Long-gone troupe returns with homage to Broadway belter

Heather Carvel as the title performer in Big Voice: The Ethel Merman Experience (photo courtesy of Warehouse Theatre Company)
Heather Carvel as the title performer in Big Voice: The Ethel Merman Experience (photo courtesy of Warehouse Theatre Company)

By Richard Ades

It’s been about a decade since the Warehouse Theatre Company made a brief but impressive appearance on the Columbus theater scene. Now it’s returned with Big Voice: The Ethel Merman Experience, written and directed by artistic director Kristofer Green.

Part biography and part musical revue, the original work is a bold choice for a comeback. But it’s also a risky choice, as it relies on viewers’ fond memories of the belter who was known as the “first lady” of musical comedy. Since Merman reached her peak long before her death in 1984, only older viewers will have such memories.

Those who do will realize that leading lady Heather Carvel is doing a pretty good imitation of Merman’s brassy vocal style. My maim complaint is that Carvel’s portrayal often comes off as a caricature rather than an impersonation. She’s at her best on the more dramatic songs, such as the Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim number Rose’s Turn from Gypsy.

If Carvel’s voice is the show’s greatest strength, its biggest weakness may be the choice of material.

Following a format similar to that of the current Broadway hit Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, Big Voice finds Merman playing a nightclub and recalling highlights of her career between renditions of her favorite tunes. The trouble is, you can take the word “highlights” literally. Though Merman’s life had its share of disappointments, they seldom make it into the show.

Warehouse says Big Voice is “based on the words of Ethel Merman,” which may explain why it’s so stubbornly upbeat. Since Green apparently was unwilling to put words into Merman’s mouth, the play is seldom more revealing or dramatic than typical nightclub patter.

Adding a little variety, each of the two acts comes with its own “guest star”: Donald O’Connor (Cody Michael Shope) in Act 1 and Mary Martin (Elisabeth Tate) in Act 2. O’Connor’s bit is enjoyable, as Shope sings and dances well. On the other hand, the Carvel/Tate duets could do more to exploit the personality differences between the bombastic Merman and the sweetly refined Martin. (For a real-life Merman/Martin duet, check out this link.)

Though Big Voice isn’t as dramatically interesting as it might have been, a show that includes tunes such as I’ve Got Rhythm, Everything’s Coming Up Roses and There’s No Business Like Show Business can’t help supplying a good deal of musical fun. Still, the best thing about the play is that it marks the return of Warehouse Theatre.

If you’re old enough to remember Warehouse productions such as 2003’s Assassins or A Piece of My Heart, its reappearance will give you cause for hope.

Warehouse Theatre Company will present Big Voice: The Ethel Merman Experience through June 28 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25; student rush tickets are available for $15. 614-371-5940 or warehousetheatre.org.

Advertisements

‘Jersey Boys’ fails to recapture stage show’s magic

Playing the Four Seasons in a scene from Jersey Boys are (from left): John Lloyd Young (Frankie Valli), Erich Bergen (Bob Guadio), Vincent Piazza (Tommy DeVito) and Michael Lomenda (Nick Massi) (Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
Playing the Four Seasons in a scene from Jersey Boys are (from left): John Lloyd Young (Frankie Valli), Erich Bergen (Bob Guadio), Vincent Piazza (Tommy DeVito) and Michael Lomenda (Nick Massi) (Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

By Richard Ades

Chicago was a great movie. So were Cabaret, West Side Story and The Sound of Music.

But for every stage musical that made a successful transition to the multiplex, you can probably think of four or five that didn’t. So it’s not really surprising that the movie version of Jersey Boys isn’t half as much fun as its live predecessor.

Director Clint Eastwood made some good choices and some bad choices when he went about adapting Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s biographical tribute to the Four Seasons. One of the good choices was casting people who’d already proved themselves in the stage version, rather than following the usual practice of hiring film stars. That guaranteed that the actors playing the 1960s rock group could actually sing (unlike, say, Russell Crowe in the big-screen version of Les Miz).

One of Eastwood’s questionable choices was hiring Brickman and Elice to adapt their own hit musical. You’d think that would be a plus, as it would encourage the movie to stay true to the original, but staying true to the original isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Not to belabor the obvious, but a movie and a stage musical are two entirely different animals. On the stage, we can put up with dramatic developments being delivered in a kind of shorthand, as their main purpose is to propel us toward the next tune. In a movie, we generally need more realism.

