Singing and dancing overshadow emotion in latest ‘Fiddler’

Appearing in Otterbein University Theatre’s production of Fiddler on the Roof are (front) Lauren Kent (Tzeitel), (rear, from left) Aubree Tally (Golde), Natalie Szczerba (Hodel), John Stefano (Tevye) and Abigail Isom (Chava) (photo by Evan Moore-Coll)
Appearing in Otterbein University Theatre’s production of Fiddler on the Roof are (front) Lauren Kent (Tzeitel), (rear, from left) Aubree Tally (Golde), Natalie Szczerba (Hodel), John Stefano (Tevye) and Abigail Isom (Chava) (photo by Evan Moore-Coll)

By Richard Ades

Otterbein University Theatre apparently is giving Fiddler on the Roof to John Stefano as a going-away present. The professor, who’s retiring after 24 years in the theater and dance department, had long dreamed of playing the iconic dairyman, Tevye.

It’s a wonderful gesture on Otterbein’s part, but it wouldn’t have been surprising if the result had been a production that fell far short of the Tony-winning musical’s potential. After all, you can’t build a show this massive around a single actor.

Thankfully, Otterbein’s theater program is sufficiently rich in talent that its production has several stirring moments.

One of them comes shortly after Tevye introduces us to his Russian hometown, a Jewish community that, in the pre-revolutionary political climate of 1905, is finding life increasingly precarious. Gathering together with their families for the Friday night meal, Tevye and other villagers sing the beautiful Sabbath Prayer.

It’s a heartfelt scene that underscores the message of Tradition, the anthem that opens the show: These humble folks cling to their beliefs and rituals to give meaning to lives mired in poverty, pain and struggle.

Also stirring is the wedding scene in which Tevye and wife Golde (Aubree Talley) marry off the first of their five daughters. Its highlight comes when four dancers perform difficult moves while carefully balancing bottles on their flat-topped hats. Bravo!

In general, director Lenny Leibowitz’s production is at its best in large numbers involving singing and dancing. Otterbein has enough fine vocalists and dancers to carry off Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s glorious anthems and Stella Hiatt Kane’s acrobatic choreography, and rousing accompaniment is supplied by the ample-sized orchestra performing under Lori Kay Harvey’s baton.

Many of the individual actors also sing beautifully, including Lauren Kent, Natalie Szczerba and Abigail Isom as Tevye’s daughters Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava. Their early trio, Matchmaker, is an engaging exploration of their mixed feelings toward the ancient tradition of arranged marriage.

As for Stefano, he’s not the strongest vocalist who ever hauled around Tevye’s milk cart, but neither is he the weakest. Yes, his voice sometimes falters, but it does so in a way that makes the character all the more endearing.

Stefano also shines during the humorous moments in which Tevye complains to God about his sad lot in life—or to the audience about his loving but fear-inducing wife, Golde. The actor’s comic timing is spot-on.

It’s in the more dramatic moments that the Otterbein production sometimes lacks finesse and timing. One example is the aforementioned wedding scene, which peters out long before it’s interrupted by an attack that foreshadows new problems for the local Jewish community.

Another example: Connor Cook is appealing as Motel, the shy tailor who’s afraid to ask Tevye for the hand of his oldest daughter, but the moment in which he finally works up the nerve is rushed through before it has a chance to sink in.

Other problems can be traced to overacting (Dana Cullinane as the over-the-top Matchmaker) or underacting (Andre Spathelf-Sanders, who barely registers as Chava’s non-Jewish suitor). And though Tally strikes the right balance between scariness and warmth as Golde, neither she nor her makeup artist make a serious attempt to disguise the age difference between her and the actor who plays her husband. As a result, it’s hard to believe Golde and Tevye’s marriage really has endured for 25 years.

The production has many strengths beyond those I’ve already mentioned. They include supporting players Connor Allston as Perchik, the radical student who woos Hodel, and Jack Labrecque as Lazar Wolf, the lonely butcher who sets his sights on Tzeitel. Rob Johnson’s nonrealistic scenery and T.J. Gerckens’s lighting also are striking.

Overall, though, this staging of the musical tragicomedy is more effective as a musical and a comedy than it is as a tragedy. Most productions of Fiddler on the Roof are three-hankie affairs, but one should be enough this time around.

Otterbein University Theatre will present Fiddler on the Roof through April 16 at Cowan Hall, 30 S. Grove St., Westerville. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25. 614-823-1109 or www.otterbein.edu/drama.

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Show offers stripped-down, bloodied-up Sondheim

Susan Bunsold Wilson and Bill Hafner in Standing Room Only's production of Sweeney Todd (photo by Dale Bush)
Susan Bunsold Wilson and Bill Hafner in Standing Room Only’s production of Sweeney Todd (photo by Dale Bush)

By Richard Ades

If Columbus barbers have noticed a drop in business recently, it could be because the local theater scene is offering not one, but two productions of the bloodthirsty musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Those whose taste tends toward the grandiose might want to check out the Ohio State version being presented this weekend at Mershon Auditorium. Those who favor more intimate productions might prefer the Standing Room Only production whose two-week run ends Sunday.

