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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Depression-era musical is far from depressing

Emma Stratton (center, lower deck) shows off her dance moves with other members of the company of Anything Goes (photo by Jeremy Daniel)
Emma Stratton (center, lower deck) shows off her dance moves with other members of the company of Anything Goes (photo by Jeremy Daniel)

By Richard Ades

Watching Anything Goes is like taking a trans-Atlantic voyage while simultaneously time-traveling back to the 1930s.

The seagoing musical has been tweaked since it opened on Broadway in 1934, but the basic show remains intact. As a result, you feel like you’re enjoying the same kind of entertainment that helped to take our ancestors’ minds off the Great Depression.

What does the show tell us about our forebears? That they laughed at silly and sometimes naughty humor. And, mostly, that they had great taste in music.

The musical’s main claim to immortality is its collection of classic Cole Porter tunes such as You’re the Top and the title song, among many others. In the current touring show, all are wonderfully delivered by the cast and a brassy, jazz-savvy band conducted by Robbie Cowan.

Complementing the songs are some truly awesome dance numbers choreographed by director Kathleen Marshall. For tap-dancing fans, the highlight is the Act 1 capper set to the title tune. For those with a taste for something a little more provocative, Act 2’s Blow, Gabriel, Blow is equally fun.

The story centers on a young stockbroker named Billy Crocker (Brian Krinsky) and his attempt to woo engaged-to-be-married heiress Hope Harcourt (Rachelle Rose Clark). However, the show’s real star is neither Krinsky nor Clark.

Instead, it’s Emma Stratton, who plays nightclub performer Reno Sweeney. In the first scene, Reno declares her affection for Billy (I Get a Kick Out of You), only to learn that he’s fallen for Hope. A trooper if there ever was one, Reno then joins Billy’s campaign to win Hope away from her stuffy British fiancé, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Richard Lindenfelzer).

Reno is such an engaging character that you may root for Billy to choose her over the mousey Hope, even though you realize it’s a long shot. Meanwhile, you get to enjoy Stratton showing off her pipes and her equally impressive dance prowess in a bevy of tunes and production numbers.

Several other notable characters also figure in the plot. They include Billy’s alcoholic boss, Elisha Whitney (Michael R. Douglass); small-time gangster Moonface Martin (Dennis Setteducati); and Moonface’s free-loving girlfriend, Erma (Mychal Phillips). All have tuneful and reasonably funny moments.

Strangely, though, the funniest moment of all comes from an unlikely source. Lindenfelzer’s Lord Evelyn spends much of his time trying to master American slang, which produces chuckles at best, but the real comic gem is his attempt to locate The Gypsy in Me in an Act 2 dance duet with Reno.

The set, originally designed by Derek McLane and coordinated by James Kronzer, is clever depiction of ocean-liner interiors and exteriors.

Anything Goes is best known for its amazing collection of Porter tunes. Besides those already mentioned, the familiar solos and duets include Easy to Love (Billy), It’s De-Lovely (Billy and Hope) and Friendship (Moonface and Reno).

But thanks to the efforts of director/choreographer Marshall and her talented cast, crew and band, the show is much more than a few excerpts from the American Songbook. It’s a silly, sexy and footloose return trip to 1930s Broadway.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Anything Goes through Sunday (Feb. 8) at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St. 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, 40 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $28-$98. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.