A look back at ‘2013: The Musical’

Japheal Bondurant as competitor William Barfee in CATCO's production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Red Generation Photography)
Japheal Bondurant as competitor William Barfee in CATCO’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Red Generation Photography)

By Richard Ades

2013 may be remembered as The Year of the Musical in Central Ohio. Or, more likely, as The First Year of the Musical.

In the more than two decades I’ve been reviewing local theater, musicals have always represented a small percentage of the shows I saw each year. But that’s likely to change.

A prime reason is that CATCO dropped its long aversion to the genre when Steven Anderson took over as producing director in 2010. Another reason is the ascendance of Short North Stage, a 2-year-old troupe that specializes in Sondheim’s art form.

Add to that the musicals staged by Otterbein University Theatre and the growing number staged by Shadowbox Live, including its recent collaborations with Opera Columbus. Then figure in the musicals bravely tackled by troupes that normally stick to standard fare.

The end result is a year that was teeming with musicals. And not just musicals: great musicals.

There were so many worthwhile musicals, in fact, that I’ve been forced to abandon the format I always followed at The Other Paper, which divided the nominees into categories such as Best Drama or Best Comedy. Limiting myself to one Best Musical would have forced me to ignore many of the year’s best shows. Instead, I’ve settled for naming the year’s Top 10 shows.

A couple of caveats: First, no one has time to see everything, so I’m sure I missed some award-worthy gems. And second, this is a subjective list based not only on what was done well but on what I found particularly interesting and memorable.

With that said, congratulations to the winners, and thanks to everyone who made this an exceptional year for theater in Central Ohio.

Top 10 Shows of 2013:

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, CATCO. Though the Top 10 list is mostly arranged haphazardly, this was my favorite show of the year. Director Steven Anderson found both the heart and the laughs in this familiar musical, with help from a consistently wonderful cast led by Japheal Bondurant, Elisabeth Zimmerman and Ralph E. Scott.

Sunday in the Park With George, Short North Stage. The Garden Theater-based troupe sometimes imports its directors from New York, and it paid off handsomely here. Sarna Lapine (niece of James Lapine, who wrote the book and directed the Broadway premiere) gave us a Sondheim revival that was both pitch-perfect and picture-perfect. As a bonus, sound designer Leon Rothenberg found a way to tame the theater’s echo-y acoustics, which bodes well for future productions.

Passing Strange, Short North Stage. Green Day fans undoubtedly enjoyed the punk-rock anger of American Idiot, which came through town in March. But those of a thoughtful bent were more likely to enjoy this satirical take on youthful angst, which was beautifully realized by director Mark Clayton Southers and his committed cast.

Duck Variations, A Portable Theatre. The best news was that the fledgling troupe is the new home of Geoffrey Nelson, former artistic director of CATCO. The second-best news was that its premiere show paired Nelson with fellow CATCO alum Jonathan Putnam. These two sly and seasoned pros made the David Mamet comedy one of the year’s funniest shows.

Assassins, Red Herring Productions. Michael Herring’s solo springtime performance of Krapp’s Last Tape launched the rebirth of his long-dormant troupe. But nothing could have prepared us for Red Herring’s next show, a polished production of Sondheim’s most controversial musical. John Dranschak directed an A-list cast led by Ian Short and Nick Lingnofski.

Mercy Killers, On the Verge Productions. 2013’s crop of touring musicals supplied a fair amount of flashy entertainment, but none of them were as impressive or thought-provoking as this one-man touring show. Writer/actor Michael Milligan told a tragic tale that movingly dramatized the shortcomings of the U.S. health-care system.

The Whipping Man, Gallery Players/New Players Theater. If you thought there was no way to come up with a new take on the Civil War, this show proved you wrong. Matthew Lopez’s postwar drama reunited two former slaves with the wounded son of their Jewish master. The fascinating, if imperfect, tale was exquisitely directed by Tim Browning.