We don’t get that in Eastwood’s Jersey Boys. Not only do many of the characters come off as Italian-American stereotypes, but the dramatic developments often hit us without warning, depriving them of their potential power. That’s especially true of lead singer Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young), who’s faced with one emotional setback after another involving the women in his life—none of whom we’ve really gotten to know.

Compounding the problem, Young gives a rather unemotional performance in the role he originated on Broadway, though he makes up for it every time he launches into his dead-on impersonation of Valli’s falsetto warbling.

The actors playing the other members of the group—Vincent Piazza as unscrupulous control freak Tommy DiVito, Erich Bergen as songwriter Bob Guadio and Michael Lomenda as bass-voiced Nick Massi—are all fine. Even so, the movie seldom gives us a feel for what drives them other than their egos. And economic necessity: In an early voice-over, Tommy says the only ways to escape from their blue-collar New Jersey neighborhood are the Army, the mob and fame.

Speaking of the mob, it’s well represented by Christopher Walken as “Gyp” DeCarlo, a paternal gangster with a soft spot for the group’s music.

The film does manage to open the story up a bit in the first act, as when Frankie is roped into an attempt to rob a jewelry store. The heist goes humorously wrong when the would-be crooks attempt to load a huge safe into the trunk of an old Studebaker, with disastrous results.

Mostly, though, Eastwood sticks to the stage musical’s arc, which allows the members of the group to take turns narrating the Four Seasons’ rise from obscurity to Top 40 success, even as the quartet is wracked by jealousies and financial problems.

Like the original, the movie is at its best when it re-creates the band’s big hits, like Sherry, Walk Like a Man and, best of all, the Valli solo Can’t Take My Eyes Off You. Unfortunately, there aren’t nearly enough moments when the musicians are allowed to set aside their problems and just rock out.

As if to make up for this dearth, the closing credits are projected over a Bollywood-style song-and-dance number involving the whole cast, belatedly capturing the kind of energy that made the stage production a Broadway hit.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Musical takes young lovers on ‘fantastick’ voyage

Appearing in The Fantasticks are (clockwise from top): Ian Taylor (the Mute), Alex Huffman (Hucklebee), Preston Pounds (Matt), Natalie Szczerba (Luisa) and Kyle Hansen (Bellomy) (photo by Andrew Beers)
Appearing in The Fantasticks are (clockwise from top): Ian Taylor (the Mute), Alex Huffman (Hucklebee), Preston Pounds (Matt), Natalie Szczerba (Luisa) and Kyle Hansen (Bellomy) (photo by Andrew Beers)

By Richard Ades

The Fantasticks is a subtle, tricky work that deals in mood and feeling rather than plot. When you think about it, it’s kind of amazing that the original off-Broadway production made it the world’s longest-running musical.

How did it happen? The biggest factor is likely Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s gorgeous music, beginning with the show-opening Try to Remember. It establishes a sad, wistful tone that colors everything that follows—that is, unless the actors break the spell by mishandling the subsequent forays into silliness and cynicism.

At Otterbein, director David Caldwell leads a production that gets just about everything right.

Sam Parker speaks simply and sings beautifully as El Gallo, the narrator who comes to play a pivotal role in the lives of the young central characters, Matt and Luisa.

Growing up next to each other but separated by a wall erected by their fathers, the two have fallen in love. Or have they simply fallen in love with the idea of falling in love? Truthfully, Matt and Luisa are so filled with youthful optimism and romantic notions that they have little understanding of how the world really works.

Before El Gallo is done with them, that will all change.

Natalie Szczerba imbues the teenaged Luisa with an exalted sense of her own specialness and an operatically soaring voice. As Matt, Preston Pounds is slightly more limited vocally, but he sells us on the young man’s passionate approach to Luisa and everything else.

Alex Huffman and Kyle Hansen give lightly comic turns as the pair’s fathers, who are not as opposed to the developing romance as they’ve let on. In fact, they conspire with El Gallo and itinerant actors Henry and Mortimer to concoct a way to push them together.

As Henry, Jeff Gise at first struggles to give a believable impersonation of old age, but he grows more effective as the show goes on. As Mortimer, a faux Native American who specializes in death scenes, Anthony Cason gives the show’s funniest performance.

