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Review: THE SPARKS FLY UPWARD at Maltzee Perforing Arts Center

THE SPARKS FLY UPWARD is an intriguing musical-in-process at the Maltz.

Review: THE SPARKS FLY UPWARD at Maltzee Perforing Arts Center
THE SPARKS FLY UPWARD, which was staged at the Maltz Performing Arts Center, from June 9th through the 12th, is the creation of Cathy Lesser Mansfield. She was not only the composer and librettist, but conceived the musical's book.

Lesser, a Cleveland area native, is founder and Executive Director of The Sparks Fly Upward Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating people about the Holocaust, genocide and tolerance through presentations of Sparks, and ancillary activities. She teaches the course, "Holocaust and the Law," at Case Western Reserve University School of Law.

The play begins on October 28, 1938 with the deportation of Polish Jews residing in Germany to Poland, and concludes with the re-dedication of the Neue Synagogue in Berlin in 1995.

At times the families turn to the BOOK OF JOB for diversion, reassurance and enlightenment. Job's suffering, and the contest between good and evil represented in his story, are reflected in some of the lives of the characters, who face the question of man's obligation to man in times of moral and political crisis.

The story is told in the opera/operetta format of music and lyrics with on-stage electronic pictures and notations.

Extensive research by Lesser has resulted in historical accuracy. Though the characters have been created for this piece, they are each a complication of real people.

Composing a piece of music is challenging as it requires not only knowledge of musical form and the instruments that create the sounds, but an awareness of developing a purposeful score.

Crafting a play, demands that the writer not only develop a meaningful plot and realistic dialogue that respects that the spoken word is not the same as the written word. It requires an awareness of the restrictions of placing the creation on a stage with the need for movement, interactions, a set, lights, sound, costumes and special effects.

Developing a musical is a daunting task. Not only are there the requirements of the music and play, but there is consideration of choreography, individual and group vocalization and theatrical staging.

Few, if any musicals are achieved in their first, second or even third incarnation. It usually takes rewriting and reconceptualizing. Even experts well-trained in musical theatre take many rewrites to "get it right."

Rogers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser and Cole Porter all attempted, and failed, to make George Bernard Shaw's classical PYGMALION into a musical.
The mega-hit FIDDLER ON THE ROOF was scheduled for closing out of town, without even a Broadway opening, until Jerome Robbins challenged Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) and Joseph Stein (book) as to what the musical was about. They finally agreed that it was about "Tradition," wrote a new opening, and altered the script to recognize the heart of the story.

WEST SIDE STORY was originally conceived as an exploration of Jewish and Polish gangs in New York, entitled EAST SIDE STORY. The original score and book were totally scraped before the present script was developed.

Though it holds much promise, THE SPARKS FLY UPWARD should be regarded as a work in progress. The score is moving, highlighting the many emotions experienced by the Jews of Berlin, and many of the songs and scenes are captivating.

Questions arise in both script and staging. There is an inconsistency in acting styles, ranging from ultra-melodramatic to non-involved. There are long pauses to accompany set changes, many of which add nothing to the real story. (One might ask why the furniture and inconsistently used doors were necessary.). The Job inclusions were often difficult to hear and, in some instances did not fit smoothly into the story. The electronic graphics, which were very successfully used in the closing sections, often did not visually parallel to the story being told. Setting the orchestra on the floor in the center of the stage, directly between the audience and the performers not only caused sight-line problems for the audience, a wall of emotional separation between the actors and the viewers, but glaring lights emitted from the musicians stands. Why wasn't the beautifully written program's Story Synopsis more incorporated into the electronic visuals? They would have made for an excellent guide to the tale.

Capsule judgment: Kudos to Cathy Lesser Mansfield, Jeffrey Lesser and Daniel Singer for giving birth to a historically accurate production. They can be of proud what they have produced so far. As a work in progress, it can be hoped that they will take the work to the next level. The project would be aided by a non-biased dramaturgy and a staging director viewing what has been developed and what needs to be tweaked for further development.

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