Revised musical drops its pedantic personality

Stacie Boord as the Ringmaster in Evo (Shadowbox Live photo)
Stacie Boord as the Ringleader in Evo (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

Over the past 25 years, Shadowbox Live has settled into a comfortable role as the troupe that plies viewers with skits, food, booze and rock tunes.

It wasn’t always this way. Back in the early days, Shadowbox head honcho Stev Guyer was determined to create big, important works about big, important topics. The result was a series of original musicals such as 1995’s Evolution.

Like the others, Evolution was loud, flashy and ambitious. Sometimes, particularly in the dance sequences, it was impressive.

More often, though, it came across as a lecture set to music. How could it seem otherwise, when it methodically introduced each topic before discussing it with billboard-style dialogue and lyrics?

Now, apparently, Guyer wants to take another crack at creating important art. With help from Shadowbox head writer Jimmy Mak and musical director Matthew Hahn, he’s revisited Evolution and renamed it Evo.

Thankfully, the new version has lost more than a portion of its name. It’s also lost the pedantic attitude that made viewers of Evolution feel like they deserved college credit just for sitting through it.

Guyer and his fellow Shadowboxers have learned a lot about showmanship in the past quarter-century, and they’ve funneled it all into Evo.

The new show still addresses some of the same questions about human beings and our relationships with ourselves, each other and society: Why are we so prone to violence? Is “justice” just another word for “revenge”? And, most basically, what is the point of our existence?

Sex, love, parenting and old age also are taken up.

The most obvious change from the previous version is that all of these topics are introduced by the Ringleader, a flawed character energetically portrayed by Stacie Boord. Her presence helps to put a recognizably human face on the proceedings.

Another difference is that the show often makes effective use of humor to get its points across.

Often the humor is of the darker variety, as it is in a segment on parenting and the complications it creates in romantic relationships. When “Mr. Know It All” (Billy DePetro) and “Mrs. Don’t Tell Me What to Think” (Katy Psenicka) are asked which part each wants to play in a knife-throwing act, the latter eagerly grabs a handful of blades. It seems she has a wealth of pointed comments that she’s been dying to aim at her hubby.

As in the original Evolution, music and dance are at the center of the action.

From the first notes of Risking It All, with its ever-changing time signatures, the music is an interesting combination of melodies and intricate rhythms. The heavy percussion often carries echoes of traditional African drumming, reminding us of the continent where human evolution likely has its roots.

The dancing, choreographed by Psenicka, is as varied as the show’s many moods. Though it can be frenetic and exciting, it also can be sensitive and graceful. In a particularly lovely segment, Guyer and Boord sing a song about aging desire while JT Walker III and Nikki Fagin act it out through dance.

Throughout the show, Scott Aldridge’s dramatic lighting is a key component. So are the colorful and flowing costumes (designed by Linda Mullin, Myah Shaffer and Lyn Walker), which help to establish the circus-like atmosphere.

Occasionally, the show still carries a whiff of the classroom. One example is a section that delves into the ancient practice of taking aged tribe members out into the wilderness to die. It seems like a needless digression since society now treats its oldsters a bit more humanely.

But most of the show is entertaining and engrossing, and it’s consistently so after intermission. Even when Evo preaches, as it does in the section titled Revenge, it drains the self-righteousness from the sermon by delivering it with a comedic touch.

Shadowbox clearly has evolved for the better through the years by learning from its past mistakes. If only we could say the same for the rest of humankind.

Evo will be presented at 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 2. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 for students and seniors. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

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Shadowbox gets anniversary season off to a freaky start

 

By Richard Ades

Fabulous costumes, a smokin’ guitar solo and a very funny Jack Hanna. These are some of the highlights of Shadowbox Live’s Freak Show.

More generally, the show offers some really smart comedy, including a vintage skit that’s being repeated as part of the troupe’s 25th anniversary celebration.

Let’s start with Jack Hanna. The Columbus Zoo’s director emeritus has demonstrated his deadpan sense of humor over the years during his many appearances on The Late Show With David Letterman, but he’s never been funnier than he is here.

In a video segment, Shadowbox executive producer Stev Guyer seeks out Hanna’s advice on how to keep the troupe going for another 25 years. Instead, Jungle Jack begins paddling down a stream of consciousness that carries us into areas that are hilariously personal.

As for the guitar solo, it takes place in a cover of Van Halen’s House of Pain and features the nimble fingers of Brent Lambert. Amy Lay ably handles the vocals, but make no mistake: Lambert’s screaming guitar is the tune’s reason for being.

And the costumes? Designed by Linda Mullin, Nick Wilson and Lyn Walker, they accentuate the show’s spooky theme while turning several musical numbers into visual as well as aural treats. My favorites include the colorful tutus lead vocalist Anita McFarren and her backup singers don for Mz. Hyde.

Comedy-wise, Shadowbox theme shows easily beat the success ratio of Saturday Night Live, but that’s really damning with faint praise. For Freak Show, director Guyer, head writer Jimmy Mak and the cast actually approach the success ratio of Modern Family.

Not everything inspires big laughs. Jason’s Scary Poem, a narrated and mimed homage to Dr. Seuss, is more apt to inspire appreciative nods and chuckles. And Zombie or Not to Be?, a faux TV show about the undead, is mostly unfunny. But an astounding number of skits are ingeniously written and brilliantly performed. Some of the standouts:

Modern Day Freaks: A carnival barker (JT Walker III) introduces such contemporary oddities as a 6-year-old girl who hates Frozen and a tea partier who’s down with gay marriage.

