Motown musical is like sunshine on a cloudy day

Playing the Supremes in Motown the Musical are (from left): Krisha Marcano (Florence Ballard), Allison Semmes (Diana Ross) and Trisha Jeffrey (Mary Wilson) (photo by Joan Marcus)
Playing the Supremes in Motown the Musical are (from left): Krisha Marcano (Florence Ballard), Allison Semmes (Diana Ross) and Trisha Jeffrey (Mary Wilson) (photo by Joan Marcus)

By Richard Ades

The curtain rises to reveal facsimiles of old Motown groups singing snippets of their hits. From the beginning, it’s clear that Motown the Musical is all about the music.

It’s only after we’ve been treated to several smartly choreographed numbers that the show introduces to the man around whom it revolves: Berry Gordy Jr. (Chester Gregory), who founded Motown and now is threatening to boycott a 1983 celebration of the record label’s 25th anniversary. Why? Because he holds a grudge against the many artists who abandoned it over the years.

Based on Gordy’s 1994 autobiography, the musical then backs up and begins recounting his long career.

First seen as a young boy growing up in Detroit, Gordy quickly develops into a brash young man who pushes his way into the music business by writing hits for singer Jackie Wilson (Rashad Naylor). But he soon becomes fed up with seeing his songs relegated to the B-sides of lesser efforts, so Gordy founds his own label.

This, however, introduces a whole new problem. Mainstream radio stations refuse to play black music—then known as “race music”—despite Gordy’s assurances that his soul/pop tunes appeal to everyone. His claim is borne out by a Southern concert that attracts a multiracial audience, which police officers struggle to keep segregated into “white” and “colored” sections of the auditorium.

Of the two acts, Act 1 is more interesting due to scenes like this that reflect the tenor of the times. It ends in the 1960s, a decade marked by hopeful activism and soul-rending violence: the Vietnam War, the assassination of a president and a King, and Detroit’s 1967 riot. On a more personal level, it also covers Gordy’s blossoming relationship with Diana Ross (Allison Semmes), lead singer of the Supremes.

Act 2 covers Motown’s move to Los Angeles and Gordy’s determination to turn Ross into a solo artist and a movie star. Inevitably, though, it becomes the story of Gordy and Motown’s gradual decline, which makes it much like every other musical biography.

Along the way, we get a few tidbits of information about Gordy’s relationships with Motown’s various stars. While these are sometimes interesting, the details are sketchy and sometimes are left out entirely—as when Gordy and an aggrieved musical group take each other to court. In such cases, it’s hard to forget that we’re hearing only Gordy’s side of the story.

A young version of the Jackson 5 makes an appearance in Motown the Musical (photo by Joan Marcus)
A young version of the Jackson 5 makes an appearance in Motown the Musical (photo by Joan Marcus)

But whatever the show lacks in narrative depth, it makes up for by allowing us to bask in one Motown hit after another. ABC, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Dancing in the Street: The nostalgic moments just keep on coming.

In the touring show, directed by Charles Randolph-Wright and accompanied by Darryl Archibald’s funky band, the songs are delivered with power and grace.

Semmes is great as Ross, seeming to gather strength as the night goes on. Though Gordy is known for promoting music rather than singing it, actor Gregory also comports himself well when he raises his voice in song. Semmes and Gregory’s duet You’re All I Need to Get By is one of the show’s sweetest numbers.

Also prominent are Jesse Nager as Smokey Robinson and the fleet-footed J.J. Batteast (alternating with Leon Outlaw Jr.) as a young Michael Jackson. On opening night, Nik Walker filled in for Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye and displayed one of the most impressive voices of all.

David Korins’s scenery is spare, relying on Natasha Katz’s lighting to set the scene and mood. Esosa’s costume designs are period-appropriate and properly flashy.

Motown may not be a great musical, but it’s a musical with great music. Whether or not you’re old enough to remember the titular record label’s heyday, you’re sure to have fun.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Motown the Musical through Feb. 28 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. 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. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $33-$113. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.

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Time traveler meets man who broke baseball’s color barrier

By Richard Ades

This Black History Month is proving to be particularly educational.

The same week that the Jesse Owens biopic Race opened nationwide, Columbus Children’s Theatre opened Jackie & Me. Written by Steven Dietz and Dan Gutman, the drama is about a boy who time-travels back to 1947 just in time to see the legendary Jackie Robinson integrate baseball’s Major Leagues.

