When we reflect on live theatrical production, it is usually a specific moment that we recall – an instant when a playwright’s idea, a director’s vision, or an actor’s performance surpasses an audience’s expectations.
Such moments seem frozen in time and suspended in space. It is these isolated, elusive and brilliant moments that keep theatergoers coming back for more, year after year.
Theatrical missteps and creative miscarriages are similarly memorable and, for the audience if not the performers, they are just as entertaining. Awe can be found in work both awesome and awful.
Here are ten of this past year’s most memorable moments – both fantastic and unfortunate – from productions that have graced Cleveland’s professional stages.
10. The drama in genetics. Actress Angelina Jolie recently underwent a preventive double mastectomy. Because of an inherited gene mutation, doctors estimated that she had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer. Deborah Zoe Laufer’s “Informed Consent” – the centerpiece of Cleveland Play House’s New Ground Theatre Festival – squeezes science and philosophical debate about genetics into a beautifully woven, cleverly conceived and powerful piece of storytelling. During this thought-provoking production, one could hear “aha moments” occurring among audience members as the main character’s discovery of early onset Alzheimer’s hit awfully close to home.
9. The da Vinci coda. What was Lakeland Civic Theater director Martin Friedman thinking? “The Light in the Piazza” takes place in Rome and Florence, not Kirtland. The music and lyrics are operatic and were meant to be performed in Lincoln Center, not in the L.C.C. campus auditorium. But scenic designer Trad A Burns’ created romanticized impressions of Italy through ceiling-to-floor paper drapes and stand-alone paper set pieces with breathtaking images of Leonardo da Vinci’s hand-drawn sketches of ancient archways and cathedrals. The moment local audiences saw the stage, it was clear that all that was grand and unattainable in this play would be rendered with style, delicate simplicity and elegance.
8. Practically perfect. The problem with screen-to-stage musicals like “Mary Poppins” is that no amount of stagecraft or showmanship can match the vivid and indelible visual images created by cinematic storytelling. But in the sold-out Beck Center for the Arts production, an absolutely effervescent Matthew Ryan Thompson as Bert the chimney sweep came awfully close. During the roof-top production number “Step in Time,” Thompson’s charm, sweet voice and graceful movement did something no filmed scene can do: it served up a spoonful of live-action immediacy that kept kids on the edge of their seats and parents riveted to his performance.
7. The not-so-great Gatsby. Imagine F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” without the opulence. Relying on projected images and the audience’s capacity for make believe, Ensemble Theatre director Ian Hinz attempted to entice the audience into seeing Gatsby’s vast Long Island pleasure palace, his cream-colored 1922 Silver Ghost Rolls-Royce, and the over-the-top extravagance of the Jazz era by merely alluding to them. At the end of the play (and the 1925 novel), Daisy stays with her husband rather than run away with Gatsby. Perhaps it was because she lacked the imagination to think Gatsby’s ill-fitting non-period suit, worn during his grand entrance into an empty entryway, was actually Brooks Brothers.
6. The stuff as dreams are made of. Great Lakes Theater is known for taking works from Shakespeare’s canon and infusing them with modern-day sensibilities. Playwright Mickle Maher upped the ante in Cleveland Public Theatre’s wonderful premiere of “Spirits to Enforce.” Here we learn that “The Tempest’s” Ariel and 11 other spirits have become superheroes with ridiculous faerie-like powers. We first see our heroes brazenly muscle-flexing in frozen silhouette. When the lights come up, we see that the power pose was actually them holding phones up to their ears during a pathetic telethon to raise funds for their cause. Quite a jumpstart to an insane comedy.
5. The truth in a falsetto. Mid-way through the first act of the 2006 Tony Award-winning musical “Jersey Boys,” when The Four Season’s pulsating beat and distinctive three-octave doo-wop harmonies first came together in the song “Sherry,” two waves of audience ovation occurred. The first was the polite appreciation given to any good performance. The second was a louder, longer and more raucous aftershock – as if the audience was paying homage to the 1960’s boy band itself and not just the actors playing them. No wonder the national tour has come through PlayhouseSquare three times in six years.
4. Receding “Hair.” The pot and patchouli-scented 1960s musical “Hair” – with its sampling of era-specific music, drug-expanded mind-set, and anti-establishment politics – was lovingly performed at Blank Canvas Theater as if it were a communal hug. But now middle-aged and showing it, “Hair’s” artistic exclamation point about peace and free love – a moment of full-frontal nudity that caused quite a stir back in the day -- came across as quaint and quite inconsequential. It did, however, activate a few clandestine cell phone cameras and inspire sordid selfies on Instagram. Such is the aging of Aquarius.
3. “My Fair Lady” unplugged. Although its heart was in the right place, The Porthouse Theatre managed to mangle “My Fair Lady” by treating it with less grandeur and artistry than it deserves. The show’s irresistibly hummable, absolutely memorable Tony and Academy Award-winning music and lyrics by Fredrick Loewe and Alan Lerner were delivered sans-orchestra. Two pianos -- well played but quite underwhelming -- reduced this wonderful work to small town dinner theater fare, but without the beverage service and 50/50 raffle. They lost me at the overture.
2. No vacancies in “Heartbreak House.” George Bernard Shaw‘s “Heartbreak House” is rarely performed due to its length (3 hours), complexity (it comments on the complacency of an arrogant and aristocratic British empire as it drifted into World War I), and need for top-tier performers in every role. Despite these creative challenges, a troupe of Actors’ Equity performers self-funded a production in Tremont’s Pilgrim Church. Shaw gives each character – which represents some facet of British society – a glorious moment to pontificate, which provided Thomas Q. Fulton, Jr., Laura Perrotta, Anjanette Hall, Dana Hart, Juliette Regnier, John Hedges, George Roth, Terence Cranendonk, Paula Duesing and Mitchell Fields an opportunity to show off their finely-honed craft. Every performance was magnificent.
1. Going for the brass Ring. When we first meet Alexa in Eric Coble’s one-act, one-woman play “Stranded on Earth,” the tormented middle-aged artist has her eyes focused on the looming, omnipresent and descending cover of clouds overhead. She, like the weather, is overcast, turbulent, and undergoing extreme atmospheric pressure and, in this thoroughly engaging production with Derdriu Ring in the title role, we learn why. The play’s most traumatic and revealing scene – and Ring’s best – is when Alexa brushes, then drips, and then flails and then pounds paint onto the canvas. It is one of the most riveting and engaging moments of theater of the year, brought to you by Theatre Ninjas and Mamai Theatre.
Here’s to more memorable theater moments in the year to come. Make sure to see them for yourself.