I’ve seen the latter, and I can recommend it with one caveat: The unamplified lyrics are sometimes hard to pick out over the accompaniment. That annoyance aside, the production does right by this darkest of musicals, which features a book by Hugh Wheeler and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

In fact, it does brilliantly by the musical, thanks to a well-chosen cast and Patrick McGregor II’s ingenious direction.

This is a “black box” production twice over. Not only is the scenery limited to a black backdrop and little more, but the main prop is a black, coffin-shaped box that is continually being moved and upended to serve a multitude of functions. This minimalistic approach might be distracting if McGregor’s cast weren’t so mesmerizing.

Following his starring role in Gallery Players’ 2015 production of Les Miserables, Bill Hafner again excels playing a 19th century man who’s suffered years of unjust imprisonment. But don’t expect to find much in common between the two portrayals.

Unlike the noble Jean Valjean, Sweeney Todd has vengeance on his mind—vengeance against the judge who sent him away in order to pursue his wife. The former barber’s fury intensifies when he returns to London only to learn that his wife is dead and his daughter has been adopted by that same judge. As portrayed by Hafner, Todd is so overcome by grief and anger that he stumbles around in a state of near catatonia.

In effective contrast, Susan Bunsold Wilson radiates manic energy as Mrs. Lovett, the widowed baker who ultimately becomes Todd’s partner in crime. As amoral as she is personable, Mrs. Lovett quickly finds a way to benefit when the deranged barber’s “shaves” start turning into homicides. It’s no coincidence that her meat pies soon become the talk of the neighborhood.

Both Hafner and Wilson display strong voices on numbers such as their duets By the Sea and the darkly humorous A Little Priest, in which Todd and Mrs. Lovett discuss the optimum ingredients for a tasty pie.

As the dastardly Judge Turpin, Todd Lemmon offers an understated version of villainy that disguises itself under a cloak of piety. Turpin and Hafner join their voices to great effect on Pretty Women, a beautiful song that incongruously arises during a moment of impending murder. A more blatant depiction of evil is offered by Colton Weiss as Turpin’s henchman, the nasal-voiced Beadle.

The musical’s second-most beautiful song, Not While I’m Around, is given a dramatic delivery by Layne Roate as the limping, dimwitted Tobias Ragg. Appearing in other important secondary roles are Ethan White as goodhearted seaman Anthony Hope; Taryn Huffman as Todd’s grown daughter, Johanna; and Laura Crone as a beggar woman and a rival barber.

An impressively large orchestra provides the accompaniment, though music director Josh Cutting ably replaced it with his keyboard at the matinee I attended. Curtis Brown’s lighting not only establishes mood but is used to shift viewers’ focus from one side of the room to the other during quick scene changes.

Filled with dark themes and bloody violence, Sweeney Todd is unsuitable for young children. But SRO’s inventive production makes it a treat for those who appreciate Sondheim’s lovely tunes and graceful lyrics even when they’re sung in the midst of a murder spree.

Standing Room Only Theatre will present Sweeney Todd through Sunday (April 10) at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Remaining show times are 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $12-$21 Saturday, $12-$16 Sunday. 614-258-9495 or srotheatre.org.

The Ohio State School of Music, Opera and Lyric Theatre will present Sweeney Todd through Sunday (April 10) at Mershon Auditorium, 1879 N. High St., Columbus. Remaining show times are 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $20, $10 for senior citizens, students, children and OSU faculty, staff and alumni association members. Show isn’t suitable for ages 12 and under. 614-292-3535 or music.osu.edu.

Chekhovian angst mined for Durang-ian mirth

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and SpikeBy Richard Ades

There’s nothing quite as fun as watching Christopher Durang take on the Catholic Church, as he proved in his classic satire Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. But seeing him take on Anton Chekhov is also good for laughs.

He does so in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a 2013 Tony Award winner that borrows names and themes from the dour Russian, along with a general air of depressed malaise. That is, the characters suffer from depression; the audience is in hysterics.

CATCO’s current production benefits from a director with a flair for comedy—David Hemsley Caldwell—and two lead players who are equally adept. Jonathan Putnam and Danielle Mann are quietly masterful as Vanya and Sonia, the 50-something siblings who share a miserable existence in the home once owned by their deceased parents.

The first scene establishes their flinty relationship. Sonia brings Vanya his morning coffee, only to learn he’s already poured himself a cup. She complains that he’s deprived her of one of her few daily pleasures, leading to an argument that eventually ends in broken china.

Sonia, we learn, was adopted. We also learn that she’s attracted to Vanya despite his protestations that he marches to a “different drummer”—i.e., he’s gay. Putnam and Mann inhabit the unhappy pair so thoroughly that their personalities come through even when they’re just sitting and glumly observing the world.

Meanwhile, Chekhov is referenced in multiple ways, including Sonia’s insistence that a nearby stand of 10 or 11 trees constitutes a “cherry orchard.” But don’t worry if you’re rusty on the playwright’s works—Durang throws in enough explanations to keep everyone in the loop.

