Ear pod plays starring role in ‘Best of Shadowbox 2016’

Amy Lay holds forth in Ex’s and Oh’s, one of the cover songs featured in Best of Shadowbox 2016 (photo by Jeffery Crisafulli)
Amy Lay holds forth in Ex’s and Oh’s, one of the cover songs featured in Best of Shadowbox 2016 (photo by Jeffery Crisafulli)

By Richard Ades

When I head to Indiana for my high school reunion in a few weeks, I can only hope it will be half as much fun as another reunion of sorts I attended recently: the annual Best of Shadowbox show.

Just as reunions give you the chance to get reacquainted with old friends, Best of Shadowbox gives you the chance to get reacquainted with skits you’ve seen over the past year. In most cases, it’s a pleasure to see them again, especially since the writers and cast members often find ways to improve them in reaction to audience response.

One skit that didn’t need much improving is The Ear Pod, featuring Tom Cardinal as a husband who hates to miss a big football game to attend a counseling session with his wife (Julie Klein). Trying to have it both ways, he secretly listens to the game via an ear pod while his wife vents about all that’s wrong with their relationship. The misunderstandings multiply hilariously as Cardinal’s enthusiastic reactions to the game are misinterpreted by his angry spouse and the diplomatic counselor (Michelle Daniels).

At least a couple of skits seem more entertaining this time around.

Sexy Nurse imagines what would happen if hospital employees really dressed the way they do in our pornographic fantasies. It centers on a patient (Robbie Nance) who’s excited when his nurse (Amy Lay) shows up in a barely there uniform. It’s still not a laugh riot, but it’s good, raunchy fun.

Also slightly improved—though it was pretty funny to begin with—is Job App. It’s about what happens when a job applicant (Nance) has a social-media history that contradicts everything he says about himself. Klein is admirably restrained as the dubious interviewer, allowing the momentum to build toward the show’s strongest punchline.

Romeo (Robbie Nance) and Juliet (Amy Lay) discover they share singular tastes in 50 Shades of Romeo (photo by Jeffery Crisafulli)
Romeo (Robbie Nance) and Juliet (Amy Lay) discover they share singular tastes in 50 Shades of Romeo (photo by Jeffery Crisafulli)

On the other hand, 50 Shades of Romeo seems less amusing on second viewing. Merging Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with E.L. James’s kinky best-seller is a clever idea, but much of the humor consists of adding “-eth” to sundry words (including F-bombs) to make them sound Elizabethan. As if to make up for the labored jokes, Lay slaps on an extra layer of ditsiness as the S&M-prone Juliet, but it doesn’t help.

Among the skits I missed the first time around, the funniest is Happy Haunting, in which two fey ghosts (Jimmy Mak and Brandon Anderson) try to protect their unaware roommate (Leah Haviland) from her boorish date (Nance). The weakest is Camping Without a Net, in which a group of millennials are terrified to learn they’ve lost their Internet connection. The skit itself seems lost, generating more than one “huh?” moment as it meanders toward an unsatisfying ending.

But there’s nothing unsatisfying about the show’s musical numbers, which mix great singing with great musicianship on the part of the house band. The highlights (and their lead singers) include Life in the Fast Lane (Klein), Walk on the Ocean (Cardinal) and Sexual Healing (Noelle Grandison and Guillermo Jemmott).

Even more fun is the number that ends Act 1, Elle King’s Ex’s and Oh’s, sung by a deliciously attired Lay, Haviland, Ashley Pearce, Chyna Cheaney and Katy Psenicka. And most fun of all is the final song, Meat Loaf’s Paradise by the Dashboard Light, featuring a back-and-forth duet by Klein and Lukas Tomasacci. Amusing interplay among the backup singers is an added bonus in a number that I wouldn’t mind getting reacquainted with a few more times.

Best of Shadowbox 2016 continues through Sept. 3 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday (no 10:30 performances July 22 or 29). Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

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Staged ‘Dirty Dancing’ best seen through nostalgia-tinted glasses

Baby (Rachel Boone) and Johnny (Christopher) share a few steps in the national tour of Dirty Dancing, presented by Broadway in Columbus (photo by Matthew Murphy)
Baby (Rachel Boone) and Johnny (Christopher Tierney) practice their moves in the national tour of Dirty Dancing, presented by Broadway in Columbus (photo by Matthew Murphy)

By Richard Ades

If you’re a fan of Dirty Dancing, you may not have the time of your life watching the stage show, but it’ll probably do until the next time you catch the 1987 flick.

Adapted by original screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein, the theatrical version tries to recapture the magic of the Jennifer Grey-Patrick Swayze romance but starts out with several strikes against it.

