One thing was for sure after Saturday’s sold out Paul Thorn show in the tavern at the Beachland: it was the last time we will see him in a venue that small. The pro boxer turned blues singer from Mississippi, along with his very talented band, gave the sold out standing room only crowd a solid two hours of blues, rock, and story-telling, that will keep them coming back again and again.
Thorns music is a cross between the Allman Brothers and Jim Croce, with every song a story wrapped around great guitar playing. And boy can he write a song, with titles like “It Doesn’t Feel Like Saturday Night,” “I’m Going to Walk Without my Crutches Someday,” “Starvin' for your Kisses,” and “When the Long Road Ends.” His face still shows a scar or two from his boxing days, and his story telling monologues between songs feature a slow, deliberate southern drawl, and everything comes with an ironic mix of humor and hurt.
For a band that does not get its music played on Cleveland radio, and had only a handful of people at his last Cleveland show, the crowd was filled with many fans of Thorn’s music, and sang along on a couple of gems, including “Every so Often I have a Good Day” and “I’d Rather be the Hammer than the Nail.”
His band features lefty Billy Hinds on guitar, one of the best guitarists on the planet.
If you missed the show but want to check out more about Paul Thorn and his band and music go to paulthorn.com, or watch him on the Conan O’Brien Show on March 19.
The Beachland is entering its ninth year with a lot of great concerts coming up in the tavern and in the ballroom, including shows from King Crimson’s Adrian Below, Utopia’s Kasim Sulton, and roots music singer songwriter Tom Russell. Visit beachlandballroom.com for more information. I’m looking forward to the March 30 show with Shelby Lynne, who is touring in support of her recently released Dusty Springfield tribute album.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The New York Dolls at the Beachland Ballroom, 20 February 2008

(This was a great show!)
It was a night of great straight ahead guitar and drums rock and roll filled with a whole lot of attitude, last Wednesday night as the New York Dolls made an appearance at the Beachland Ballroom. This is the third year of this second life of this mid 70’s punk band, fronted by surviving members David Johansson and Sylvain Sylvain, and they gave a very receptive audience all they wanted on a cold winter’s night.
The evening belong to Johansson, as the ageless front man lead the tight five piece band through a set list filled with punk anthems from their glory days; songs off their latest album (2006’s One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This); and covers of classics originally done by a woman or a girl group (including the Dovells’ “Bristol Stomp” and Janis Joplin’s “A Piece of My Heart”).
Some of these reunion tours of 70’s bands have been hit or miss propositions, but Johansson and this new version of the Dolls delivered an outstanding set of catchy songs, slick guitar licks, and big beats that had the capacity audience enjoying every moment.
It was one of those nights at the Beachland that made you feel optimistic about the music scene here in Cleveland. The room was filled with fans from their late teens all the way up into their 50’s and beyond, and even if most of them had never seen the Dolls before, they knew their music and sang and danced along throughout the night. There were a lot of smiles on a lot of faces as music fans got what they came for.
There are some great acts coming up in the near future at the Beachland including country songstress Shelby Lynn on March 30 (touring in support of her Dusty Springfield tribute album) and surf rock legends The Trashmen. I’m not going to miss boxer turned bluesman Paul Thorn and his band March 1 in the Tavern at 7:00. Check him out if you can, I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Gee's Bend at the Cleveland Playhouse

(I have really enjoyed being invited to Opening Nights at almost every Cleveland Play House Production for the last several seasons. I usually write up a review for someone, and the following is the one I wrote for Gee's Bend)

Theater, art, education, sewing, and history come together in Gee’s Bend, currently being presented on the Baxter Stage at the Cleveland Playhouse.
Elizabeth Gregory Wilder was commissioned in 2004 to write a play based on the lives of the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, and the quilts that they made. The women and their quilts made a splash in the art world after the quilts were put on display at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City in 2003. The play was first performed in 2007, and the Playhouse is currently presenting it until February 24.
Gee’s Bend is being presented in an intimate setting, with both the stage and the seating fitted onto the stage of one of the main theaters. It is small and simple, and the set is surrounded by no more than nine rows of seats on three sides.
Before you make it to your seat you first walk past displays in the main lobby telling the historic facts behind the play, including photos of the real town of Gee’s Bend, its residents, and, of course, the original quilts. You then travel through a temporary gallery showing off quilts that were made by several local quilting societies, including the African American Quilting Guild of Warrensville Heights and Saint Peter Church. They are simply and complex at the same time, and very beautiful.
The play creates fictional characters based on the original quilters, and revolves around the lives of two sisters from their teen years to old age. There lives intertwine with the events of their lives, both big and small, from picnics to marriages, to race conflicts to a visit to a near by town by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The small cast is very talented, especially Shanesia Davis (Nella) and Erika LaVonn (Sadie) as the sisters. Wendall B. Franklin plays Sadie’s husband, while Wandachristine opens the play as the sisters’ mother, and ends it as one of Sadie’s daughter. The play, which does not have an intermission, is ninety minutes of two and three characters scenes telling the story in chronological order from the 1960’s to the present.
It is an enjoyable evening, and if you plan to attend come an hour early to hear a presentation by one of the cast members, as well as having time to view the quilts in the gallery. It would be a great show to introduce live theater into the lives of the pre-teens and teens in your life.
The Playhouse still has several major productions coming in the next few months, including the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning Doubt from February 29 to March 23, and an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice from March 21 to April 13. Visit www.clevelandplayhouse.com for more information.