This may sound like science fiction, but it doesn’t come off that way because the time travel is simply a means to an end—the end being a chance to teach young viewers about a key event in African-Americans’ struggle for equal rights. The play also functions as an inspirational tale about how a young boy learns to deal with his own struggles by observing how Robinson deals with his.

Joey (Collin Grubbs) is a 10-year-old with one big passion—baseball. Unfortunately, he also has a hot temper that often gets him in trouble, including when he’s playing his favorite sport. Though the script doesn’t spell it out, the implication is that his anger stems from the fact that his parents (Jenna Lee Shively and Morgan Thomas Mills) recently separated.

Marital splits are a pretty mature topic for a play aimed at youngsters, and it’s not the only one tackled by Jackie & Me. The Polish-American Joey is taunted with ethnic slurs on the baseball diamond, and he faces even worse slurs when he travels back to 1947 and discovers, much to his surprise, that he’s been transformed into an African-American.

For viewers old enough to deal with the subject matter (CCT suggests a minimum age of 7), the play offers an important history lesson. Joey arrives in the office of Brooklyn Dodgers manager Branch Rickey (Brent Alan Burington) just in time to hear him offer Robinson (Eric Qualls) a spot on the previously all-white team. He then hangs around while Robinson deals with problems ranging from racist taunts to his own self-doubts.

Working under William Goldsmith’s direction, pretty much everyone in the cast gives a strong performance, including several actors who play multiple roles. However, the bulk of the dramatic load falls on the shoulders of 11-year-old Collin Grubbs, who meets the challenge with assurance. On opening night, his only problem was a tendency to race through his lines so fast that they were sometimes hard to catch.

As a matter of fact, the entire production might benefit from slowing down and taking a breath a little more often to let the emotions percolate. Despite all the amazing and frightful adventures Joey undergoes, we’re given time to feel neither amazement nor fear.

Truthfully, the script doesn’t help, keeping the characters one-dimensional and treating time travel as nothing special. Even Joey’s parents, who know of his era-hopping ability, send him off to 1947 as if they were dropping him off at the bus stop.

Making matters worse, a video sequence meant to symbolize Joey’s trek through time looks more like a trip through a body’s digestive system. On the other hand, Ray Zupp’s semi-realistic scenery and Brendan Michna’s expressive lighting serve the production well.

Despite the play’s dramatic limitations, Jackie & Me does fulfill its prime function. Namely, it gives young viewers a valuable history lesson while teaching them the importance of self-control. That makes it worthwhile family viewing.

Columbus Children’s Theatre will present Jackie & Me through Feb. 28 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 10 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. Friday, 1 and 5 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$25, $15-$20 children, students and seniors; all tickets $12 on Thursday. 614-224-6672 or columbuschildrenstheatre.org.

Fading film star shares stage with oversized suppository

Doug Joseph (standing) and Ralph E. Scott in Die, Mommie, Die! (photo by Jerri Shafer)
Doug Joseph (standing) and Ralph E. Scott in Die, Mommie, Die! (photo by Jerri Shafer)

By Richard Ades

I first saw Die, Mommie, Die! in its original off-Broadway production back in 2007. Strangely, I don’t remember much about it other than the fact that playwright Charles Busch played Angela Arden, a once-big Hollywood star whose career is as tattered as her marriage.

I think I got a few laughs out of the New York show, but I got many more from Short North Stage’s current revival of the campy comedy. Directed by Edward Carignan, the production boasts all sorts of strengths, starting with its cast.

Filling in for Busch as Angela, Doug Joseph proves once again that he’s the master (mistress?) at this kind of cross-dressing role. He plays the aging diva with just enough exaggeration to make it clear we’re watching a spoof. Specifically, we’re watching a spoof of “hag horror” flicks such as Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte and Die! Die! My Darling!

Equally on the mark is Ralph E. Scott’s portrayal of husband Sol Sussman, a producer who knows Angela has been fooling around while he’s been away raising money for his latest epic. But his wife’s infidelity is no higher than third on his list of problems, which include a business transaction with the mob and a killer case of constipation.

My main reservation about the production is Nick Lingnofski’s take on Angela’s not-so-secret lover, former TV star Tony Parker. Lingnofski can usually be counted on to improve whatever show he’s in, but here he spends so much time preening and posing that the character never comes alive. It’s like Lingnofski is playing a hack actor playing a hack actor, an approach that seems distractingly out of place.