The first strike, of course, is that it features neither Jennifer Grey nor the late Patrick Swayze. In their place, the current touring show has Rachel Boone as Frances “Baby” Houseman, who’s vacationing with her family at a Catskills resort in 1963; and Christopher Tierney as Johnny Castle, the working-class dance instructor who attracts her attention.

Boone earns our sympathy and sometimes our laughs as the high-minded Baby, but Tierney’s Johnny is rather stiff except when he’s strutting his stuff on the dance floor. The two generate so little chemistry that when Baby finally announces her feelings for Johnny, it comes as a surprise even though we know that’s what the whole show is about.

It’s not entirely the actors’ fault. The second strike against the show is its episodic structure, especially in the hectic first act. Scenes fly by so fast that there’s no time for any emotional depth to develop.

Strike three is the quirky nature of the show, which can’t be called a real musical because it denies its stars the chance to express themselves in song. Most of the vocal numbers are delivered by minor characters such as Elizabeth (Adrienne Walker) and Billy Kostecki (Doug Carpenter). Both sing beautifully, but in the process they effectively put both Johnny and Baby in the corner.

All of this would have been enough to strike out the average show, but it hasn’t seemed to hurt Dirty Dancing, which has become a worldwide hit. The only explanation is that the show effectively, if imperfectly, rekindles viewers’ affection for the film.

The vintage pop tunes are back, along with several more that couldn’t be obtained for the film. They include Do You Love Me?, If You Were the Only Girl and the beloved finale, (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life. All are accompanied by a boisterous and brassy onstage (but usually hidden) band led by Alan J. Plado.

Also back are the early 1960s idealism and conflicts, including references to the Peace Corps and the civil rights struggle. It’s in this unstable atmosphere that Baby steps forward to help Penny (Jenny Winton), a friend of Johnny who has been impregnated by her well-to-do boyfriend. That sets up a misunderstanding that drives a wedge between Baby and her previously doting father (Mark Elliot Wilson).

Best of all, the dancing is back, courtesy of Michelle Lynch’s high-kicking and high-lifting choreography.

James Powell’s direction makes the most of the flashier moments, particularly when special effects are used to “show” Baby and Johnny practicing their dance moves in the middle of a forest, a field and even a lake. Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set designs and Jon Driscoll’s video and projection designs are the real stars here.

The supporting cast is all strong, with some of the funniest moments provided by Alex Scolari as Baby’s bratty and vocally challenged sister, Lisa.

The stage version of Dirty Dancing is hardly a classic, but it does have the advantage of reviving viewers’ memories of a classic. For many, that will be enough.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Dirty Dancing through May 22 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, 25 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $58-$153. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, broadway.columbus.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Theatre Roulette offers snappy mix of shocks and guffaws

Appearing in The Jar are (from left) Nikki Smith as Cricket, Greg Payne as Praying Mantis, Laura Spires as Julie, Travis Horseman as Daddy Longlegs and Kim Martin as Karen (photo by Michelle Diceglio)
Appearing as insects caught in The Jar are (from left) Nikki Smith as Cricket, Greg Payne as Praying Mantis, Laura Spires as Julie, Travis Horseman as Daddy Longlegs and Kim Martin as Karen (photo by Michelle DiCeglio)

By Richard Ades

Seven plays in less than an hour? It must be some kind of record.

Director Amanda Bauer wastes no time with Black Night, one of the three collections of playlets in MadLab’s Theatre Roulette 2016. On opening night, she didn’t even bother introducing the evening, let alone individual works.

At the end of each play, the stage lights are simply turned off, the scenery is rearranged and the lights come back on, all in the space of a few seconds. The efficiently is dazzling.

What goes on between the scene changes is equally impressive, at least as far as the production is concerned. The acting and pacing are spot on, and many of the costumes are ingenious.

And the writing? Not everything works equally well, but most of the plays earn extra points for originality.

Let’s take them in order.

MooMaid by Rick Park: Josh Kessler plays Mitchell, a dad who can’t stop boasting about his unseen daughter. But something seems off. He drops a lot of F-bombs, and he starts stripping off clothes to prepare for an activity that isn’t revealed until the end. The piece expertly builds a sense of dread that turns out to be justified.

The Prodigal Cow by Mark Harvey Levine: A calf (Laura Spires) is thrilled to be the only farm animal invited to her owner’s dinner party. If you know the New Testament at all, you’ll probably guess where this one is going. It’s also weighed down with weak puns. And how come the calf actually looks something like a cow, but her best friend, the kid (Nikki Smith), looks nothing like a goat?

