Front Street troupe was particularly ambitious in 2015

One of the beautiful stage pictures offered by Short North Stage’s production of A Little Night Music (photo by Ray Zupp)
One of the beautiful stage pictures offered by Short North Stage’s production of A Little Night Music (photo by Ray Zupp)

By Richard Ades

I try not to play favorites when I’m making out my annual “best of” list, but it’s hard to avoid the fact that one Columbus theater company was a dominant force in 2015. Shadowbox Live had so many great and unique shows that I could just about draw up a separate list devoted solely to the troupe on Front Street.

To some extent, this is no surprise. Shadowbox is by far the biggest and busiest company in town. At any given time, it divides its week up among multiple productions.

In 2015, though, Shadowbox seemed to be trying harder than ever. Not only were several of its variety shows particularly enjoyable, but it launched all-new productions that were like nothing we’d ever seen.

Shadowbox’s ambition didn’t always pay off. After putting everything else on hold for its fall production of The Tenshu, the kabuki-inspired tale turned out to be visually exhilarating but dramatically dull. But Joe Cocker: Mad Dog and Englishman was a joyful musical tribute, while the Pink Floyd retrospective Which One’s Pink? had moments of pure genius.

To top the year off, Shadowbox announced plans to purchase its expansive Brewery District venue. It’s a gutsy move, but if anyone can pull it off, it’s Stev Guyer and company.

Jean Valjean (Bill Hafner, left) risks being recognized by Javert (Scott Green, center) when he intercedes on behalf of Fantine (Melissa Muguruza), who’s being detained by two local constables (Derryck Menard and Emerson Elias) in this scene from Les Miserables (photo by Jerri Shafer)
Jean Valjean (Bill Hafner, left) risks being recognized by Javert (Scott Green, center) when he intercedes on behalf of Fantine (Melissa Muguruza) in this scene from Gallery Players’ production of Les Miserables (photo by Jerri Shafer)

Beyond Shadowbox, my 2015 was highlighted by two wonderful musical productions: Gallery Players’ Les Miserables and Short North Stage’s A Little Night Music. The former was the year’s biggest surprise. I’d previously seen four productions of Les Miz, including two touring shows and the 2012 film version, but I’d never found Jean Valjean’s saga as moving as it was on the Jewish Community Center stage.

On a more modest scale, several of the year’s biggest treats were provided by little Evolution Theatre Company, which staged gay-centered shows that were at once enjoyable and consciousness-raising. Especially rewarding were the WWII musical Yank!, the historical drama The Temperamentals and the Texas-based comedy Sordid Lives.

Also interesting: Wild Women Writing’s On the Edge and Over the Edge, collaborations with Short North Stage that featured short works by Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and contemporary American playwright Will Eno.

A few of the other shows were mixed successes for me: I had reservations about the works themselves, but I admired the way they were staged. Warehouse Theatre Company’s This Is Our Youth, Available Light Theatre’s The Christians, MadLab’s Clowntime Is Over and A&B Theatrical’s Devotion all fell into this category.

Outright disappointments? Of course there were some, but maybe the biggest was that I missed many shows that doubtlessly were worthwhile. Often I was too busy or out of town. In the case of one popular show staged in a relatively small space, I simply couldn’t get a ticket. At any rate, it should be remembered that any “best of” list is limited by what that particular critic has or hasn’t seen.

Obviously, 2015’s biggest shock was the unexpected death of Actors’ Theatre artistic director John S. Kuhn in late February. Though it was a great loss to the company and the theater community at large, Actors’ staff and supporters came together to ensure that the outdoor troupe’s summer season went forward as planned. Since then, Actors’ Theatre has named Philip J. Hickman as its new artistic director and announced a promising 2016 season, offering hope that the troupe will continue to build on the gains it made under Kuhn’s leadership.

On that somber but optimistic note, here’s my list of the best productions and performances of 2015:

Best play: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Adrenaline Theatre Company. Director Audrey Rush and her cast brought fire and commitment to Edward Albee’s tale of a monstrously dysfunctional relationship.

Best musical (tie): Les Miserables, Gallery Players; and A Little Night Music, Short North Stage. The former demonstrated that Les Miz still has the power to move us. The latter proved once again that Short North Stage has a way with Sondheim.

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)

Best variety show: Sex at the Box, Shadowbox Live. The show’s many highlights included Shadowbox’s funniest skit in years (Funk Daddy Love, starring Brandon Anderson) and perhaps its best cover song ever (Ball and Chain, with Julie Klein expertly channeling Janis Joplin).