Erin Mellon is fun as daughter Edith, who hates her mother nearly as much as she loves her father—and who expresses that love in ways that border on incest. Johnny Robison has his hands full playing her brother, Lance, a character marked by (1) mental challenges, (2) awakening sexual urges and (3) an out-of-control temper. On opening night, I didn’t always feel he combined all three in a coherent way, but he mostly succeeded.

Rounding out the cast, Josie Merkle does a fine job as longtime maid Bootsie Carp, whose loyalty to Sol makes her a liability to Angela.

In tune with the “hag horror” theme, the 1967-set tale includes murderous plotting on the part of Angela. In tune with the campy atmosphere, the story is spiced up with copious amounts of outrageousness, including an encounter with a painfully large suppository.

Bill Pierson’s set design perfectly captures 1960s decorating trends, right down to the planter and the star-shaped clock on the wall. Rob Kuhn’s lighting, along with well-placed sound effects and snippets of mood music, underline the faux-melodramatic atmosphere.

One reason this all plays so well is that it unfolds in the Garden Theater’s intimate Green Room, which allows viewers to catch the actors’ every glance, leer and frown. But of course, that’s an advantage only because nearly every glance, leer and frown is delivered so flawlessly.

Short North Stage will present Die, Mommie, Die! through Feb. 21 at Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25 general seating, $30 reserved. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

‘Best of Burlesque’ strips out the plot, leaves the stripping

Leah Haviland, one of the featured performers in The Best of Shadowbox (Shadowbox Live photo)
Leah Haviland, one of the featured performers in The Best of Burlesque (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

Shadowbox Live’s annual Best of Shadowbox shows often benefit from honing—the honing that takes place once the players have enough performances under their belts to realize what does and doesn’t work.

You’d think the same would apply to the current Best of Burlesque show, which repeats the best skits and song/dance/striptease numbers from the three previous Burlesque shows. But it doesn’t, at least as far as the skits are concerned.

Since they’re based on actual routines that were performed in old vaudeville houses, director Stev Guyer and his cast probably don’t feel free to tweak the material. And since the acting is based on the over-the-top clowning that was practiced back in the day, Shadowbox doesn’t have much room to tweak that, either.

The result is that if you’ve seen these skits before, you won’t find much that’s fresh here. Of course, if you haven’t been to the previous Burlesque shows, you’ll likely enjoy the comedy, assuming you have a high tolerance for corny jokes about the kinds of things our grandparents or great-grandparents found amusing.

Fortunately, the rest of the show bases its appeal on something that’s more timeless: sex. Because The Best of Burlesque omits the loose storyline that tied its predecessors together, it can pack in more song-and-dance numbers that inevitably leave women stripped down to their pasties and/or men stripped down to their skivvies.

Not all of these numbers are equally inspired. But when the songs are strong, the costumes are colorful and the stripping is done with panache and attitude, you can’t help sitting up and taking notice.

One number that combines great singing and great stripping is Bang Bang, with lead vocals by a fearless Leah Haviland. Shadowbox wisely places it at the end of Act 1, which allows viewers to step outside and cool off during intermission.

Act 2 kicks back into high gear with The Mating Game, in which vocalist Amy Lay holds forth in an impossibly tall and feathery hat while fairy-like creatures cavort around her. That’s soon followed by a funny and sexy take on the Coasters song Little Red Riding Hood. Brandon Anderson handles the vocals while a raunchy version of the titular fairy tale is acted out by Nikki Fagin as Red, Stacie Boord as Grandma and Guillermo Jemmott as the lascivious Wolf.

A dark perversion of sexuality is represented by Sweet Dreams, sung by Fagin and Jemmott while Jack the Ripper (Andy Ankrom) saunters around in search of his next victim. It’s one of several numbers that owe much to Aaron Pelzek’s moody lighting.

Also memorable: You Look Like Rain, with lead vocals by Kevin Sweeney and tasty instrumentals by guitarist Matthew Hahn and his band.

As stated earlier, The Best of Burlesque dispenses with a storyline. Partially taking its place are video biographies of Gypsy Rose Lee and other iconic strippers of years past. These are scattered throughout and offer interesting tidbits of information, such as the fact that erotic dancers were sometimes featured at world’s fairs. I’d always assumed these were more family-friendly affairs.

The videos made me wonder whether Shadowbox might decide to re-create some of these ladies’ classic dances for future Burlesque shows. From a historic, nostalgic and, ahem, every other standpoint, they’d be a great addition.

