Latest ‘Burlesque’ show has a biographical spin

Amy Lay, Leah Haviland and Nikki Fagin put their best foot forward in Burlesque Biographie (photo by Will Shively)
Amy Lay, Leah Haviland and Nikki Fagin put their best foot forward in Burlesque Biographie (photo by Will Shively)

By Richard Ades

Semi-nudity and seminal comedy are once again on tap at Shadowbox Live.

Burlesque Biographie reunites us with a fictitious troupe that specializes in vaudeville-style skits and erotic dancing. It’s our third visit with the company, following Burlesque de la Voyage (2012) and Burlesque Behind the Curtain (2013).

Is the new show fun? Yes, though not quite as much fun as its immediate predecessor.

Burlesque Biographie is so-named because the entire show is built around a biographical interview with troupe leader Bea (Julie Klein), whose stage name is Busty. While reporter Kimberly (Michelle Daniels) quizzes Busty about her past—including a life-altering trip to Paris in her youth—flashbacks reveal early routines that helped to shape her career.

The good thing about this format is that it gives the players plenty of opportunities to be funny and/or sexy. The bad thing is that the interview proves to be a rather tedious framing device.

Busty is normally fun to be around, being just as raunchy and foul-mouthed offstage as she is on. Here, though, she seems to be in an uncharacteristically mellow mood, even remaining unfazed when a distraught troupe member locks himself in the closet just minutes before the next performance. As a result, much of the French-named show proceeds at an escargot’s pace.

The show does redeem itself during those flashbacks, however.

The comedy bits are pretty funny, though two of the most prominent suffer from over-exposure. Amy Lay does a great job of impersonating Madeline Kahn singing I’m Tired from Blazing Saddles; and Brandon Anderson, David Whitehouse and Jim Andes are decent stand-ins for the Three Stooges in the vaudeville routine “Slowly I Turned.” Still, both bits are likely to be funniest to those who haven’t seen them multiple times.

The show fares best in the sexy song-and-dance numbers, where over-exposure is hardly a drawback. Good singing and Katy Psenicka’s playfully sensual choreography combine with risqué costumes to create several memorable moments.

Klein gets things off to a sultry start with Whatever Lola Wants. Other Act 1 musical highlights include Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, featuring Andrews Sisters-style harmonies, and Hit ’Em Up Style, in which a humorously awkward male striptease is accompanied by singers Noelle Grandison, Stacie Boord, Nikki Fagin and Leah Haviland.

Haviland, by the way, is convincing as a younger version of Busty, whom she plays in flashback scenes.

Act 2’s musical highpoints include Come On-a My House, with lead vocals by Brandon Anderson; Bang Bang, sung by Haviland; and the show-closing Zoot Suit Riot, delivered by Stev Guyer. But for sheer, colorful spectacle, the winner is The Mating Game, sung by Amy Lay and featuring a bevy of dancers in pasties and exotic headdresses.

As is the norm at Shadowbox, the musicians provide first-rate accompaniment. Considering what’s going on in front of them, they also display amazing powers of concentration.

Burlesque Biographie continues through Oct. 30 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. select Wednesdays and Thursdays. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 for students, seniors and military. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Love triangle turns deadly in offbeat rock musical

By Richard Ades

Chances are you’ve never seen a musical quite like Murder Ballad. On the other hand, chances are the show’s characters will seem very familiar.

In the first act, young New Yorkers Sara (Kaitlin Descutner) and Tom (Jason Carl Crase) begin a wild affair that appears to be based solely on physical attraction. (Well, maybe alcohol plays a supporting role.)

When they break up two years later, a drunk and lonely Sara bumps into Michael (Nick Cirillo), who is kind, decent, sensitive and, in general, everything Tom is not. They hook up and begin planning a future together.

It’s not hard to predict what will happen next. We know that Sara is attracted to “bad boys.” We know that Michael doesn’t fit that description. We know that Tom is still around—and easy to find, since he tends bar on the Lower East Side. It’s only a matter of time, it would seem, before Sara and Tom reunite.

About the only thing we don’t know is how Murder Ballad will live up to its name. Who gets murdered, and who does the murdering?

The one character who doesn’t seem familiar in Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash’s rock musical is the Narrator (Corinne Davis). Narrators generally are neutral reporters of the action, and that’s the way this Narrator starts out. As time goes on, however, she seems to be increasingly troubled by what she sees—so troubled that at one point she picks up a bottle from Tom’s bar and begins taking deep swigs between songs.

The emotionally involved Narrator is one thing that sets Murder Ballad apart, despite its familiar plot and characters. The staging is another.

