Category Archives: Diversity

In the spotlight: the Pantalone Family

Christene (CeCe) Pantalone in Move On! (2014). Production still by Ted Sikora

Christene (CC) Pantalone soloing in Move On! (2014). Production still by Ted Sikora

Sam Pantalone as Jean Shepard in A Christmas Story, the Musical (2013). Photo by Terry Schordock

Sam Pantalone as Jean Shepard in A Christmas Story, the Musical (2013). Photo by Terry Schordock

The term “family musical” has an added meaning at Near West Theatre this spring. The cast of Shrek the Musical, running now through May 17, includes the entire Pantalone family: parents Sam and Christene (CC) and sons Jacob, 14, and Phil, 11. This is Jacob’s first time on the Near West stage with the other three, who appeared together in A Christmas Story, the Musical (2013), in which Phil played Randy and Sam played Jean Shepard; the ensemble show Move On! (2014), in which CC had a major solo; and the casts of two Annual Benefits. Phil was also in Once on This Island Jr. (2014).

Jacob Pantalone with Jennifer White during a rehearsal for Shrek the Musical, April 22, 2015. Photo by Terry Shordock

Jacob Pantalone with Jenn White during a rehearsal for Shrek the Musical, April 22, 2015. Photo by Terry Shordock

If you saw the Ted Sikora documentary Move On! in this year’s Cleveland International Film Festival, you heard Sam, CC and Phil describe what draws them to Near West: its energy, its strong shows, and the way it invites unusually diverse actors into a process of building community, making art and tackling challenging subject matter. We asked the family three questions (see below) as they recuperated after Shrek’s tech week and opening weekend, which inaugurated Near West Theatre’s new building in the Gordon Square Arts District on April 24 and 25. They discussed the questions as a family; their collective answers are below.

At this writing, tickets are still available for most remaining performances of Shrek the Musical, though some have sold out. Consider buying in advance, and soon: online anytime, or by calling 216-961-6391 weekdays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

— Hans Holznagel

1. What are your tricks for making the daily work-school-dinner-theater transition? It is a real challenge. It typically means shifting when and where we do things and often involves more fast food than we would care to admit. We sometimes eat in the car on the way to rehearsal, homework might come with us to be done in the theatre. We also have a short family devotion each night before bed where we read and then pray together as a family. Jacob’s job has been to remember to bring the devotion book with us so we can read it in the car on the drive home. That has also allowed us to include some of our NWT family at times when they may be with us. We love the experience of being in a show together so we find ways to make it work. Tech week however did involve one day where we allowed our exhausted boys to stay home from school and sleep.

2. What do you like about having all four of you in the show? There are so many activities that kids can be involved in where the parent contribution is just providing transportation and support. Doing a show together gives us an avenue to get to know each other in different ways while experiencing the creative process and also to experience personal growth, together. Phil says when he does a show the music allows him to feel different emotions and to discover another side of himself that we then all get to be a part of. As parents it is nice because we are there when those things happen and don’t have to try to understand something he may have done of felt when he attempts to explain it later. We also know that before we realize it our kids will be grown and moving to another phase in their life. The memories we are building now will be something we will always cherish. Spending the kind of time it takes to do a show, all of us engaged in the same process, is really an amazing thing. Between work, school, friends, video games and all the other parts of daily living, we are incredibly blessed to be able to devote so many hours to an activity as a family.

3. How would you compare and contrast your family with the larger Near West Theatre “family”? We truly do consider NWT to be a family and we have enjoyed inviting them into our family. As Sam mentioned in the Move On! documentary it allows us to be closely involved with a far more diverse group of people than we would normally be and certainly helps all of us to grow as people. The family extends beyond just being in shows together. In the past year some of us got together to see the movie The Sound of Music then enjoyed eating together at a themed party afterwards. At Christmastime we invited everyone to our home for a gingerbread house making party.

