George and Martha go at it again in troupe’s premiere production

By Richard Ades

A statement printed in the program of Adrenaline Theatre Company’s first production calls Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? “perhaps the greatest single play in American theatre.”

You may or may not believe that. The important thing is that director Audrey Rush appears to believe it. That’s obvious from the amount of care and passion she and her cast have invested in Edward Albee’s tale of a spectacularly dysfunctional marriage.

The fireworks begin when history professor George (Stefan Langer) and his wife, Martha (Vicki Kessler), return from a faculty party at 2 a.m. The party was at the home of the college president, Martha’s father—which is an automatic source of tension.

George was hired with the expectation that he would rise to become the head of his department and eventually inherit his father-in-law’s position, but none of that happened. It’s a failure that Martha never tires of throwing in his face.

At any rate, George is ready to turn in, but Martha surprises him with the news that they have guests coming: Nick (Chad Hewitt), a new member of the biology department, and his wife, Honey (Marybeth Griffith). Once the younger couple arrives, the gloves really come off.

First produced in 1962 and set during the same era, the play is divided into three acts with distinct personalities.

Act 1 introduces George and Martha’s no-holds-barred approach to hosting, which includes lobbing barbed comments at each other and even at their guests. It’s often darkly funny, as when George spins his theory that Nick and his fellow biologists will use genetics to remake humanity in their own image.

Act 2 is grimmer, as grudges, ambitions and copious amounts of alcohol form a combustible combination. But the real combustion comes in the shocking and cathartic Act 3.

Through it all, Langer is properly the strongest of the cast’s four strong links. Whether he’s skewering his guests with sarcasm or blowing up over Martha’s latest insult, his George is always the prime protagonist.

Kessler’s Martha is a worthy opponent, to the extent the script allows her to be. Martha lacks George’s glib command of the language, but she makes up for it in the depth of her anger and her willingness to express it at the top of her lungs.

The oddly touching thing about George and Martha’s relationship is that, as much as they detest each other, they also need and care about each other. That comes across in Langer and Kessler’s portrayals.

As Nick, Hewitt captures the younger man’s surface civility and just-below-the-surface ambition and ruthlessness. As Honey, Griffith offers an amusing portrait of naïveté and brandy-fueled obliviousness.

The full and homey-looking set is lit by Rob Philpot in a manner that’s mostly just functional, though it turns effectively dramatic for a key development.

You may or may not agree that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the greatest American play, but you have to admit it’s a powerful piece of theater in the right hands. In its first production, Adrenaline Theatre Company proves it has the right hands.

Adrenaline Theatre Company will present Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? through Feb. 7 at MadLab Theatre & Gallery, 227 N. Third St. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes (including two intermissions). Tickets are $15. Contact: madlab.net.

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Hockey musical is gone, but spoofy sand-and-surf tale remains

Chicklet (Nick Hardin) gets a lift from friends (from left) Provoloney (Andrew Trimmer), Star Cat (Jason Crase), YoYo (Luke Stewart) and Kanaka (Dan Montour) in Psycho Beach Party, one of two plays opening this week at Short North Stage (photo by Jason Allen, Second Glimpse Photography)
Chicklet (Nick Hardin) gets a lift from friends (from left) Provoloney (Andrew Trimmer), Star Cat (Jason Crase), YoYo (Luke Stewart) and Kanaka (Dan Montour) in Psycho Beach Party (photo by Jason Allen, Second Glimpse Photography)

By Richard Ades

It was one busy week at the Garden Theater.

Last Wednesday, Short North Stage opened its first original work, The Great One. Timed to complement the National Hockey League’s All-Star Game in Columbus, the musical focused on a traumatic moment in western Canadian history: the Edmonton Oilers’ 1988 trade of star player Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings.

With direction by Scott Hunt, who also co-wrote the book and lyrics, it boasted a committed cast of five and some surprisingly pretty tunes by composer James Higgins. In just about an hour, it neatly summarized the profound impact a local team’s ups and downs can have on members of its community. (That’s something you don’t have to be Canadian to understand, eh?)

Unfortunately, the show’s run was as short and sweet as its running time. Its last performance ended before Sunday’s All-Star Game.

However, last week’s other Garden Theater production will continue through this weekend. A new troupe called Columbus Immersive Theater is reviving Charles Busch’s Psycho Beach Party in the venue’s main auditorium.

That’s a big room, but director/choreographer Edward Carignan is living up to the “Immersive” moniker by cramming the audience onto the stage with the players. That makes this tale of a troubled teenage girl named Chicklet a pleasantly intimate experience.

I first saw Busch’s campy comedy nearly a quarter-century ago at the old Reality Theatre. It was pretty entertaining, even though the troupe took the unorthodox tack of having Chicklet played by an actual woman.