The Best of Burlesque continues through April 17 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 student/senior/military. Special Valentine’s Day packages are available for Feb. 14 performances. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Graczyk, Grossberg honored at Roundtable awards gala

The cast of Gallery Players' production of Les Miserables sings One Day More at the Theatre Roundtable's 2016 Awards Night (photos by Jerri Shafer
The Theatre Roundtable’s 2016 Awards Night featured performances from nominated musicals, including Gallery Players’ 2015 production of Les Miserables (photos by Jerri Shafer)

By Richard Ades

At one point during the Theatre Roundtable’s annual Awards Night on Sunday, a presenter joked that it was just like the Oscars because we’d been there two hours and were only halfway through. He was exaggerating a little, but the show did run quite a bit longer than usual.

At least the weather was cooperative—unlike last year, when an incoming winter storm darkened the usually festive atmosphere. Besides, there were enough high points that most people probably didn’t mind sticking around.

The Central Ohio Theatre Critics Circle provided one of the highest points: an appearance by Ed Graczyk. He received the circle’s Roy Bowen Lifetime Achievement Award for, among other things, leading Players Theatre Columbus for many years and writing the groundbreaking play Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.

Taking part in the Theatre Roundtable’s 2016 Awards Night are critics (from left) Paul Batterson, Jay Weitz, Christina Mancuso, Michael Grossberg, Margaret Quamme, Richard Sanford and (at the podium) Richard Ades (photos by Jerri Shafer)
Taking part in the Theatre Roundtable’s 2016 Awards Night are critics (from left) Paul Batterson, Jay Weitz, Christina Mancuso, Michael Grossberg, Margaret Quamme, Richard Sanford and (at the podium) Richard Ades

Also honored by the critics were Evolution Theatre Company, Short North Stage, Shadowbox Live and MadLab’s former artistic director, Andy Batt. Before walking off with his citation, Batt delighted the audience by turning the tables on the critics, passing out both praise and pans to the people who’d long been judging his work as an actor and director.

Later—much later—in the evening, critic Michael Grossberg received an honor of his own: the Roundtable’s treasured Harold Award. The group probably chose to present it this year because Grossberg officially retired in 2015 when The Columbus Dispatch’s new owners made dozens of staff cuts. But fortunately for the local theater scene, the Dispatch is still counting on him to lead theater coverage, the only difference being that now he’s doing it as a freelancer.

The evening also included excerpts from 2015 musicals that were nominated for Roundtable awards. For me, the most exciting moment came when Gallery PlayersLes Miserables cast reassembled for a rendition of One Day More. It was a spectacular reminder of just how great that production really was.

For a list of Sunday’s nominees and winners, visit www.theatre-roundtable.org. It includes everything but the citations presented by the Central Ohio Theatre Critics Circle, which are listed below:

▪ To Evolution Theatre Company and managing artistic director Mark Schwamberger for a lineup of 2015 productions that entertained viewers while fulfilling the troupe’s refocused mission of advancing the understanding of gender issues and exploring gay and lesbian themes.

Andy Batt critiques the critics after accepting a citation for his longtime leadership of MadLab Theatre
Accepting a citation for his longtime leadership of MadLab Theatre, Andy Batt takes advantage of the opportunity to critique the critics

▪ To Andy Batt, who stepped down as MadLab’s artistic director at the end of 2015, for leading the troupe through 13 years of growth and development that included its 2012 launch of an annual festival for high school playwrights and its 2010 purchase and renovation of a performance space and gallery that has helped to nurture both the performing and visual arts in Downtown Columbus.

▪ To Short North Stage for making a major commitment to nurturing new musicals in 2015 with its successful world premieres of The Great One, The Last Night of Disco and Krampus: A Yuletide Fable.

▪ To Shadowbox Live for celebrating its 25th anniversary by stretching itself with inventive rock tribute shows and collaborations, both local and international.

Critic Michael Grossberg prepares to present a Roy Bowen Lifetime Achievement Award to Ed Graczyk
Critic Michael Grossberg prepares to present a Roy Bowen Lifetime Achievement Award to Ed Graczyk

▪ A Roy Bowen Lifetime Achievement Award to Ed Graczyk, an accomplished director and nationally known playwright, who led Players Theatre Columbus from the 1970s into the early 1990s and wrote Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, a pioneering transgender comedy-drama that premiered at Players in 1976, ran on Broadway and became a Robert Altman film in 1982 and is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2016.