Oddly, one of the production’s most expressive performances is delivered by Ian Taylor as the aptly named Mute, who silently portrays the wall and otherwise makes himself useful throughout.

Rob Johnson’s scenery is minimal, as is traditional. Andy Baker’s lighting design is handsome and dramatic.

Accompanying the singers from positions on opposite sides of the stage are music director/pianist Dennis Davenport and harpist James Predovich. Predovich’s playing is lovely, while Davenport’s keyboard work is extraordinary.

How did The Fantasticks attain its legendary popularity? Now that I’ve seen Otterbein’s production, the feat is a bit easier to understand.

Otterbein Summer Theatre will present The Fantasticks through June 21 in the Fritsche Theatre, Cowan Hall, 30 S. Grove St., Westerville. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, plus 2 p.m. this Friday (June 13). Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25. 614-823-1109 or www.otterbein.edu/drama.

Shadowbox’s best skits stand up to repeat viewings

This original version of Slumber Party—Bloody Good Time (seen here) appeared in Shadowbox’s 2013 Halloween show. The new version again features Edelyn Parker (right) as Bloody Mary. (Studio 66 photo)
This original version of Slumber Party—Bloody Good Time (seen here) appeared in Shadowbox’s 2013 Halloween show. The new version again features Edelyn Parker (right) as Bloody Mary. (Studio 66 photo)

By Richard Ades

Catching the annual Best of Shadowbox Live show gave me the chance to cogitate on just what makes a skit (or a movie or a TV show) worth seeing more than once. My conclusion was that it’s pretty much the same kind of thing that makes it worth seeing in the first place.

If a skit bases its appeal on a single twist, chances are it won’t be as much fun when you’ve already seen it and know what’s coming. But it’s also likely that you didn’t get more than a few chuckles out of it the first time around.

I’m thinking, for example, of Coming Out and Going Home, in which college student Benjy (Jimmy Mak) visits his parents (Robbie Nance and Stacie Boord) with a secret he’s dying to get off his chest. The secret, as you might guess from the title, is that he’s gay. The revelation gets an unexpected response.

But the real twist comes after Benjy unloads a second secret that he considers less momentous and is met with the kind of response he expected from his first revelation. OK, it’s a clever idea, but that’s all it is: a single clever idea. The rest of the skit simply tries to build on that idea, and it does it in a rather formulaic way.

The skits that remain the most fun over multiple viewings are those that are entertaining for multiple reasons.

Take Horror for Kids, the latest installment of Sneak a Peek, in which two TV hosts preview films that supposedly are coming to the multiplex. It boasts the usual back-and-forth between the insipid John (David Whitehouse) and the long-suffering Shelly (Julie Klein), which is always fun. Beyond that, it also has a trio of clever scenes from horror films based on children’s TV shows. The funniest reimagines Dora the Explorer (Boord) as a murderer but retains those educational moments during which audience members are prompted to shout out answers to her questions. Example: Which of these implements is best for bashing in someone’s head?

Other welcome repeats include Slumber Party—Bloody Good Time, in which a trio of girls accidentally summon the spirit of a long-dead murderer; and Good Driver Discount, in which an insurance company tries to make a TV commercial but keeps running headlong into insulting stereotypes. Besides their clever concepts, both benefit from funny dialogue and characters. In the first, Stephanie Shull is especially amusing as an elderly woman who over-indulges in face makeup. In the second, an out-of-her-element Bloody Mary (Edelyn Parker) begins aping the “OMG”-spouting girls who brought her back to life.

The best of the repeated skits is the last, Face to Facebook, which pokes fun at all-too-common denizens of social media: the conspiracy theorist, the champion of political correctness, the mom who posts photo after photo of her newborn, and on and on. It’s sure to make you click “like” unless you’re a total “tard brain.”

Besides repeating the best of the previous year’s skits, The Best of Shadowbox Live also repeats the best musical numbers. It’s less of a mystery what makes these worth hearing again: catchy cover tunes augmented by great vocals and instrumentals. My favorite resurrections (and their lead vocalists) include Face Down (Boord), I Put a Spell on You (Shull), Father Figure (JT Walker III) and Led Zeppelin’s exotic Kashmir (Klein).

The Best of Shadowbox Live continues through Sept. 6 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday (no shows July 4, 12, 19, 25-26 or Aug. 1). Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.