In Immersive’s production, thankfully, tradition reigns. A cross-dressing Nick Hardin makes such a hilarious Chicklet that you can’t help wondering why anyone would want to do it the other way. Just as funny is Doug Joseph as her protective and borderline-abusive mom, Mrs. Forrest.

Set in Malibu Beach in 1962, Psycho Beach Party spoofs both Hitchcock-style psychodramas and old sand-and-surf epics like Beach Blanket Bingo. As in the latter, everyone is G-rated innocent—on the surface. Underneath, sexual tension rears its head, sometimes even between a couple of suspiciously compatible guy friends.

Most misleading of all is Chicklet, a going-on-16 girl who spends her time hanging out with bookish friend Berdine (Vera Ryan Cremeans) and begging the local beach bums to teach her how to surf. She seems harmless, but if you make her mad, a dominatrix-like alter ego named Ann Bowman suddenly appears. And that’s only one of Chicklet’s multiple personalities, all played to a comic “T” by Hardin.

Other cast members include Dan Montour as surfing ace Kanaka, Kaitin Descutner as popular mean girl Marvel Ann, Bria Schultz as movie star Bettina Barnes, Jason Carl Crase as Star Cat, Luke Stewart as YoYo and Andrew Trimmer as Provoloney. All give likable but restrained performances, basically acting as “straight men” to Hardin and Joseph.

The result is that the show isn’t really at its funniest unless Chicklet and/or Mrs. Forrest are center stage. But when they are, it’s a spoofy blast out of the past.

Immersive Theater Company will present Psycho Beach Party through Feb. 1 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 4:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20. Contact: beachpartycolumbus.com or shortnorthstage.org.

Newspaper vendors go on strike in fleet-footed musical

Stephanie Styles and Dan DeLuca play Katherine and Jack in the touring production of Newsies (photo by Deen van Meer)
Stephanie Styles and Dan DeLuca play Katherine and Jack in the touring production of Newsies (photo by Deen van Meer)

By Richard Ades

It was kind of odd watching Newsies Tuesday night at the Ohio Theatre.

The history-based Disney musical is basically a salute to the power of unions. As a result, it was hard to see it without remembering that a blatantly anti-union law had been passed about four years ago right across the street at the Statehouse—or that the governor who signed the law was re-inaugurated on Monday night.

All of that might have made it hard to enjoy the musical except that the anti-union law was overwhelmingly repealed thanks to a 2011 referendum. Yes, the little guys do occasionally win out in real life, as they do in Disney musicals.

Based on a 1992 movie, which was based on the Newsboys Strike of 1899, Newsies is about what happens when New York City newspapers put the screws to the young lads who eke out a living by selling their products on the street.

Joseph Pulitzer (Steve Blanchard), owner of the New York World, is the first to raise the wholesale price his “newsies” must pay, thinking that’s the easiest way to offset recent losses. He doesn’t count on the tenacity of Jack Kelly (Dan DeLuca), the paper pushers’ unofficial leader.

Jack persuades Manhattan-based newsies to go on strike, then begins seeking support from their counterparts in other New York boroughs. Backing him up are his best friend, Crutchie (Zachary Sayle), along with newcomer Davey (Jacob Kemp) and his little brother, Les (played at alternate performances by Vincent Crocella and Anthony Rosenthal).

Fighting the newspapers is a nearly impossible task, but unexpected help comes in the form of Katherine (Stephanie Styles), a society reporter who wants to write about the labor struggle to prove she’s ready to graduate to hard news.

Newsies gained several Tony nominations after opening on Broadway in 2012, but it won only for its musical score and choreography. The touring version makes it clear that these remain the show’s prime strengths.

With music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Jack Feldman, the score has several enjoyable numbers. They include The World Will Know, a defiant anthem that captures the spirit (if not the power) of Les Miz’s Do You Hear the People Sing?, and Watch What Happens, an amusing expression of Katherine’s determination in the face of self-doubt.

True, a few of the other numbers are either less memorable or less relevant, coming off as mere filler. But a worse problem on opening night was a sound system that often failed to elevate the generally fine voices above the large band conducted by James Dodgson. It sometimes was hard to pick out the lyrics, particularly in the group numbers.

Working under Jeff Calhoun’s direction, DeLuca makes Jack such a caricature of New York swagger that he’s not as compelling a hero as he might be. (Also, he seemed to suffer from subpar amplification at Tuesday’s performance.) But Styles turns Katherine into a lovable heroine, while Blanchard’s Pulitzer is such an effectively loathsome villain that you can almost imagine him twirling his mustache.

The real stars, though, are choreographer Christopher Gattelli and his spinning, leaping and somersaulting dancers. Several numbers fill Tobin Ost’s set with amazing moments of motion.

The dancing makes this musical history lesson as impressive as it is inspiring.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Newsies through Sunday (Jan. 18) at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $28-$98. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.

