[title of review]

Annie Huckaba, Bradley Johnson, Elisabeth Zimmerman and Jonathan Collura (clockwise from front) star in CATCO’s production of [title of show]
Annie Huckaba, Bradley Johnson, Elisabeth Zimmerman and Jonathan Collura (clockwise from front) star in CATCO’s production of [title of show]
By Richard Ades

I arrive at the Riffe Center’s Studio Three and prepare to watch CATCO’s cabaret-style production of [title of show]. The intimate room is a pleasant place to watch theater, but I have my doubts about whether I should be watching this particular piece of theater.

My trepidation stems from what I’ve heard about Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell’s offbeat musical, which first appeared in 2004, had an off-Broadway run in 2006 and finally turned up on Broadway for about three months in 2008. What I’ve heard is that the show is loaded with inside jokes and references that only gay, theater-obsessed New Yorkers can fully appreciate.

As the show begins, my fears seem justified. Some jokes fly right by me, while others just don’t seem that funny. Several audience members seem equally mystified—indeed, I can see one woman across the room who doesn’t crack a smile for the entire two hours and 10 minutes.

However, a small group of viewers makes up for this by laughing at nearly everything the cast does. Looking around, I realize that most of the laughs are coming from four men sitting in a tight circle. To be sure, many viewers chuckle or at least smile at various jokes, but this quartet supplies the bulk of the audience response.

So what is this show that appeals—intentionally, as it turns out—to such a select audience? It’s basically a musical about putting on a musical. Composer/lyricist Bowen and book writer Bell wanted to enter a show in an upcoming theater festival, and since they didn’t have any ideas, they decided to make the show its own subject.

A bit self-indulgent, don’t you think? Like the theatrical equivalent of a taking a selfie? Yes, and some of the early humor acknowledges that fact by focusing on the creators’ superficiality. In particular, the show’s version of Hunter is loath to begin a new project because he’s too involved in watching TV’s The Bachelor and Project Runway.

If the musical has any depth and universal meaning, it involves the participants’ desire to do something that would finally allow them to make theater the center of their existences. The self-doubt that prevents all of us from taking necessary chances in life is lampooned in one of the better songs, Die, Vampire, Die.

Back to Studio Three: As I watch the musical unfold under Joe Bishara’s direction, I admire both the cast’s singing and the keyboard work of accompanist Quinton Jones. But I also think the actors are portraying their characters with mixed success. That’s especially true of two female friends who join Jeff and Hunter’s project.

Elisabeth Zimmerman—who played one of my favorite characters in CATCO’s wonderful 2013 production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee—is entertaining as Heidi, to the extent that the thinly written role allows her to be. However, Annie Huckaba never quite gels as Susan, instead coming off as a caricature of playful quirkiness.

As for the men, Bradley Johnson is tastefully flamboyant as Hunter, while Jonathan Collura balances him out nicely as the more down-to-earth Jeff. It’s only in the later stages of the play that I begin to think Collura’s Jeff should have shown more passion for their shared project from the beginning. Maybe then the argument that arises late in Act 2 would be more convincing.

Truthfully, though, it’s unfair to blame the actors for anything that happens in Act 2.

The act didn’t even exist when the musical first opened, having been written to explain how the show and its creators changed as it moved to off-Broadway and finally to Broadway itself. Watching the second act in Studio Three, I quickly decide that adding it was a mistake.

And I’m not alone, judging from the audience’s reaction. Even the four biggest laughers are noticeably quiet as Jeff, Hunter, Susan and Heidi argue endlessly about whether they’ll ever get the show to Broadway and whether all of them will still be on board if and when it gets there.

Finally, Hunter suggests it’s time to bring the elongated show to an end, noting, “We can’t keep adding everything that happens to us.” It’s a brilliant insight, though it’s hard not to wish it had occurred to him about half an hour earlier.

Then again, I’m hardly in a position to throw that particular stone. It’s now been days since I saw the show, and I can’t find a way to finish this review, which already has dragged on for way too long.

Should I mention that, while watching the show, I kept thinking Zimmerman was playing Susan because she reminded me so much of the short-lived Seinfeld character of the same name? No, chances are no one else will make the connection, and really, who cares?