The Air Loom, MadLab. Local actor Jim Azelvandre has tried his hand at writing in the past, but this surreal tale is his best work to date. Azelvandre also supplied the canny direction, which ensured that the ingenious storyline and eccentric characters remained entertaining throughout.

Henry IV, Part One, New Players Theater. Besides staging The Taming of the Shrew on its outdoor stage, New Players was brave enough to tackle one of Shakespeare’s seldom-seen historical dramas. Bard-literate director Robert Behrens made 15th-century Britain come to life with the help of a lively cast led by David Tull as the hard-partying Prince Hal and John Tener as the irrepressible Falstaff.

Burlesque Behind the Curtain, Shadowbox Live. Shadowbox’s production of Spamalot was a blast, too, but Behind the Curtain deserves credit for improving on last year’s Burlesque de Voyage. Writer Jimmy Mak, director Stev Guyer and the talented players created a show that was sometimes very sexy and other times very, very funny.

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New York-bound ‘Flashdance’ faces an uphill battle

Steelworker/dancer Alex Owens (Jillian Mueller) re-creates an iconic moment from the original movie in Flashdance: The Musical (photo by Jeremy Daniel)
Steelworker/dancer Alex Owens (Jillian Mueller) re-creates an iconic moment from the original movie in Flashdance: The Musical (photo by Jeremy Daniel)

By Richard Ades

“She’s a maniac, maniac on the floor/And she’s dancing like she never danced before…”

Read those lyrics the wrong way, and the fantasy at the heart of Flashdance becomes apparent. Steelworker-by-day/dancer-by-night Alex longs to be accepted into a prestigious ballet academy, but she has no formal training. So how can she hope to win out against dancers who’ve been hitting the barre since they were kids?

The 1983 movie distracted attention from that glaring question by overwhelming us with montages of toned bodies dancing to a rocking soundtrack. It also captured the tenor of the times by setting Alex’s quest against the backdrop of a dying industry: We could relate to her struggle to redefine herself because so many of us were trying to find a way to survive in a changing economy.

Then, of course, there was cinematic newcomer Jennifer Beals and her portrayal of Alex as a tough Pittsburgh girl who could switch from wistful dreamer to sexual predator at the drop of a leg warmer.

So the movie became a hit, and Alex and her wardrobe became cultural icons. Can the new Tom Hedley/Robert Cary/Robbie Roth stage version repeat the magic?

After seeing the touring show Tuesday night at the Palace, I suspect it has a long way to go.

Director/choreographer Trujillo and his cast reimagine some of the movie’s best moments and add some of their own. Overall, though, it fails to make us care about Alex’s journey.

Part of the problem is the role of Alex, which must be almost impossible to cast. Besides acting and singing, the leading lady must be able to dance well enough to convince us she has a shot at a career in ballet. In the touring production, it’s apparent that Jillian Mueller was cast primarily for her dancing skills. Her moves are fine, but her singing voice lacks power and she has little stage presence.

It’s admirable that the producers didn’t follow the movie’s tack and have Alex’s dance moves performed by a body double (though it appears they do just that in one scene, for no apparent reason). But because they failed to find the rare individual who can act, sing and dance like a maniac, Alex mostly disappears into Klara Zieglerova’s serviceable but generic scenery. As a result, few sparks are generated by the central romance between Alex and her smitten boss, Nick, even though Corey Mach gives the latter a likable personality and sonorous voice.

Filling some of that void, Ginna Claire Mason and David R. Gordon do make us care about the rocky relationship between Alex’s dancer friend Gloria and would-be comedian Jimmy. We particularly care about Gloria, whose naïve search for fame makes her susceptible to the advances of C.C. (Christian Whelan), proprietor of the disreputable dance club down the street. Her crestfallen rendition of Gloria is one of the more effective holdovers from the movie.

Back at the raunchy but relatively wholesome club run by the fatherly Harry (Matthew Henerson), Alex spends her nights sharing the stage with Tess and Kiki, seasoned hoofers well played by Alison Ewing and DeQuina Moore. Moore is especially fiery in the energetically choreographed Manhunt, another movie holdover.