Jacob and Christene Pantalone in the Capitol Theatre lobby at the premiere of the documentary Move On!, March 22, 2015. Photo by Ted Sikora

Jacob and CC Pantalone in the Capitol Theatre lobby at the premiere of the documentary Move On!, March 22, 2015. Photo by Ted Sikora

Something that means more to our family than we can ever express is how the Near West Theatre family has embraced Jacob. Jacob has autism and along with that come many challenges. Before Shrek Jacob typically watched rehearsals for other shows and we could not have dreamed of a more loving, accepting and understanding group. He is thrilled to be able to join us on stage and that would not have been possible without the NWT staff being willing to take the risk of allowing him to join the cast. It has not been easy, and several times in the rehearsal process CC was convinced that we should drop the idea. His involvement on stage would absolutely not have been possible without the incredible assistance of Jenn White. Jenn has become like another member of our family and she took on the task of being Jacob’s partner on stage. We love you Jenn!

Having our family be part of the Near West family is an experience that continues to shape us in many ways and we are so happy we have found each other!

Phil Pantalone (Randy) during the bows in A Christmas Story, the Musical (2013). Photo by Terry Schordock

Phil Pantalone takes a bow in A Christmas Story, the Musical (2013). Photo by Terry Schordock


Near West Theatre’s 2015 opening events, including Shrek the Musical, are presented by Thompson Hine and its subsidiary, PMC. Near West Theatre is grateful for ongoing operating support from the Ohio Arts CouncilCuyahoga Arts and Culture, and Greater Cleveland Community Shares, and for special support from Ronald McDonald House Charities of Northeastern Ohio for equipment used by young people in technical workshops and other backstage experiences.

On Dr. King, our theater’s values and our neighborhood

One of many fantastic Leonard Freed photos of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, found at

One of many fantastic Leonard Freed photos of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, found at

As we approach the U.S. holiday honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and reflect on our own city and neighborhood, Near West Theatre’s six values come to mind, and three of them especially: love, activism, and, within it, social justice. Dr. King believed these were bound together. You couldn’t have one without the others. Even in a 1957 “Advice for Living” magazine column, he spoke of love’s active role in the world and universe:

“Love is the most durable power in the world. It is not an expression of impractical idealism; but of practical realism. … To return hate for hate does nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe. … Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. … Physical force can repress, restrain, coerce, destroy, but it cannot create and organize anything permanent; only love can do that.”

Love, justice and activism were inseparable – and powerful – in his 1967 speech to a civil rights group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference:

“Love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites, polar opposites, so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love. … What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. … Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. … Love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems. … And I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. For I have seen too much hate … on the faces of sheriffs in the South. I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens Councilors in the South to want to hate, myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities, and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love.”

Activism — resistance to injustice — works best when it is nonviolent, planned and “positive in action,” he wrote in a 1959 article about India and activist Mahatma Gandhi:

“The way of acquiescence leads to moral and spiritual suicide. The way of violence leads to bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But, the way of nonviolence leads to redemption and the creation of the beloved community. … Nonviolent resistance does call for love, but it is not a sentimental love. It is a very stern love that would organize itself into collective action to right a wrong by taking on itself suffering.”

He goes on and on like this, connecting love, justice and activism.

Cudell Recreation Center, where Tamir Rice was shot to death on Nov. 22, 2014, is just a mile out Detroit Avenue, a 5-minute drive from the site of our new theater. Our proximity to that tragic incident should make the call to love, justice and activism clear to everyone in this neighborhood, if not simple for a theater to discern. Our participants, on stage and off, are just as likely to be family members, friends and neighbors of police officers as family members, friends and neighbors of Tamir Rice; just as likely to be from the suburbs as from the city. Dr. King famously dreamed that “one day … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” That much we often get right at Near West Theatre. But if he were alive and turning 86 this month, would Dr. King be so bold as to dream that friends and families of an African American 12-year-old who died with a pellet gun in hand and the friends and families of the white police officer who shot him would someday join hands? Could diverse people coming together to produce musicals “speed up that day” when we would all sing, “We are free at last”?