I guess I should just finish by addressing the all-important question: Will you enjoy the show? Maybe, maybe not. The creators themselves admit it won’t appeal to everyone, declaring in the finale that they’d rather be “nine people’s favorite thing than 100 people’s ninth-favorite thing.”

It should be obvious by now that [title of show] isn’t my favorite thing, my ninth-favorite thing or even my 90th-favorite thing. But who knows? Maybe it will be your favorite thing—at least until the second act.

CATCO is presenting an open-ended run of [title of show] in Studio Three of the Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $35, $180 for a reserved table of four; a limited number of $15 student tickets will be available two hours before curtain. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.

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Funk Daddy Love shares bill with spirit of Janis Joplin

Two gay fathers (Tom Cardinal, left, and Jimmy Mak) suspect their daughter (Nikki Fagin) of being a closet Republican in Elephant in the Room, one of the skits featured in Best of Shadowbox (Studio 66 photo)
Two gay fathers (Tom Cardinal, left, and Jimmy Mak) suspect their daughter (Nikki Fagin) of being a closet Republican in Elephant in the Room, one of the skits featured in Best of Shadowbox (Studio 66 photo)

By Richard Ades

The annual Best of Shadowbox show basically amounts to summer reruns, consisting of selected songs and skits from previous shows. As a result, it isn’t always something I look forward to.

But this year’s version was different. So much of the material was awesome the first time around that I couldn’t wait to see it again.

Last Friday, I finally got the chance. It turned out to be just as good as I expected.

Lots of people deserve credit for the show’s success, but let’s start by acknowledging the contributions of Brandon Anderson. Not only does he bookend the first act by handling lead vocals on two of the most entertaining songs—Mama Told Me Not to Come and Bruno Mars’s catchy Uptown Funk—but he portrays the central character in the funniest Shadowbox skit in recent memory.

In Funk Daddy Love, Anderson plays a soul singer who’s on trial for the “crime” of being too sexy. As one witness after another explains how his crooning has affected them, Love repeatedly pulls out a microphone and launches into his unbelievably raunchy ballads.

Anderson is great in the role, but it’s all the little touches that really sell the comedy: the nightclub-style lighting that accompanies his warbling, Katy Psenicka’s turn as the uptight prosecutor, Robbie Nance’s portrayal of the awkward defense attorney, Tom Cardinal’s high-pitched attempts to keep order as the judge. In this and every other featured skit, directors Stev Guyer and Julie Klein make sure everything is honed to perfection.

Other welcome returnees include:

Life Duet: The night’s most romantic skit stars Jimmy Mak and Nikki Fagin as a couple whose decades-long relationship is defined by the songs they listen to on the radio.

Sneak a Peek—Dirty Movies: The best episode yet of the faux movie-review series finds hosts Klein and David Whitehouse sampling adult-rated flicks such as Saving Ryan’s Privates and the badly dubbed Samurai Frog Proctologist. The running joke is that the horny heroine inevitably has an equally horny sister who shows up at an opportune moment.

The Friend Zone: The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling (Nance) narrates the horrifying tale of a hapless guy (Mak) who can’t get to first base because his favorite girl (Fagin) doesn’t even know he’s suited up and ready to play.

Holy Hell: A parishioner (Gabriel Guyer) goes to his priest (Cardinal) to confess a night of debauchery. The piece would be even funnier if the priest’s insistence on details weren’t so unlikely, but it deserves recognition as Shadowbox’s most explicitly sexual skit of all time.

Of the comedy bits I missed the first time around, my favorite is Gymnauseum, in which a substitute gym teacher (Whitehouse) is shocked to learn that dodgeball is considered too taxing for today’s mollycoddled students. Also appealing—at least, up until the weak ending—is Elephant in the Room. It’s about what happens when two gay fathers (Cardinal and a particularly funny Mak) are shocked to learn their daughter (Fagin) may be a closet Republican.

In honor of its 25th anniversary, Shadowbox is bringing back highlights from the troupe’s early years. In this show, the highlight is Steven Lynch’s Lullaby, a song last heard in 2006 at the now-defunct 2Co’s Cabaret. Cardinal again favors the piece with his sweet voice, setting the audience up for a humorous jolt when the lyrics take an unexpected turn.