Not all of the show’s songs are inherited from the movie, by the way. Of the new tunes, some are pretty, and some are even catchy, but none matches the toe-tapping power of the originals.

Will Flashdance make it to New York? If it does, it will accomplish a major miracle, as it’s not easy to construct a conventional stage musical out of a movie that was basically an extended music video. The show reportedly has been tweaked quite a bit to get this far, and it likely will need a lot more tweaking to get to Broadway.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Flashdance: The Musical through Dec. 22 at the Palace Theatre, 34 W. Broad St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $28-$78. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.

If only the script were as profound as the photography

 

Bruce Dern (left) and Will Forte play a father and son who hit the road in Nebraska
Bruce Dern (left) and Will Forte play a father and son who hit the road in Nebraska

By Richard Ades

Director Alexander Payne fills Nebraska with black-and-white images of desolate landscapes and all-but-deserted small towns. Above them, the skies appear bleak, even on the rare occasions when the sun is shining.

The photography is beautiful and evocative, but it’s a mixed blessing. It can’t help reminding film buffs of that devastating portrait of small-town America, 1971’s The Last Picture Show. And Nebraska is hardly The Last Picture Show.

Payne’s very name is another mixed blessing, as it leads us to expect more than we get. He’s the director behind such memorable films as The Descendants and (my personal favorite) Sideways. And Nebraska falls well short of both of these predecessors.

Indeed, it’s a tale that fails to live up to either its photography or its potential.

Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, a semi-senile old man who thinks he’s won $1 million and is determined to journey from Billings, Mont., to Lincoln, Neb., to collect it. Since he has long since lost his driver’s license, he’s willing to walk there if necessary.

SNL alum Will Forte plays David, one of Woody’s two sons, who tries to explain to him that the “prize” is merely a gimmick to sell magazines. He finally agrees to drive his dad to Lincoln, if only because there seems to be no other way to convince him. Besides, David’s girlfriend has finally tired of their stagnant relationship and moved out, leaving him eager to get away from his suddenly lonely apartment.

Will Woody and David arrive at a better understanding of each other during the long road trip? Will they come to terms with Woody’s lifelong addiction to alcohol and the problems it created for his wife and sons? One expects such issues to be addressed, and to some extent they are, but not nearly as effectively as they might have been. One explanation is that director Payne has uncharacteristically relegated screenwriting chores to someone else—namely TV veteran Bob Nelson.

What are the script’s shortcomings? For starters, it’s not clear that the Grants’ dysfunctional household was all that destructive. Yes, David seems to be drifting a bit, but his brother (Bob Odenkirk) has a family and a modestly promising career as a TV newsman.

The real hindrance to profundity, though, is the script’s devotion to superficial humor and characterizations. Woody’s wife, Kate (June Squibb), is the main culprit, as she quickly turns into a shrewish caricature who doles out malicious insults and TMI revelations with equal abandon.

Later, after Woody and David stop to visit relatives in their Nebraska hometown, male communication is depicted as a ritual revolving around two subjects: cars and sports. A few humorous moments ensue, particularly when David’s cousins (Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray) razz him about his conservative driving habits, but this is hardly groundbreaking material.

Perhaps the ultimate barrier to meaningful character development is the fact that Woody is so far gone. The former mechanic shuffles around in an age- and alcohol-fueled stupor, seldom giving any indication that he understands what’s going on. Dern’s portrayal is physically convincing and may give the 77-year-old actor a shot at winning a major award (he’s already been nominated for a Golden Globe), but the character has almost zero depth.

As for Forte, he handles the pivotal role of David well, particularly considering his background is in comedy. Also making a good impression is Stacy Keach as a family “friend” with a mean streak and a long-held grudge.

Haunting photography, good acting: Nebraska has most of the makings of a great Alexander Payne film. All it lacks is a great Alexander Payne script.

Nebraska opens today (Dec. 13) at Columbus’s AMC Lennox Town Center 24.

Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5)