The cast of Near West Theatre's Move On!, June 2014. Photo by Terry Schordock

The cast of Near West Theatre’s Move On!, June 2014. Photo by Terry Schordock

A theater could do that, Dr. King might say, but only if Shrek the Musical’s story about justice for the outcast is as strong as its romantic love story. Only if Hairs antiwar theme is as strong as its exploration of personal struggles and rebellion. Only if another value – inclusion – remains big and authentic. And only if the economic struggles of our community and participants, along with the racial struggles, are not ignored. It’s often overlooked this time of year, but Dr. King’s work was as much about jobs for all and ending poverty in a wealthy society as it was about anti-racism, because – again – he knew they were inseparable. Don’t forget that his famous “I Have A Dream” speech was given at a march for jobs and freedom. At the time of his assassination, he was organizing a Poor People’s Campaign.

In his autobiography, in a chapter on the 1965 riots in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, Dr. King offered this caution about the reality of modern life:

“When all is finally entered into the annals of sociology; when philosophers, politicians, and preachers have all had their say, we must return to the fact that a person participates in this society primarily as an economic entity. At rock bottom we are neither poets, athletes, nor artists; our existence is centered in the fact that we are consumers, because we first must eat and have shelter to live. This is a difficult confession for a preacher to make, and it is a phenomenon against which I will continue to rebel, but it remains a fact that ‘consumption’ of goods and services is the raison d’etre of the vast majority of Americans. When persons are for some reason or other excluded from the consumer circle, there is discontent and unrest.”

Artists, too, must resist that state of affairs even as we acknowledge it. At Near West Theatre, we begin with the act of bringing unlike people together and asking them to bring their whole, unedited selves to the tasks of engaging a piece of theater, creating art and creating community. With our mission and values in mind, and remembering the example of Dr. King, who knows where that might lead. – Hans Holznagel


Near West Theatre is grateful for ongoing operating support from the Ohio Arts CouncilCuyahoga Arts and Culture, and Greater Cleveland Community Shares, and for special support from Ronald McDonald House Charities of Northeastern Ohio for equipment used by young people in technical workshops and other backstage experiences.

‘Superstar’ in sign language, Thu., Dec. 4

The HeArd, "Godspell, 2005

The HeArd members Merry Beth Pietila, Vince Reddy and Erin LaFountain interpret Godspell at Near West Theatre in 2005.

It’s a Near West Theatre tradition since 2003: One performance of our fall show is dramatically interpreted in American Sign Language. It’s an art unto itself that you should check out whether you know sign language or not. Members of a Cleveland-area dramatic signing troupe, The HeArd, will interpret the regular 7:30 p.m. performance of Jesus Christ Superstar this Thursday, Dec. 4. Tickets are priced as usual ($20 Star Seat, $10 general adult, $8 general child); just indicate when ordering or arriving that you want to sit in the sign-language section. The interpreters sit near the front, face the audience and deliver much more than a translation of sung and spoken words. Not only has the troupe learned the show, but each member has learned specific roles to play throughout the performance. They take their own emotional journeys, exchange dialogue, sign together in ensemble moments — presenting, in essence, an additional version of the play at the same time as the main-stage show. You can focus on either one, or, as I’ve experienced it, amazingly, pick up aspects of both at the same time. At the end of the business day on Dec. 3, about 120 tickets were still available for the Thursday performance. You can reserve online anytime or by phone, 216-961-6391 between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. weekdays. Any unsold tickets are available at the door, 3800 Bridge Ave., starting 1 hour before show time. — Hans Holznagel

City, suburban kids prepare April show about crossing cultural lines

Boys and girls in Near West Theatre’s “Kids Loud and Musical Organic Revue” program are rehearsing a lively, mystical musical about two young people who cross lines of class, culture and race and how the communities around them reaOOTI Jr imagect.