Literal Wizard: A substitute teacher (Tom Cardinal) uses his wizardly skills to instruct his students on the proper use of the word “literally.” (English majors will love this one!)

The Line: Disney makes a horror film inspired by Disneyland’s scariest attraction of all: those endless lines.

Haunted House Training: The socially inept Gary (Mak) thinks he knows how to scare people at a Halloween haunted house because he’s so good at inadvertently scaring them in real life.

Captain’s Kirk’s Advice: Office worker Herb (Jamie Barrow) is too shy to ask out co-worker Lisa (Carrie Lynn McDonald) until he’s goaded on by video clips of that planet-hopping Lothario himself, James T. Kirk.

Incidentally, McDonald is a former Shadowbox regular who’s making a return visit for this show, probably in honor of the anniversary season. Other welcome returnees include the final skit, The Exorsister, and the spectacular final tune, Thriller, featuring vocals by Leah Laviland and a stageful of creepy dancers.

There’s much more of worth in Freak Show, including such musical numbers as Save Me (sung by a gruff-voiced Walker) and the familiar Mama Told Me Not to Come (talk-sung by Brandon Anderson).

Even the video segments, which normally function as semi-cute fillers, are great. Besides the Jungle Jack interview, my favorite is Flashback, in which a prophetic spirit tells young Shadowbox founder Steve Guyer to postpone his ambitious dream of staging original rock operas and concentrate on sketch comedy. And, oh yes, he’s advised to change his first name to Stev.

Sure, it’s self-referential and maybe even self-indulgent. But after 25 years, Shadowbox is entitled.

Freak Show continues through Nov. 1 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Roommate comedy launches assault on fourth wall

Featured in The Playdaters are (from left) MaryBeth Griffith as Stephanie, Audrey Rush as Erma, Josh Kessler as Erwin and Chad Hewitt as Spencer (photo by Andy Batt)
Featured in The Playdaters are (from left) MaryBeth Griffith as Stephanie, Audrey Rush as Erma, Josh Kessler as Erwin and Chad Hewitt as Spencer (photo by Andy Batt)

By Richard Ades

Remember the big restaurant scene from When Harry Met Sally? I thought of it after attending Thursday’s preview performance of The Playdaters.

Specifically, I thought of the comment a stranger makes to her waiter after witnessing Sally’s simulated orgasm: “I’ll have what she’s having.” In my case, the line would have been “I’ll have what they’re having.”

It wasn’t so strange that the MadLab viewers laughed early and often. That’s not unusual for a first-night audience, often made up of friends of the cast who are eager to be supportive.

What set these folks apart was that they started laughing before the play even began. When the pre-curtain soundtrack included a naughty Garfunkel and Oates song about hand jobs, they burst into prolonged hysterics. They then remained in stitches for much of the play’s hour-long running time, and I suspect most of them stayed to laugh all over again when MadLab presented a second performance with a juggled cast.

Written by Neil Haven, The Playdaters is about a pair of roommates who dare each other to set up dates with strangers, then misbehave in bizarre ways when they meet. The roommates generally are portrayed by men, but MadLab is trying an interesting experiment by offering two versions: On Fridays, men play the lead roles while women play their dates; on Saturdays, the genders are switched.

At Thursday’s preview, both versions were staged in succession. Since the female version was presented first (as determined by a coin toss), that’s the one I saw.

OK, the gender switch is a cute idea, but what about the play itself? Is it as hilarious as those first-nighters thought it was? Well, not in its entirety, but director Jim Azelvandre and his cast do deliver lots of funny moments.

In the women-led version, most of them belong to Erma, who’s played by Audrey Rush with the kind of roly-poly physicality that will remind many of Melissa McCarthy. Foul-mouthed and mischievous, Erma throws herself into such first-date shenanigans as pretending to be German or drinking half a bottle of whiskey on the sly.

As Stephanie, Erma’s relatively conservative roommate, MaryBeth Griffith is far more subdued. That’s natural, but Griffith probably could land a few more laughs of her own if she played up the character’s strait-laced tendencies.

As for the men, Chad Hewitt gives a similarly low-key performance as Stephanie’s near-perfect date, but Josh Kessler finds droll humor in the men (and one woman) who are unlucky enough to end up on prank dates with Erma.

It should be noted that The Playdaters is not simply the tale of two fun-loving gagsters. Haven also throws a couple of complications into the mix.

The first concerns the relationship between the roommates, which seems to be in flux. Erma loves it and wants it to stay the same forever, and she reacts with jealousy when it becomes clear that Stephanie wants to progress from gag dates to the real thing. If you see the show’s male version, you’ll probably be reminded of movie bromances such as Superbad or 22 Jump Street.

The second complication—and the one that makes things a bit too messy for my taste—involves the characters’ tendency to break through the “fourth wall.” Erma and Stephanie constantly stop the action in order to explain things to the audience or to bicker about how the plot is proceeding. Toward the end, Erma goes so far as to accuse Stephanie of getting herself caught up in a typical romantic comedy.

Maybe Haven felt his play needed something to distinguish itself from the average rom-com, bromance or bramance. Maybe that’s why he added all the fourth-wall busting and winking self-awareness.

If you’re like me and have a low tolerance for this kind of gimmicky, you’ll wish he hadn’t imposed it on what is otherwise an agreeable comedy. But if you’re like that preview audience, you won’t mind at all.

The Playdaters continues through Sept. 13 at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Running time: 1 hour. Tickets are $12, $10 for students and seniors, $8 for members. 614-221-5418 or madlab.net.