Absolutely Unbelievable by Bella Poynton: Larry (Greg Payne) goes on a radio show claiming to be a time traveler from five years in the future. The piece has some amusing moments as hosts Sam and Anna (Alex Green and Kyle Jepson) beg for news of technological advancements beyond Larry’s iPhone 8. Disappointingly, though, they never bring up the one question the average American would have asked first: Who’s the next president?

The Lovers by Kirsten Easton: A man and a woman (Chad Hewitt and Kim Martin) try to recall the details of their first meeting while two shrouded figures (Travis Horseman and Colleen Dunne) act out the event. Though nicely performed, the piece gives us little reason to care whether the two have a future together.

Date #3 by Alex Dremann: Will they or won’t they? Ethan and Lynne (Jason Sudy and Spires) deal with that question at the end of the all-important third date. Laughs are provided by various passers-by played by Jepson and Kessler—especially Kessler’s Frenchman, whose accent is as amusingly stereotypical as his philosophical wisdom about the ways of the heart.

A Couple of Inappropriate Jokes and a Story (or Two) by Kelly Lusk: Hewitt plays a man who alternately tells jokes and shares personal tragedies. The incongruous mix makes this the evening’s most unconventional work, but it also means the piece never develops enough gravitas to pull off its would-be shocking ending.

In the Jar by Levine: The evening’s funniest play is about various bugs who get caught by a young boy and imprisoned in a jar—a jar that, they’re terrified to learn, has no air holes. Payne’s unctuous praying mantis gets the most laughs, but all of the insects sport personalities that are as entertaining as their costumes.

Other collections in Theatre Roulette 2016 are Red Night (featuring works by various playwrights) and Green Night (featuring six plays by Erik Sternberger). See below for specific dates and times.

Theatre Roulette 2016 continues through May 28 at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, plus 2 and 4 p.m. May 28. Running time for Black Night: 55 minutes. Remaining dates: Green Night: 8 p.m. May 19 and 27, plus 4 p.m. May 28; Black Night: 8 p.m. May 20 and 28; and Red Night: 8 p.m. May 21 and 26, plus 2 p.m. May 28. Tickets are $15, $13 students/seniors, $10 members. 614-221-5418 or madlab.net.

Troupe marks new beginning by depicting world’s end

Endgame

By Richard Ades

There’s something ironic about seeing Endgame while celebrating the opening of a new theater. Samuel Beckett’s dark comedy, after all, is not about beginnings. It’s about the end of the world.

Hamm and Clov (Michael Garrett Herring and Alex Foor) spend their days in a decrepit dwelling perched between the land and the sea. Outside their tiny windows, the planet seems to be dead or dying from some unnamed catastrophe.

Hamm cannot see or walk. Clov, conversely, cannot sit. The two have a quarrelsome relationship thanks to Hamm’s constant demands that he be humored or served. These spring not only from his helplessness but from the pleasure he seems to take in making Clov’s life even more miserable than it would otherwise be.

The only other characters are Nagg and Nell (Roger Masten and Rebecca Zelanin), Hamm’s aged parents, who live in side-by-side trash cans. Though the two regard each other with tired affection, Hamm makes no secret of his hatred of them for bringing him into the world.

Despite the depressing situation and the central character’s rampant misanthropy, Endgame can be an enjoyable experience if a production makes the most of its rich, philosophical language and dour, sometimes self-referential humor. Red Herring’s production, directed by Verne Hendrick and Keely Heyl, generally hits the proper notes.

Foor’s Clov is slow, deliberate and resentful of Hamm’s bossiness. His growing despair and anger are subtly revealed in Foor’s shuffling gait and passive-aggressive tone of voice.

Masten’s Nagg is solicitous toward his wife but barely tolerates his son, boredom emanating from his face as he listens to Hamm’s long-winded storytelling in exchange for a promised treat. Masten’s brittle characterization makes the character both funny and pitiable. (Co-director Hendrick will play Nagg at the May 24 performance.)

In the smaller role of Nell, Zelanin is convincingly distracted and feeble, though she occasionally starts to fall into a Katharine Hepburn impersonation. (Linda Browning will take over the role May 19-29.)

Herring, one of the troupe’s executive producers, carries the bulk of the load as Hamm. He mostly carries it with distinction, though on opening night some of his later speeches could have been delivered more expressively.

Designed by Herring, the set is a combination of roughhewn boards and ancient tools and utensils. Topher Dick’s lighting and Dayton Willison’s grimy, threadbare costumes add to the post-apocalyptic atmosphere.

