Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron
The Dobama Theatre world premiere of 33 1/3 falls into this category. It has a decent enough cast, the music, while not memorable, fits the plotline, and the story of a young man coming of age and coming out is definitely a hot theater topic right now.
Dobama Theatre bills itself as "Cleveland's Off-Broadway theater," bringing in works by emerging playwrights. In this case it is a work by Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli, who have penned eight musicals including Little Mercy's First Murder, Tristan, Step Right Up!, Maria Severa and Erik with a K. Jay is also an actor and director while Paul is the music director of the Shaw Festival. 33 1/3 has only been on stage once, at a workshop in Canada, prior to its world premiere in Cleveland.
Older Jules (Jim Bray) lives in New York City and is a semi-famous music reviewer known for his biting criticism. He has reached the point of his career where the parties he attends offer more stimulation than the music being promoted at the events. He has just received a box of '70s record albums that his high school friend Jill and he had shared way back when. Jill's daughter has sent him the records via Jules' father. As he sorts through the collection he begins to reminisce.
Young Jules (Benjamin Richardson-Piche) is an 18-year-old senior in a small town somewhere in the Midwest. He struggles at school with subjects that do not interest him (math and history) but excels in art and music. His friend Jill (Hanna Shykind) happens to be a girl but is quick to point out that she is not a girlfriend. They spend their free time smoking pot and listening to records, those released in 1974 in particular, albums all played at 33-1/3 rpm, by artists such as Joni Mitchell, Barbra Streisand, and Aretha Franklin, but they are slowly discovering other artists like David Bowie, Led Zeppelin and Elton John.
Young Jules hates small-town life. Everything about it is contrary to how he feels, dresses and dreams. At the urging of his father (who works second shift at the local factory), he goes to the hospital to visit his mother, who is undergoing chemotherapy. It is there he meets Francis (Tyler Tanner), a flamboyant gay black man serving a term of community service as a "candy-striper." The two form a friendship, then a relationship.
Also in the group of Jules' acquaintances is Victor (Jay Lee), an angry product of the mixed marriage of a Korean alcoholic mother who dreams of returning to her home country and a damaged retired soldier. Victor releases his pent-up energy by playing drums in his basement while Jill tries to tutor him so he does not flunk out his senior year again. Everything comes to a full boil in early December of 1974 when Jules' mother passes away. Christmas comes and goes but it is New Year's Eve when, after attending a costume party with Francis, Jules makes a life-altering decision.
There are a number of weak links in the play, starting with the characters themselves. While everyone is likable enough, there are no sharp edges to propel the storyline. Jules is nice. Jill is nice. Francis is nice. Older Jules and Jules' father are nice. Victor is the only one exhibiting any real emotion as he beats out his frustrations on his drum set, but his character really is not needed to move the story along. In short, there is nothing here to grab the audience and hold them spellbound. It's in effect gay-lite.
While the music is (again) nice, there is nothing that you will be humming as you leave the theater. The blending of voices (when not overwhelmed by the music) is OK but not Broadway-ready. There is no listing of songs in the program for the audience to keep score. Director Matthew Wright does his best to keep the slowly developing plot moving forward through the over two hours of stage time.
One standout in the cast is Jim Bray, who is able to give two distinct performances as both older Jules and the overworked, emotionally drained widower and father who simply does not understand his son. The rest of the cast seem to lack the emotional reach to propel the characters. They appear content to act the parts rather than be the parts. There is a smattering of choreography by Holly Handman-Lopez that fits the decade nicely, but the concept of 1970s style dance seems foreign to the actors. The unaccredited video overlays helped greatly in setting the scenes.
All shows during their evolution period have needed shortening, the inserting of a blockbuster song, or a song to illustrate the main character's desires. This is what 33 1/3 could use. While this staging is "nice" it needs more biting comedy, a stronger story, and a hit song or two all in a shortened time frame.
33 1/3, through July 14, 2019, at Dobama Theater, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights OH. For tickets or information, visit www.dobama.org or call 216-932-3396.