Caribbean-themed song and dance are featured in Once On This Island Jr., on stage Thursday, April 10, Friday, April 11, and Saturday, April 12, at 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, April 13, at 3 p.m. Performances will be at the theater’s longtime home in the St. Patrick’s Club Building, 3606 Bridge Ave., Cleveland. It will be the next-to-last production in that location before Near West makes a transition to its new home, now under construction in the Gordon Square Arts District.

Like the original Once On This Island, which received nine 1991 Tony nominations on Broadway, this “junior” version — shortened and modified for young actors — follows the orphan girl Ti Moune and the wealthy boy Daniel through journeys of beauty and struggle as they challenge boundaries that separate two cultures on a Caribbean island. The cast includes 17 girls and 14 boys, ages 9 to 15. They are directed of Kelcie Nicole Dugger, who grew up on the Near West Theatre stage and now directs NWT’s KLAMOR program, which concentrates on building ensemble and self-esteem among its diverse particpants. Cast members are African American, Euro-American, Hispanic American, and of multiracial heritage. Seventeen are from Cleveland; the rest are from the nearby communities of Avon, Avon Lake, Berea, Euclid, Lakewood, Mayfield Heights, Olmsted Township, Sheffield and Westlake. Rehearsals, conducted off site since March 2, will move to the St. Pat’s performance space next week.

Tickets can be purchased at, or by calling the box office at 216-961-6391 between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. weekdays. Reserved Star Seats with special benefits are $20 and give special support to the theater’s art and mission; general admission is $10 for adults and $8 for children 12 and under.

Near West Theatre is grateful for ongoing programmatic support from Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, Greater Cleveland Community Shares and the Ohio Arts Council. — Hans Holznagel

Cast of Once On This Island Jr.

Felix Albino (Papa Ge), Tatiana Ally, Kylie Colvin, Cole Emerine, Abby Golden, Lindsay Hajostek, Mary Halm, Corinne Howery (Asaka), Rakim Huff, Rachel Johanek, Louis Johnson II (Tonton Julian), Bryen Kilbane, Sabrina Kim, Jonas Kukelhan, Christine Larson, Elliot Lockshine, Madelyn Lockshine, Finn O’Malia, Phil Pantalone, Joceyln Perkins (Ti Moune), Diana Popa, Stellina Scacco (Mama Euralie), Grace Schumann, Cole Tarantowski (Daniel), Christian Toth, Nora Van Lier, Rafael Velez III, Colin Wheeler (Agwe), Elijah Whitt, Morgan Williams (Erzulie), Allison Yellets (Andrea).

Production Staff

Director: Kelcie Nicole Dugger. Musical Director: Evie Morris. Assistant Director: Anthony Williams. Choreographer: Andrea Belser. Technical Director and Production Manager: Josh Padgett. Assistant Technical Director: Perren Hedderson. Scenic, Properties and Costume Designer: Laura Carlson Tarantowski. Stage Manager and Assistant Production Manager: Ryan Wolf. Assistant Stage Manager: Anthony Williams. Lighting Designer: Tobias Peltier. Sound Designer: Joshua Caraballo. Properties Master: Jessica Rosenlieb. Artistic Director, NWT: Bob Navis Jr. Executive Director, NWT: Stephanie Morrison-Hrbek.

Once On This Island Jr.

Book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens

Music by Stephen Flaherty

Based upon the novel “My Love, My Love” by Rosa Guy

Originally directed and choreographed on Broadway by Graciela Daniele

Playwrights Horizons, Inc. produced “Once On This Island” Off-Broadway in 1990

 Originally produced on Broadway by The Schubert Organization, Capital Cities/ABC, Inc., Suntory International Corporation and James Walsh, in association with Playwrights Horizons

Where are all those people from?

The word “diverse” is in our mission statement at Near West Theatre, and inclusion is one of our stated values. Age, race, education, economic background,  theatrical experience, sexual orientation — differences in these areas are, to us, strengths as we build a cast into a community. Our varied stories inform us as we encounter a musical play. They add to our vitality on stage.