Red Herring's new home, the Franklinton Playhouse, 566 W. Rich St. Free parking is available at a lot across the street. (photo by Richard Ades)
Red Herring’s new home, the Franklinton Playhouse, 566 W. Rich St. Free parking is available at a lot across the street. (photo by Richard Ades)

The opening-night performance was not perfect, with a line dropped here and there or delivered indifferently, but it communicated the sad and mysterious essence of Beckett’s play well enough to be rewarding. But even if it hadn’t, the chance to get a first look at Red Herring’s new Franklinton home would have made the trip worthwhile.

Though the warehouse-like building is not yet finished, it’s roomy and comfortable enough to reveal its potential. Red Herring plans to share it with other groups in between its own shows, which should make the venue a valuable addition to a part of the city that’s increasingly becoming a hub of creativity.

Red Herring Productions will present Endgame through May 29 at the Franklinton Playhouse, 566 W. Rich St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, plus 2 p.m. May 15 and 29. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes. Tickets are $20 in advance, pay what you want at the door. 614-723-9116 or redherring.info.

Sweet music, jarring language and a timeless morality tale

Big River

By Richard Ades

Standing Room Only nearly lived up to its name Friday, as its evening performance of Big River filled most of the seats in CPAC’s Van Fleet Theatre. Hopefully, that means there’s a market for the ambitious programming the troupe has been tackling of late.

Or maybe it simply means people have an undying love for the tale whose source material is often considered the Great American Novel: Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Adapted by William Hauptman (book) and Roger Miller (music and lyrics), the Tony-winning musical again sends its scruffy title character and a runaway slave named Jim down the Mississippi on their respective quests for adventure and freedom.

One of the gutsiest things about SRO’s production is also the reason parents might want to prepare their youngest children for the experience. Like Twain’s novel, but unlike an expurgated version I saw many years ago, it allows characters to spout the most racist term in the American vocabulary. The word can sound jarring to modern ears, but it’s probably necessary. That’s because the story depends on a frank portrait of 19th century attitudes to underscore its central lesson.

Huck begins the tale as a rebellious lad who nonetheless accepts the morality of his pre-Civil War era when it comes to the subjugation of black Americans. Indeed, he’s so convinced slavery is a holy institution that he worries he’ll go to hell if he helps Jim escape. Both the novel and the musical are most moving when they show the boy reassessing his position after getting to know Jim as a human being.

Miller’s songs are sometimes stirring but mostly laid-back and pleasant, especially when accompanied by SRO’s old-timey quintet. Performing under music director Chipper Snow, it’s dominated by Ted Reich’s wistful harmonica and Jordan Shear’s lively fiddle.

As for the vocals, there are a few pitchy moments, but most cast members are up to the challenge. That’s especially true of the two male leads. Caleb Baker (as Huck) and Brandon Buchanan (as Jim) harmonize beautifully on duets such as Muddy Water and Worlds Apart.

Acting-wise, their styles are a bit less harmonious. Though Buchanan’s Jim reflects the tension and fears of a man determined to float his way to freedom, Baker’s Huck is unrelentingly calm. He seems unruffled whether he’s fighting off a knife attack or trying to avoid being tarred and feathered by angry townsfolk.

Baker’s physical appearance—he’s taller and huskier than most of the “adults” around him—also undercuts his portrayal of the youth. But that would be less of a problem if he acted more like a frightened teen rather than a laconic good ol’ boy.

Several of the supporting players make indelible impressions under Dee Shepherd’s easy-going direction.

John Feather is dignified and decent as Judge Thatcher, then abandons both dignity and decency to play the self-described King, a con artist who hitches a ride on Huck and Jim’s raft. Greg Zunkewicz is equally conniving as the King’s companion, the Duke, but he sometimes needed to project more at the performance I attended.

Funniest of all is Thor Collard as Huck’s drunken Pap, especially when he’s railing musically against the Gov’ment. Sweetest of all is Ashton Brammer as Mary Jane, who wins Huck’s heart when she becomes the victim of a scheme hatched by the King and the Duke.

As Huck’s friend Tom Sawyer, Anthony Guerrini gets across the lad’s addiction to romantic adventures. It’s not his fault that Tom becomes a distraction late in the story. His 11th-hour reappearance is the only instance in which Twain’s Great American Novel becomes a little less than great.

Even more than SRO’s recently staged Sweeney Todd, Big River is presented in a bare-bones manner. Designed by Angela Barch, some of the costumes are only vaguely 1840-ish, while the “scenery” consists mainly of a footlocker and a large box.

But none of that matters when the production is at its best, doling out sweet music along with a morality tale that retains its power 131 years after it first pricked the conscience of America.

Standing Room Only Theatre will present Big River through May 7 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $21, $18 seniors (55-plus), $16 members, $12 students. 614-258-9495 or srotheatre.org.