Best touring show: Anything Goes, Broadway in Columbus/CAPA. Watching the seagoing musical was like crossing the Atlantic while time-traveling back to the 1930s.

Best new work: Krampus: A Yuletide Tale, Short North Stage. Created by Nils-Petter Ankarblom and Carrie Gilchrist, the musical was a delightfully menacing alternative to A Christmas Carol. Honorable mention: The Great One: A Hockey Musical, Short North Stage.

Best “far out!” moment: Act 2 of Which One’s Pink?, Shadowbox Live. Footage from The Wizard of Oz was combined with live re-enactments of scenes from the film, live performances of music from Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon album and interpretive video by CCAD students. Bravo to director Stev Guyer and his talented collaborators.

Best direction (tie): David R. Bahgat, Les Miserables, Gallery Players; and Michael Licata, A Little Night Music, Short North Stage. Both directors performed miracles with the help of talented casts and crews. Bahgat made the familiar Les Miz as affecting as ever, while Licata brought out every tender, aching moment in Sondheim’s tale of longing and regret.

Best performance, female: Marya Spring, A Little Night Music, Short North Stage. Spring exuded both worldly confidence and vulnerability as glamorous actress Desiree.

Dr. Eve Bolinger (Ruth Sternberg) tries to “de-homosexualize” Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram (Mark Phillips Schwamberger) in Evolution Theatre Company’s production of Sordid Lives (photo by Jerri Shafer)
Dr. Eve Bolinger (Ruth Sternberg) tries to “de-homosexualize” Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram (Mark Phillips Schwamberger) in Evolution Theatre Company’s production of Sordid Lives (photo by Jerri Shafer)

Best performance, male: Bill Hafner, Les Miserables, Gallery Players. Hafner sang beautifully while portraying Jean Valjean with just the right combination of nobility and humility.

Best cross-dressing performance: Mark Phillips Schwamberger, Sordid Lives, Evolution Theatre Company. The musical shifted into high gear only after Schwamberger appeared as the pitiable but hilarious “Brother Boy.”

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Mythical ogre stalks kids in musical yuletide tale

A scene from Short North Stage's production of Krampus, a Yuletide Tale (photo courtesy of Short North Stage)
Krampus (JJ Parkey, center) terrorizes Flora (Emma Lou Andrews) and Bruno (William Gorgas) while St. Nicholas (Edward Carignan) watches on (photo courtesy of Short North Stage)

By Richard Ades

Christmas, at its essence, is a holiday devoted to hope and redemption.

Thus, it’s not surprising that redemption is at the heart of the granddaddy of all holiday yarns, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. And it’s also at the heart of Krampus: A Yuletide Tale, a musical that’s wrapping up its world-premiere run this weekend at Short North Stage’s Garden Theater.

Another similarity to A Christmas Carol: The road to redemption is a scary one indeed, probably too scary for small children. But for adults and mature youngsters, Krampus is a bracingly original journey.

With music by Nils-Petter Ankarblom (who also leads the three-piece band), and book and lyrics by Ankarblom and Carrie Gilchrist (who also directs), Krampus feels like an instant classic. The songs are beautiful and varied, and the story is thought-provoking and involving.

The title character (JJ Parkey) is a demon-like figure from Austro-Bavarian folklore who is said to kidnap and punish naughty children during the Christmas season. In this story, he sets his sights on siblings Flora (Emma Lou Andrews) and Bruno (William Gorgas), the offspring of penniless widow Anna Schlecht (Stephanie Prince).

Flora and Bruno aren’t really bad kids—they simply make a bad decision in order to help Anna avoid being evicted by their money-grubbing landlord, Herr Ulrich (Luke Stewart). But this momentary lapse is enough to remove them from the good graces of St. Nicholas (Edward Carignan), the forerunner of our modern Santa Claus.

Contributing to the tale’s charm is the intimate way it’s presented. Viewers sit on the stage of the Garden’s big auditorium, placing them a handful of feet away from Carignan’s storybook-like set. The imaginative costumes (also designed by Carignan) and the dramatic lighting add to the magical atmosphere.

The only production’s only technical shortcoming is that the band occasionally overpowers the vocals. This is mostly a matter of sound mixing, but Prince adds to the problem by singing some of her lines at a nearly inaudible level.

In the two showiest roles, Parkey and Carignan are spectacularly successful. Parkey makes a fearsome but somehow vulnerable Krampus, while Carignan is a surprisingly officious St. Nicholas. (Those of a spiritual bent may read religious significance into the implication that the mythic figures are but two sides of the same coin.) Both actors sing beautifully, but Carignan’s rich voice is put to particularly good use on St. Nick’s introductory solo, On This Night of December Fifth.