The cast of A Christmas Story, the Musical, poses at a Nov. 3 rehearsal. Photo by Mo Eutazia.

The cast of A Christmas Story, the Musical, poses at a Nov. 3 rehearsal. Photo by Mo Eutazia.

The places we come from form part of that diversity. The cast that hits the stage Friday, Nov. 15, for a four-weekend run of A Christmas Story, the Musical, comes not only from the city of Cleveland (the largest group) but also from 16 other Northeast Ohio municipalities, as mentioned in this story. What’s not apparent there is just how city-centered this group is. Thirty of the actors (54 percent) have Cleveland addresses, and 22 of those are from our core Near West Side zip codes: 44102, 44109 and 44113. Among young participants, the urban percentage is even higher:  73 percent of the cast’s 7- to 25-year-olds live in the city.

Over the years, this neighborhood mix has enriched us. Stories abound: Cast conversations where city kids learn that life in the suburbs isn’t always Camelot and kids from the burbs learn that city life, too, can often be safe, fun and abundant … Suburban drivers who stop on the way in and give a city cast member a ride to rehearsal … The way city and suburban groups within the cast of West Side Story honestly had it out with each other on the way to understanding the story’s gang theme … Urban-suburban prom dates who met at Near West …

We’re rooted in the city, and we celebrate everyone’s gifts. As our street-sign logo suggests, we’re a crossroads. — Hans Holznagel


Supporters of this production of A Christmas Story, the Musical, include the City of Cleveland, Department of Community Development, and a presenting sponsor, Hinkley Lighting. Near West Theatre is grateful for ongoing programmatic support from the Ohio Arts CouncilCuyahoga Arts and Culture, and Greater Cleveland Community Shares.


A Christmas Story, the Musical

Musical by Joseph Robinette, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul,

 based upon A Christmas Story © 1983 Turner Entertainment Co., distributed by Warner Bros., written by Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown and Bob Clark, and on the book In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash by Jean Shepherd.

A Christmas Story, the Musical, is produced by special arrangement with THE DRAMATIC PUBLISHING COMPANY, INC., of Woodstock, Illinois. Produced with permission of Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, Inc.

Colorful show, bold casting choice

The casting decision was natural. After auditioning many teens and young adults, Director Bob Navis Jr. decided on who would play the lead roles of conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton in this summer’s youth production of Side Show, opening July 19. One, Shekinah (CoCo) Smith, was African American. The other, Erin Sheplavy, was European American. This was almost a non-issue for us at Near West Theatre.

(From left) Musical Director Jordan Cooper works with Side Show twins CoCo Smith and Erin Sheplavy at a June 2013 rehearsal.

(From left) Musical Director Jordan Cooper works with Side Show twins CoCo Smith and Erin Sheplavy at a June 2013 rehearsal. Photo by Cory Markowitz

The races have been mixing on this urban crossroads of a stage for a long time. We’ve had interracial siblings, couples and families. Multiple combinations of black, white, brown and other beautiful hues of actors have played Bye Bye Birdie parents, Willy Wonka grandparents, Into the Woods spouses, Finian’s Rainbow siblings, Cratchit family members, you name it. Even in an age when mixed-race families are ever more common, heads in the audience must sometimes spin trying to figure out whose children are whose and how it’s all possible (“are they adopted?”). Until, of course, music, story and personal journey transport us to the Land of Suspended Disbelief and we all pretty much stop thinking about it.

So it was almost a non-issue. We still had to reckon with this: conjoined twins of different races aren’t known to exist in real life. But why not on stage? After all, how many times have Violet and Daisy been played by actual identical-twin actors, let alone conjoined ones? So the audience always has to suspend some disbelief. We’re just taking it to another level. And we’re not doing it to be strange or shocking. The 2010 census put Cleveland at 53.3 percent African American and 39.3 percent white (among other diverse racial groups). People from all over the city and suburbs audition here. The best matches for lead roles will simply be of different races sometimes. We think Side Show‘s story can be told compellingly and with integrity with interracial twins. We explained that to the folks at Samuel French, Inc. — the owner of Side Show, with whose permission we’re performing it — in alerting them about this nontraditional casting decision, and we’re glad to have their blessing.

