By Richard Ades
Shadowbox Live has created a new art form of sorts with its musical tribute shows. Past efforts and the musicians they celebrated include Mad Dog and Englishman (Joe Cocker), Which One’s Pink? (Pink Floyd) and Bigger Than Jesus (the Beatles).
The current Evolutionaries differs from its predecessors by celebrating two artists, Prince and David Bowie, both of whom were lost prematurely in 2016. Otherwise, it follows the established pattern by offering great music accompanied by dancing, vintage video footage and enlightening tidbits of information.
With two groundbreaking careers to cover, Evolutionaries could well have run much longer than its two hours and 15 minutes. One way that director Julie Klein and head writer Jimmy Mak keep it to a comfortable length is by limiting the biographical material to short statements delivered by narrator Michelle Daniels. Through these we learn, for instance, that Prince suffered from epileptic fits as a child and that young Bowie dreamed of becoming the British Elvis.
More generally, Daniels points out that Prince and Bowie shared a fluid attitude toward gender and sexuality. In Bowie’s case, his whole identity seemed to be in a continual state of flux, as reflected by Ziggy Stardust and other alter egos who emerged onstage over the years.
Another way the show avoids overstaying its welcome is by restricting itself to the songs that are considered indispensable. No doubt some fans will complain that this or that favorite was left out, but those that were included add up to an entertaining synopsis of two revolutionary careers. Among the many highlights:
▪ When Doves Cry (Prince), sung by Stacie Boord and featuring one of several screaming guitar solos by Matthew Hahn.
▪ Changes (Bowie), featuring honey-sweet vocals by Boord and one of several glorious saxophone solos delivered at alternate performances by Jonathan Weisbrot and Kevin O’Neill.
▪ Ziggy Stardust (Bowie), sung by Gabriel Guyer in the guise of the strutting interplanetary traveler.
▪ Electric Chair (Prince), with lead vocals by Noelle Grandison, a funky guitar solo by Brent Lambert and a wild finish.
▪ Let’s Go Crazy (Prince), a gospel-style number sung by Boord and featuring orgasmic “organ” riffs pounded out by keyboardist Kevin Patrick Sweeney.
Dance moves choreographed by Katy Psenicka provide the perfect visual accompaniment to many numbers. During Bowie’s Let’s Dance, Nikki Davis and Nick Wilson sample vintage dance styles ranging from the Charleston to disco. Later, a blindfolded Guyer sings Bowie’s Lazarus while wandering through a group of graceful but equally blindfolded dancers.
In the funniest number, four preening “models” (Davis, Wilson, Guillermo Jemmott and Eryn Reynolds) vie for our approval while Guyer sings Bowie’s Fame.
Video images edited by David Whitehouse also play a prominent role. The most somber sequence assaults us with scenes from wars, riots and other acts of violence while Boord sings Prince’s Sign o’ the Times.
Timely and informative, Evolutionaries is a heartfelt gift to Bowie and Prince fans, and an opportunity for everybody else to appreciate what we’ve lost.
Evolutionaries: The Stories and Music of Prince and David Bowie continues through May 25 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. select Wednesdays and Thursdays. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (including intermission). Tickets: $25, $20 students/seniors/military. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.