Among the human characters, Andrews’s Flora is the most engaging, but all of the cast members display heart and commitment.

Any new work can benefit from a tweak or two, and Krampus could stand to whittle down some of its sappier elements. Otherwise, this new work is just about perfect.

As I said, an instant classic.

Short North Stage will present Krampus, a Yuletide Tale through Dec. 20 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes. Tickets are $25, $15 for children. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

What’s a nice Jewish girl like you doing in a Christmas pageant like this?

Rose Clubok (right) as Shirley and Georgia Fried as her best friend, Evie, in the Gallery Players production of Coney Island Christmas (photo by Rebecca Barger-Amato)
Rose Clubok (right) as Shirley and Georgia Fried as her best friend, Evie, in the Gallery Players production of Coney Island Christmas (photo by Rebecca Barger-Amato)

By Richard Ades

I always wondered how Sandy Cohen felt about playing the Virgin Mary.

Sandy was one of the two Jewish girls who were in my class in elementary school. She played Mary in our annual Christmas pageant, this being back in the days when most people thought it was perfectly normal to hold a religious drama in a public school.

Then again, most people weren’t Jewish. I assume Sandy wanted to play the plum part or she wouldn’t have tried out for it, but how did she feel about our school hosting this seasonal Christian event while ignoring Hanukkah? For that matter, how did her parents feel?

Such questions occurred to me after seeing Gallery Players’ charming production of Coney Island Christmas. Written by Donald Margulies (The Loman Family Picnic), it’s about a Jewish girl who lands an even bigger role in her own school’s Christmas pageant: Jesus Christ.

Cursed with an obnoxiously loud voice and low self-esteem, Shirley Abromowitz (Rose Clubok) is thrilled when drama teacher Mr. Hilton (Rick Cohen) asks her to play the adult Jesus, who serves as the pageant’s narrator. Her supportive father (Brian A. Belair) also is thrilled for her, but her mother (Kate Willis), not so much. An immigrant who came to America to escape anti-Semitism, she sees the play as yet another form of persecution.

The family dispute develops in Brooklyn in the 1940s and is presented in the form of a memory that the adult Shirley (Laurie Alexander) relates to her young granddaughter, Clara (Nora Butter).

Nora Butter (left) as Clara, Laurie Alexander as adult Shirley and Rose Clubok as young Shirley (photo by Jared Saltman)
Nora Butter (left) as Clara, Laurie Alexander as adult Shirley and Rose Clubok as young Shirley (photo by Jared Saltman)

Co-directors April Olt and Sonda Staley make good use of the Jewish Community Center’s big stage, allowing the story to hop from place to place, and from the present to the past, without skipping a beat. More importantly, they make good use of their large cast, particularly its younger members.

Rose Clubok’s Shirley seldom sounds as loud as she’s described, but she’s a lovable and compelling heroine. Other youngsters give unforced performances as her fellow students, which makes it all the funnier when they overact their way through Mr. Hilton’s Thanksgiving and Christmas productions.

The adult cast members—including Laura Crone as music teacher Mrs. Glace—are equally on target. Mr. and Mrs. Abromowitz’s squabbling scenes do tend to drag a bit, but the eventual emotional payoff is worth the wait.

Alexander holds it all together as the adult Shirley, who both narrates and plays a supporting role in the extended flashback to her childhood. As the granddaughter to whom she tells the tale—a role that mostly consists of observing quietly—Nora Butter displays poise and confidence.

Jon Baggs’s scenery, Debbie Hamrick’s costumes and Jarod Wilson’s sound and lighting design are all unobtrusively effective.

My only real quibble with Margulies’s comedy is that it could be more sympathetic to Mrs. Abromowitz. She comes across as an unfeeling parent when she tries to keep Shirley out of the Christmas pageant, but she really is right that the school shouldn’t be favoring one religion over another.

As a memory play, though, Coney Island Christmas captures the spirit of a time when few questioned this lack of division between church and state. It also celebrates children like Shirley who were strong enough to survive the era with their identities intact.

Gallery Players will present Coney Island Christmas through Dec. 20 at the Jewish Community Center, 1125 College Ave., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes. Tickets are $20 ($15 for JCC member), $18 for ages 60-plus ($13 for JCC members), $10 students/children. 614-231-2731 or www.jccgalleryplayers.org.