In a nod to Greek mythology, he also makes sure we know why a character named Cassandra is doomed to making dire predictions that no one believes. Shanessa Sweeney is a live wire as the housekeeper, whose ability to see the future comes in handy following the sudden appearance of Sonia and Vania’s successful sister, Masha (Lori Cannon).

The movie star barges in with her younger lover, Spike (William Darby), and begins talking about a change that will upset her siblings’ boring but stable existence. Narcissistic and overbearing, Masha proved a difficult character to enjoy at Wednesday’s preview matinee, especially since Cannon at first had trouble playing her with more than one note. Cannon fared better after intermission, when Masha’s insecurities bubbled to the surface and made her recognizably—and hilariously—human.

As Spike, Darby has some nice comic moments but is mostly limited to stripping off his clothes and showing off his physique. In a more nuanced role, Kristen Krak is lovable as Nina, an aspiring actress who quickly forms a bond with the man she insists on calling “Uncle Vanya.”

Completing the near-perfect production, Eric Barker’s painterly set is expressively lit by Jarod Wilson to suggest the passage of time as the action wends its way from morning to night and back to morning. It’s an entertaining and surprisingly warm-hearted trip, and one that’s well worth taking.

CATCO will present Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike through April 24 in Studio One, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St., Columbus. A preview will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Thursday (April 7). Regular show times are 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $17 Wednesday, $30 Thursday, $40 Friday-Saturday and $35 Sunday. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.

Buffalo pals prepare to let it all hang out

Unemployment turns factory workers into strippers in The Full Monty (photo by Heather Wack)
Unemployment turns factory workers into strippers in The Full Monty (photo by Heather Wack)

By Richard Ades

How desperate would you need to be to go onstage and bare it all before a few hundred friends and strangers?

The men in The Full Monty are plenty desperate, having lost their jobs when the local steel mill closed down. Some are afraid they’re going to lose even more if they don’t find work soon.

Adapted by Terrence McNally from the 1997 film, the musical version of The Full Monty relocates the action from Sheffield, England, to Buffalo, N.Y., and adds melodies and lyrics by David Yazbeck. But the basic situation remains the same.

For some of the characters, their very manhood feels threatened by the role reversals they’ve experienced since losing their jobs. After being the main breadwinners throughout their marriages, they now find themselves relying on their wives to bring home the paycheck.

The central protagonist, Jerry (David Bryant Johnson), has an even more basic worry. He’s separated from his wife (Jackie Comisar) and fears he’ll lose joint custody of his son (Kyle Klein II) if he doesn’t find a way to pay up on his child support.

For Jerry and the others, all of this adds up to more than enough reason to throw caution (and their clothes) to the wind by staging a striptease act that goes the Chippendales one better by climaxing in full frontal nudity.

Though the men’s emotional stress is well expressed in McNally’s script and Yazbeck’s catchy tunes, it doesn’t come across as well as it could in Short North Stage’s production. This is largely due to the central relationship between Jerry and his weight-obsessed friend, Dave (John McAvaney). Johnson’s Jerry is more laid back than one might expect for someone in his situation, while McAvaney plays Dave as a goofy sidekick.

Perhaps director/choreographer Edward Carignan decided to keep things light to find the laughs inherent in the characters’ situation, but “light” mostly comes off as simply “bland.” A bit more gritty reality is needed to sustain our interest in a tale that demands nearly three hours of our time.

On the other hand, little needs to be added in terms of music, movement or spectacle. Other than some songs and scenes that end in an awkwardly anticlimactic fashion, the production excels on all three fronts.

Johnson has a particularly nice voice, and the rest of the cast sings serviceably, at least, and often beautifully. Backing them up, music director Jeff Caldwell leads a band that is equally adept at the jazzy overture, the bluesy Big Black Man and the pretty You Rule My World.

Carignan’s choreography is fun and funny, particularly in a number (Michael Jordan’s Ball) that mimics basketball moves. Just as impressive is Dick Block’s set design, which features weathered interiors and exteriors that roll in and out of sight with dazzling efficiency.

Linda Kinnison  Roth as Jeanette Burmeister (photo by Heather Wack)
Linda Kinnison Roth as Jeanette Burmeister (photo by Heather Wack)

Along with all its other strengths, the production boasts two supporting players who are comedic standouts: Linda Kinnison Roth as veteran rehearsal pianist Jeanette Burmeister and R. Lawrence Jenkins as would-be stripper Noah “Horse” T. Simmons.

Two additional supporting players make indelible impressions playing spouses. Gina Handy combines a healthy libido with loving patience as Dave’s wife, Georgie. And as Vicki, wife of laid-off efficiency expert Harold (Ian Short), Danielle Grays kicks out all the stops on the Latin-flavored number Life With Harold.

Finally, something needs to be said for Adam Zeek’s lighting, which allows the show to live up to its name without becoming excessively graphic. Thanks to split-second timing, the inevitable male nudity is glimpsed just long enough to assure us that Jerry and his Buffalo pals do, indeed give us the “full monty.”

Short North Stage will present The Full Monty through April 24 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$40. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.