Director/production designer Edward Carignan has transformed Short North Stage’s Green Room by installing a high, rectangular “bar top” in the center, with the audience seated around the periphery. The characters often climb onto this elevated platform or other precarious perches, underlining the dangerousness of their situation. Occasionally, they wander among the viewers, making them feel like they’re in the midst of the action.

Since this is a sung-through musical (no spoken dialogue), the songs are designed to tell the story rather than stand alone. Even so, a few have catchy tunes, and all are powerfully delivered by the cast and the four-piece band led by keyboardist Matthew Ebright. The only disappointment is that the lyrics are sometimes hard to pick out on the louder numbers.

Murder Ballad premiered at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Studio at Stage II in late 2012 and reopened in 2013 at an off-Broadway venue. Though the original production reportedly sold out, the off-Broadway version closed after only two months. After seeing Short North Stage’s revival, it’s not hard to guess why. The offbeat production design is striking, but you can’t help wishing the characters were a bit less generic.

Still, it’s fun to see what caught the attention of New York theatergoers a couple of years back. Bravo to Short North Stage for bringing this still-fresh slice of the Big Apple to Columbus.

Short North Stage will present Murder Ballad through Aug. 16 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $30. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

Third time is hardly a charm for Shakespeare’s Falstaff

Appearing in The Merry Wives of Windsor are (from left): Elizabeth Harelick as Mistress Ford, Adam Simon as Sir John Falstaff and Michelle Weiser as Mistress Page (photo by Nick Pershing)
Appearing in The Merry Wives of Windsor are (from left): Elizabeth Harelick as Mistress Ford, Adam Simon as Sir John Falstaff and Michelle Weiser as Mistress Page (photo by Nick Pershing)

By Richard Ades

Fat and vain, cowardly and conniving, Sir John Falstaff is one of Shakespeare’s greatest comic inventions. But you have to catch him in one of the Bard’s Henry IV plays to see him at his best.

In The Merry Wives of Windsor—which some believe was written because Queen Elizabeth I wanted to see more of the entertaining scamp—he’s simply the butt of the joke. The result is a comedy that’s less fun than it would have been if he were as sly and resourceful as he is in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.

On the Schiller Park stage, director Beth Kattelman and her cast try their hardest to extract laughs from his misadventures, and sometimes they succeed. More often, though, they merely succeed in raising the volume with shouted lines and over-the-top acting.

The plot starts promisingly enough. While staying at an inn in Windsor, Falstaff (Adam Simon) realizes he can no longer afford his hard-partying lifestyle. He quickly comes up with the idea of improving his finances by romancing Mistresses Ford and Page (Elizabeth Harelick and Michelle Weiser), two local married ladies.

Unfortunately for Falstaff, the ladies are close friends who share everything—including the identical love notes he sent them. Insulted, they agree to concoct a romantic trap in order to teach him a lesson.

What happens next should be a delicious case of comeuppance, and it would be if Falstaff weren’t so darn gullible. Instead, he’s such an easy mark that the wives are able to fool him over and over. What starts out amusingly soon becomes predictable and repetitious. And it doesn’t help matters that the mostly admirable Harelick and Weiser go overboard on the faux melodramatics whenever they’re conning the lascivious knight.

An added complication provides a few chuckles. After Falstaff’s disgruntled former servants tell the wives’ husbands what their ex-boss is up to, the jealous Ford (Micah Logsdon) decides to investigate. Introducing himself as a man named Brook, he tells Falstaff he has long lusted after Mistress Ford but can’t persuade her to abandon her marital vows. He invites Falstaff to compromise her integrity in order to make her more open to his advances.

The early scenes between Falstaff and the disguised Ford are nicely handled by Simon and Logsdon, but the latter eventually gives in to the production’s tendency toward over-emoting.

A romantic subplot involves the Pages’ daughter, Anne (a winsome Cecelia Bellomy), who is being courted by a trio of suitors. Here, some characters stand out thanks to inspired comic performances, including the idiotic Slender (Dayton Willison), the extravagantly French Dr. Caius (Daniel Turek) and Caius’s mischievous servant, Mistress Quickly (Jennifer Feather-Youngblood). Meanwhile, Jesse Massarro shows welcome restraint as third suitor Fenton, as does Nick Baldasare as Anne’s father.

Stefan Langer also fares well as Welsh clergyman Sir Hugh Evans. He doesn’t actually display the incoherent accent that others joke about, but it’s hard to blame him for that. Apparently the Welsh accent was pretty heavy in Shakespeare’s time, but nowadays it’s far more subtle.

Thus, the Welsh jokes fall as flat as pretty much everything else in this heavy-handed comedy.

Actors’ Theatre will present The Merry Wives of Windsor through Aug. 31 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Admission is “pay what you will.” Bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.