Missionaries have close encounter of the Merman kind

By Richard Ades

The Book of Merman is to The Book of Mormon what a Pekingese is to a bulldog: It’s smaller, fluffier and far less funny.

To be fair, The Book of Merman isn’t entirely fluffy, as it does have a message about being true to oneself. But you’ll see that coming so far in advance that it doesn’t have much impact.

Written by Leo Schwartz, the musical starts out with a clever premise. It’s about a pair of Mormon missionaries who come face to face with a woman who claims to be someone she clearly isn’t. Or is she?

We first meet Elders Shumway and Braithwaite (Nick Hardin and T. Johnpaul Adams) as they’re bickering their way from one suburban doorbell to the next while trying to avoid their territorial rivals, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The bickering stems from the fact that Braithwaite is far more into their two-year mission than Shumway, who seems so averse to all things Mormon that he can’t even stand Salt Lake City.

Then they end up at the door of a woman who calls herself Ethel Merman (Gina Handy). Shumway, a fan of Broadway in general and Merman in particular, is overcome with joy. He immediately believes she’s who she says she is, even though the real Ethel Merman reportedly died in 1984. In no time, he’s chatting with her about his own dreams of becoming a Broadway composer and star.

For his part, Braithwaite doesn’t even know who Merman was—or is. He just wants to give this odd woman the word of Mormon so they can get on with their mission.

Working under Bryan Adam’s direction and Bryan Babcock’s musical direction, all three cast members give likable and tuneful performances.

Hardin is particularly convincing as the stage-struck Shumway, while Adams, by a slight margin, exhibits the most commanding voice. As Merman, Handy isn’t always as big and brassy as she could be, especially when she’s speaking. But when she really lays into a song, her Merman impersonation is nearly impeccable.

The songs themselves are sometimes takeoffs on Broadway tunes that became Merman standards. For example, Most People fills in for Some People from Gypsy, while You’re the Best replaces You’re the Top from Anything Goes. These are OK, but they suffer from comparison to the hits that inspired them.

Some of the Schwartz’s original songs are more entertaining, especially the Act 2 tribute Because of You, beautifully sung by Adams. Babcock’s spirited piano provides the musical accompaniment.

In between the songs, and even during one of them (Son of a Motherless Goat), the humor often pokes fun at the Mormons’ squeaky-clean ways, such as their refusal to curse. These jokes quickly suffer from diminishing returns.

More impressive than the script is the set on which it’s performed. Director Adam’s scenic design, showing Merman’s living room, is far more detailed than anything we’re used to seeing in the Columbus Performing Arts Center’s cozy Van Fleet Theatre.

With a handsome set, an endearing cast and a timeless moral, The Book of Merman adds up to a harmless diversion. If you want more than that, you’ll have to hold out for The Book of Mormon.

Evolution Theatre Company will present The Book of Merman through July 30 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday (no show July 27). Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 seniors, $15 students. 1-800-838-3006 or evolutiontheatre.org.

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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.

Welcome to the world where gay is the new straight

ZannaBy Richard Ades

Sean Felder seems a bit miscast as Steve, the football star in Zanna, Don’t! He sings and acts just fine, but the gridiron doesn’t usually attract guys with such a slight build.

Then again, there’s nothing usual about the world portrayed in Tim Acito’s “musical fairy tale.” It’s set at Heartsville High School, where being gay is the norm and being hetero is so unheard of that the head of the drama club is scandalized when a member suggests doing a musical about straight people.

Just as unconventional is the students’ attitude toward extracurricular activities. Though Steve is such a talented jock that he wins a game by actually passing the ball to himself, the school’s biggest celebrity is chess champion Mike (Ricky Locci). But the real key to popularity, as new student Steve recognizes, is joining the drama club.

Obviously, this is the school many a gay student has dreamed of attending. As written and scored by Acito (with help from Alexander Dinelaris), Zanna, Don’t! brings the dream to fizzy, tuneful life.

In Evolution Theatre’s production, director Brent Ries captures the piece’s mood with the help of Shane Cinal’s imaginative set, Danielle Mann’s playful choreography, music director Tim Sarsany’s well-heeled band and, most importantly, a lovable cast.

In the center of it all is William Macke as the title character, a wand-carrying, spell-casting student whose only desire is to hook up everyone with his or her same-sex soulmate. Indeed, Zanna devotes so much time to others’ happiness that he neglects his own. His sole friend is Cindy, an exotic bird portrayed by puppeteer Mike Writtenberry.

Even when trouble rears its head, Zanna does his best to keep romance alive. After Roberta (Tahrea Maynard) learns that girlfriend Karla (Alex Lanier) has been unfaithful, Zanna immediately points her toward Kate (Jordan Shafer). In general, everything is sweetness and light until a girl and boy come to the reluctant realization that they’re attracted to each other. The resulting controversy threatens the school’s loving atmosphere, forcing Zanna to respond with a spell that has unforeseen consequences.

Also in the cast are Laura Crone as the bossy Candi, Brian C. Gray as the put-upon Arvin and T. Johnpaul Adams as radio deejay Tank.

Everyone does a good or better-than-good job on the show’s songs, which represent vintage pop-rock and other lighthearted genres. Though the actors don’t appear to be miked, most put out enough volume to be heard over the carefully modulated band. That’s not to say the show wouldn’t benefit from more amplification, which would add to the fun quotient, but it functions just fine without it.

Despite its satirical, upside-down view of reality, Zanna, Don’t! mostly serves up frothy fantasy. As a theatrical work, it’s about as slight as the build of Heartsville High’s star football player, but its tunefulness and charm make it a modestly pleasant diversion.