The musical runs for eight shows only, July 19-Aug. 4.

The musical runs for eight shows only, July 19-Aug. 4.

We’re also glad to have a cast of 13- to 21-year-olds performing this colorful, urgent, touching and sometimes disturbing piece of musical theater. The subject of carnival freaks and how they’re presented can be unsettling. But who better than young people to wrestle with this material and the twins’ search for love?  “As Violet and Daisy struggle to stop defining themselves by their physical limitations, the people around them are fascinated, fearful, compelled and distanced by their talents, their charm and their abnormality,” Bob Navis says. “Our diverse cast of teens and young adults, simply due to their ages, deal daily with this show’s themes of self -image, social acceptance and personal fulfillment. As a result, we believe this production will explode with vitality and immediacy.” Our publicity image for the show, featuring stylized profiles of CoCo and Erin, carries one of show’s song titles:  “Who Will Love Me as I Am?”

Side Show runs for just eight performances on our main stage at 3606 Bridge Ave., Cleveland, July 19 through Aug. 4. Tickets and information are available at our website, or by calling 216-961-6391 weekdays between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Seats are $8 for adults and $6 for children 12 and under (the show has intense scenes not appropriate for younger children). Or support Near West Theatre’s art and mission by purchasing a $20 reserved Star Seat with special benefits. — Hans Holznagel

Members of the Side Show cast in a "living sculpture" acting exercise at a June 2013 rehearsal. Photo by Cory Markowitz

Members of the Side Show cast in a “living sculpture” acting exercise at a June 2013 rehearsal. Photo by Cory Markowitz


Book and Lyrics by Bill Russell

Music by Henry Krieger

Vocal and dance arrangements by David Chase

Orchestrations by Harold Wheeler

Side Show is presented by special arrangement with SAMUEL FRENCH, INC.

Near West Theatre is grateful for regular program support from Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, the Ohio Arts Council and Greater Cleveland Community Shares.

Young voice for justice, making us proud

Autumn Smith grew up on Cleveland’s Near West Side, doing shows at Near West Theatre. Now, when others won’t speak, she’s raising her poet’s voice against racism on campus. We couldn’t be prouder.

Autumn Smith (left, as Nephew), with Jessica Nieves (as Bilbo Baggins) in The Hobbit, 2004.

Autumn Smith (left, as Nephew), with Jessica Nieves (as Bilbo Baggins) in The Hobbit (2004).

Watch her read her poem in the video below. She laments the silent reaction to a slur scrawled in a public place in the environs of Wittenberg University, Springfield, Ohio, where she is a student. She describes less-public acts of racial intimidation encountered by students of color at many colleges. “Stuff like this happens on campuses everywhere,” she told me shortly after posting the YouTube video on April 12. “I hope that schools will start to address stuff like this.”

Autumn Smith (left, as Princess Jasmine) with Jason Dugger as the title character in Aladdin (2006).

Autumn Smith (left, as Princess Jasmine) with Jason Dugger as the title character in Aladdin Jr. (2006).

Her courageous decision to speak out is matched by her lean, strong poetry: “These places of diversity keep beating us down and calling us n—–, sitting us at the farthest table in the farthest corner. … Action is too terrifying. It starts vocal. It ends shaking.” Preach it, sister.

Nothing we do at the theater is more important than encouraging people to build community and find their voices. If you know young people who needs to raise or find a voice, through a theater process that builds ensemble and self-esteem, send them to auditions for KLAMOR, our free summer program for ages 9 to 13, (one more day left — Sunday, April 14, at 1 p.m.!); or for our summer youth production, Side Show, May 21, 22 or 23. We need all Autumn Smiths we can get. — Hans Holznagel