Struggling to grow up in the Reagan era

Newsies demonstrates that 1890s young adults could accomplish quite a lot when they put their minds to it. Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth, in contrast, shows that 1980s young adults could accomplish next to nothing, especially when their minds were clouded by drugs and immaturity.

It’s a savvy, clever portrait of an era and an age group that is entertaining until it gets bogged down in talkiness and redundancy, as it does during the second act.

In Warehouse Theatre Company’s production, the three actors give fully committed performances under Kristofer Green’s direction: John Connor as the self-absorbed Dennis, Jesse Massaro as the self-doubting Warren and Erin Mellon as the emotionally cautious Jessica.

Will Warren find a way to recover the $15,000 he stole from his hated father? And will he ever connect with Jessica, the oblivious object of his romantic obsession?

Such questions hold the viewers’ interest for a while, but Lonergan eventually overplays his dramatic cards. It’s a shame, because the actors do everything they can to keep us involved.

It’s a valiant effort, to say the least.

Warehouse Theatre Company will present This Is Our Youth at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday (Jan. 15-17) at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $22, $15 student rush. 614-371-5940 or warehousetheatre.org.

Explicitly sexual and deliriously funny

A sampling of the characters and costumes featured in Sex at the Box (Shadowbox Live photo)
A sampling of the characters and costumes featured in Sex at the Box (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades 

Is your heart healthy enough for Sex at the Box?

This may not be Shadowbox Live’s sexiest show—that honor belongs to the midweek offering Burlesque Biographie—but it’s easily Shadowbox’s funniest show of recent memory. If you’re not sure whether your body is up to two hours’ worth of hearty guffaws, you’d better get your doctor’s approval before attending.

A few more distinctions held by the theme show:

  • Funniest Shadowbox skit in years.
  • Most explicit skit in the history of Sex at the Box.
  • Best Shadowbox cover song of all time.

Just in case you’re wondering whether you should bring your children or parents to Sex at the Box, I’ll start with the “most explicit” skit. Called Holy Hell, it stars Tom Cardinal as a priest and JT Walker III as Henry, an unmarried parishioner who seeks forgiveness for what he describes as the best sex he’s ever had. When the priest demands details, Henry provides them at length and with great specificity.

Should you bring your kids or parents to the show? Unless the former are very mature or the latter are very broadminded, absolutely not.

Most Shadowbox theme shows have at least one or two good skits like this one. What sets Sex at the Box apart is that just about every skit is top-drawer from beginning to end. Other winners include:

  • In a Bar: A squeaky-voiced would-be Lothario (Brandon Anderson) has no luck attracting the opposite sex until he’s aided by the “In a world…” tones of a movie-trailer announcer (Walker).
  • The Friend Zone: The Twilight Zone’s Rod Sterling (Robbie Nance) narrates the spooky tale of a man (Jimmy Mak) whose amorous feelings are strangely invisible to the woman he desires (Amy Lay).
  • Life Duet: Mak and Lay silently portray a couple whose changing relationship is defined by the music they play on the car radio.
  • Sneak a Peak—Dirty Movies: In the funniest episode yet of the faux movie-review show, hosts Shelly and John (Julie Klein and David Whitehouse) look at various porno scenes that invariably climax in the appearance of the heroine’s sexy sister.

As it plans to do throughout its 25th-anniversary season, Shadowbox also brings back a vintage skit. The Pyramid Game, a TV-style competition pitting a geeky Upper Arlington couple (Mak and Katy Psenicka) against a pair of South Siders (Whitehouse and Lay), is cute, but it’s not as consistently funny as some of the newer sketches.

And nothing is as funny as Funk Daddy Love, in which the titular soul singer is put on trial for the “crime” of being too sexy. Anderson gives a hilarious portrayal of Love, who breaks into one of his down-and-dirty ballads whenever the mood hits him.

Musically, Sex at the Box offers an embarrassment of riches. The best covers and their lead singers include Just Like Heaven (Anderson), Sex and Candy (Walker) and Glorybox (Lay). The BillWho? band provides its usual spot-on accompaniment, as when it backs up Lay’s vocals with unmistakably Portishead-like sounds.

The most surprising cover is the last: Queen’s gospel-style Somebody to Love, sung by an eight-person chorus. The most familiar is The Way You Make Me Feel, which finds Noelle Grandison returning to Michael Jackson mode while lithe dancer Nick Wilson accompanies her with Jackson-like moves.

What’s the best cover of all—in fact, perhaps the best cover tune ever heard on a Shadowbox stage? No contest. It’s Klein’s flawless and passionate take on Janis Joplin’s Ball and Chain.

Even if your heart is healthy enough for Sex at the Box, your voice might not survive the hootin’ and hollerin’ you’ll want to do once this gem is finished.

Sex at the Box continues through March 21 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday (no shows March 6, 7 or 14). Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.