Other musical selections of note include the two that bookend the second act: Portishead’s All Mine, sung by Stephanie Shull and accompanied by suitably spooky dancing featuring Nance, Fagin and Psenicka; and Queen’s Somebody to Love, harmonized by a gospel-like choir. Sandwiched between these two is the most notable number of all: Klein’s fervent re-creation of Janis Joplin’s Ball and Chain, complete with an extended a cappella section.

As if the show’s live entertainment weren’t enough, it’s punctuated by a collection of often-clever videos. The best is the last: Stev Guyer’s interview with the Columbus Zoo’s Jungle Jack Hanna. Hanna is such a treasure trove of unpredictable drollness that he inspires laughs without even trying.

Presumably, Shadowbox’s regular performers have to work at being as funny and tuneful as they are. Luckily for us, they made the effort.

Best of Shadowbox continues through Aug. 22 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday ( no shows July 3-4). Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

WWII musical is traditional in every way but one

The cast of Yank! The Musical (photo by Jerri Shafer)
The cast of Yank! The Musical (photo by Jerri Shafer)

By Richard Ades

Wartime romance is complicated. When it’s depicted on the stage, it’s also, often, tuneful.

Think South Pacific. Or The Sound of Music. Or Yank! The Musical.

The last may be less well-known than the other two, but it focuses on a type of romance that’s seldom addressed in mainstream entertainment: the same-sex kind.

With a book and lyrics by David Zellnik and music by Joseph Zellnik, it follows the adventures of Stu, a young man who joins the Army during World War II. Stu tries his best to fit in with the ragtag group of guys he trains with, but he can’t help noticing that he stands out. One clue is that he doesn’t share the others’ lascivious fascination with pinup photos of Betty Grable.

The other soldiers seem to sense Stu’s nonconforming nature and kid him mercilessly—or they would if a nice guy named Mitch didn’t stop them. Stu is grateful, but it turns out his feelings for Mitch go far beyond that. One night, when the squad is finally on its way to the war, he acts on those feelings, setting off on a dangerous sequence of events.

Beyond its gay theme, Yank! The Musical is pretty traditional. Stu and Mitch’s squad is geographically and ethnically diverse, just like squads always are in wartime fiction. The songs are pleasant but unmemorable, sounding much like any number of vintage romantic ballads.

Somehow, though, none of this matters. To the contrary, it seems fitting that a gay love story is treated much like its “straight” predecessors. It underscores the fact that gay Americans were fighting for their country right along with the heterosexuals usually depicted in wartime musicals.

Evolution Theatre’s production tells Stu’s story well, thanks to Jimmy Bohr’s beautiful direction and cast of actors who act and sing with equal skill.

Nick Hardin is conflicted but courageous as Stu; William Macke is kind but even more conflicted as Mitch. Other major players include choreographer Brent Fabian as Artie Goldberg and Jesika Siler Lehner as a bevy of show-biz crooners and assorted other women.

Though the musical tackles the serious issue of discrimination against gay soldiers, it doesn’t always do it in a serious way. Particularly funny is the trio of steno-pool workers (Jeb Bigelow, Doug Joseph and Scott Clay) who express their otherness by taking on the characters of Southern belles from Gone With the Wind. Add the lighthearted songs and dance numbers, and you have a show that’s far more pleasant than you’d expect.

Shane Cinal’s scenic design is simple, leaning heavily on patriotic colors, and is bolstered by Nitz (Curtis) Brown’s dramatic lighting. Jason Guthrie’s costumes are similarly simple but place the action in the proper era.

Led by Michael L. Medvidik, the onstage band plays with spirit, even if it hits the occasional sour note. The vocal harmonizing also has its pitchy moments, though the singers do fine when they’re on their own.

A final caveat is that the musical goes on longer that it really needs to, thanks to extraneous numbers like the silly Your Squad Is Your Squad. But the story is so overdue, and it’s told in such a good-natured manner, that you probably won’t mind at all.

Evolution Theatre Company will present Yank! The Musical through June 6 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 students/seniors. 1-800-838-3006 or evolutiontheatre.org.