Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron

You Can't Take It with You
Karamu House
Review by Review by Mark Horning

Corlesia Smith, Lou Will, and Chris Richards
Photo by Courtesy of Karamu Theatre
There is nothing more challenging in the world of theater than to produce a comedy. Timing has to be perfect and dialog must be presented in a clear and precise manner—and often at breakneck speed, without stepping on a fellow actor's part. An even bigger challenge is when the show is a mad-cap farce with plenty of action, slapstick, and special effects.

Karamu House is currently staging Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's You Can't Take It with You, directed by Fred Sternfeld. An excellent cast brings to life all the zaniness of this Pulitzer Prize winning classic.

It is June 1936 and the country is still trying to climb out of the Great Depression. Unemployment is at 25% and the world's GDP is down 15%. Grandpa Martin Vanderhof (Greg White) is the owner of a large mansion which he has opened up to a variety of characters, both family and friend.

Among the collection of live-in oddballs is his son-in-law Paul Sycamore (Luther Robinson) who is married to Martin's daughter Penny (Anne J. McElroy). They have a daughter named Essie (Maya Jones) who is married to Ed Carmichael (Joshua McElroy), and an older unmarried daughter named Alice (Corlesia Smith) who is the only one in the house with an apparent steady job; she works for the stock brokerage firm of Kirby and Co. and is dating the boss's son Tony (Chris Richards). Also in the house is Mr. De Pinna (Bob Abelman) who dropped by years ago to deliver ice and never left. Rheba (Jeannine Gaskin) is the cook for the entire household and gets help from her boyfriend Donald (Miguel Osborne). Each day at supper time, Russian born Boris Kolenkhov (Chris Bizub) stops by to teach ballet to Essie and manages to stay for dinner.

Years before, Grandpa decided to quit his high paying office job in order to pursue things that he wanted to do. He spends his days going to university commencements, hunting snakes, playing darts, reading, and overseeing his family and house guests. In his entire life he has never paid a penny of income tax. His daughter Penny occupies her time writing plays simply because a typewriter was delivered to the house by mistake eight years before. Daughter Essie makes terrible homemade candy that only her mother can eat and dreams of becoming a ballet dancer, although after eight years of lessons she is still far off the mark. Penny's husband Paul busies himself manufacturing fireworks with Mr. De Pinna in the basement as well as making models out of an erector set. Essie's husband delivers his wife's candy orders and plays the xylophone simply because it is there. He also runs a small printing press and places obscure Marxist quotes in the candy boxes.

Things begin to unravel when Alice arrives home and announces that she has a date with Tony. As she is getting ready upstairs the doorbell ring and Agent Henderson (Prophet Seay) arrives representing the Internal Revenue Service but is mistaken momentarily for Tony. He explains to Martin that he is there to discuss back income taxes derived from some rental property. Martin admits to the income but says that he has no intention of paying since he does not agree with what the government does with the money. Henderson leaves in a huff minus his hat (which fell in the snake's cage). Martin retrieves the hat and takes it as his own since it fits, telling everyone that the government gave it to him.

Tony arrives for his date and meets the assorted family members and hangers-on and the following the evening, Alice (who is very much in love with Tony) invites his parents Mr. Kirby (Lou Will) and Mrs. Kirby (Laura Starnik) to dinner in a few days to meet her parents. Tony plays a trick on everyone and he and his parents arrive a night early. As they are ushered into the house Ed is playing the xylophone, Martin is throwing darts, Essie is dancing for Boris, and Penny is painting Mr. De Pinna who is posing for her in a toga while her husband is in the basement making fireworks. Passed out on the couch is actress Gay Wellington (Carla Petroski) whom Penny met on a bus and hired to appear in her newest play. It is a scene of total bedlam.

The well to do Kirby clan tries to make the best of the situation as Rheba sends Donald off to the A&P for hotdogs. He returns with pickled pig's feet. To pass the time, Penny has everyone play a word game that ends up bringing forth some embarrassing facts about the Kirby couple. Boris suddenly decides to give Mr. Kirby a wrestling lesson, breaking his glasses. As the Kirby family prepares to leave, the FBI bursts in, due to Ed's seemingly subversive candy box printing. In the basement they find Paul and Mr. De Pinna's fireworks factory. As they arrest everyone (including the Kirby family), Gay comes to and begins to sing as the fireworks begin going off and all hell breaks loose.

This is just act one. In act two we meet Duchess Olga Katrina (Sue Cohen) who works as a waitress at Child's Restaurant and talks of her sister, the Grand Duchess Natasha (who is also a waitress but who is taking courses to be a manicurist) and the Grand Duke who works as an elevator man. Olga loves to cook and volunteers to make blintzes.

Following Karamu's tradition of being "a joyful gathering place where all are welcomed" casting is done with no regard to race, only talent. This tradition goes back to the ideas set forth by the original founders Dorothy and Reuben Silver. Each actor is superb, with special mention for Bob Abelman, Chris Bizub, Jeannine Gaskin, Maya Jones, Joshua McElroy, Anne J. McEvoy, Carla Richards, Chris Richards, Corlesia Smith, and Greg White.

Special regards also to the wonderful set designed by Richard H. Morris, Jr. that is chock full of oddities and curios that delight the eye. The lighting by Rob Peck is especially brilliant, giving an even brightness to the stage area. Likewise, the sound system by Stan Kozak has the all important comedy lines ringing forth loud and clear. Inda Blatch-Geib's costuming is spot on for the time period.

If your taste in entertainment favors the absurd and madcap this is must see theater—bring the entire family. It is fun theater for the sake of entertainment and should not be missed.

You Can't Take It with You will be on stage through May 7, 2017. With restoration work beginning at Karamu House, the company is taking full advantage of the larger stage area in the Mandel Theatre at Cuyahoga Community College Eastern Campus in Highland Hills. Tickets may be purchased online by going to or by calling 216-795-7077.

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