Evolution Theatre Company will present Zanna, Don’t! through Nov. 21 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 students/seniors, $30 for “generosity seating” (second or third row center). 1-800-838-3006 or evolutiontheatre.org.

Comedy has Texas-sized helping of humor, heart

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)

By Richard Ades

Judging from the size of Friday night’s audience, Sordid Lives looks like one of Evolution Theatre Company’s more popular productions.

It’s not hard to see why. Del Shores’s comedy has become a cult hit since it first appeared in 1996 and subsequently spawned a movie and a short-lived TV series. It may not be a great work of art, but it’s a fun piece of theater.

In Evolution Theatre Company’s production, it benefits from a seasoned group of performers who seem to enjoy sinking their teeth into Shores’s juicy Texas stereotypes.

Pam Welsh-Huggins gets each of the four scenes off to a tuneful start as vocalist/guitarist Bitsy Mae Harling, who sings and strums her way through a handful of mood-setting tunes. Also establishing the proper mood is Shane Cinal’s Texas-centric set design, complete with homey furniture and the skull of a longhorn steer.

The scenes nearly function as separate set pieces except that they’re connected by a recent death: Peggy Ingram, a mother and grandmother, died after tripping over the wooden legs of neighbor G.W. (Ralph Edward Scott). Making her departure not only painful but embarrassing for her family, the accident happened while she and the married G.W. were sharing a motel room.

The scenes also have a thematic connection in the form of repressed sexuality. Peggy’s son, Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram (Mark Phillips Schwamberger), has been institutionalized in an attempt to “cure” him of his gay, cross-dressing ways. And her grandson, New York-based actor Ty (Andrew Trimmer), is struggling to come to terms with the homosexuality that he’s afraid to reveal to his family, especially strait-laced mother Latrelle (Lori Cannon).

The first scene takes place at the home of Peggy’s sister Sissy (Betsy Poling), who is attempting to grieve and quit smoking at the same time. It features the awkward reunion of Peggy’s younger daughter, LaVonda (Danielle Mari), and Noletta (Kathy Sturm), wife of the philanderer whose prosthetic legs were responsible for Peggy’s death.

The second scene is set in the local bar owned by Wardell (David Vargo), who is still ashamed that he and G.W. once gay-bashed Brother Boy, an act that may have led to the latter’s institutionalization. Also present are barflies Juanita (Vicky Welsh Bragg) and Odell Owens (Jeb Bigelow).

What makes these scenes work is that director Beth Kattelman seems to have encouraged the actors to invest in the characters rather than trolling for laughs. This allows the humor to flow naturally from the absurd situations and down-home dialogue.

However, the production doesn’t really hit its peak until after intermission. That’s when we finally meet the much-discussed Brother Boy, along with his therapist, Dr. Eve Bolinger (Ruth Sternberg). Schwamberger is a revelation as the long-institutionalized patient, who gamely puts up with Bolinger’s attempts to “de-homosexualize” him in hopes he’ll finally be allowed to go home. His portrayal is both hilarious and touching.

So, for that matter, is the scene itself. Adding to its effectiveness are Nitz (Curtis) Brown’s dramatic lighting and Sternberg’s crafty portrayal of the ruthless Bolinger.

Not surprisingly, the play ends with Peggy’s funeral and the tying up of the comedy’s various threads.

According to an ETC Facebook post, last Saturday’s performance of Sordid Lives sold out. With raunchy regional humor and an uplifting message, the comedy is likely to continue pulling in crowds. Translation: Order your tickets now.

Evolution Theatre Company will present Sordid Lives through Sept. 26 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20, $15 students/seniors. 1-800-838-3006 or evolutiontheatre.org.

Are you now or have you ever been a homosexual?

Donnie Lockwood, Brent Alan Burington, Adam Latek, Mark P. Schwamberger and David Vargo (from left) in The Temperamentals (Evolution Theatre Company photo)
Donnie Lockwood, Brent Alan Burington, Adam Latek, Mark P. Schwamberger and David Vargo (from left) in The Temperamentals (Evolution Theatre Company photo)

By Richard Ades

If you’re like most people, you think America’s gay rights movement began with New York’s 1969 Stonewall rebellion.

Well, it did and it didn’t. The uprising was a prime catalyst, but a few brave souls were already fighting anti-gay discrimination nearly two decades earlier. Their efforts are the subject of Jon Marans’s The Temperamentals.

The play is set in Los Angeles in the early 1950s, a red-baiting era when homosexuals are treated with as much suspicion as communists. And it so happens that the main protagonists, Harry Hay (Brent Alan Burington) and Rudi Gernreich (Adam Greenbaum Latek), are both.

Though outwardly more conservative than Rudi, Harry is the one who seems determined to challenge the status quo.

Taking advantage of costume designer Rudi’s connections, he approaches Hollywood bigwigs such as Vincente Minnelli (David Allen Vargo) and asks them to sign a manifesto he’s drawn up on the rights of “temperamentals” (the euphemistic 1950s term for homosexuals). Not surprisingly, Minnelli and others are afraid to have anything to do with the document.

Eventually, Harry and Rudi do gather a tiny group of like-minded men and found the Mattachine Society, an organization devoted to the cause of equality. However, they accomplish little until Dale (Donnie Lockwood) is arrested on the trumped-up charge of soliciting sex from an undercover cop.

Such ruses are common in these pre-enlightened times, as gay men are so desperate to keep their sexual identity a secret that they willingly pay a hefty fine to make the charge go away. But when Dale says he can’t afford to take that route, Harry suggests a bold alternative: Admit his homosexuality while declaring his innocence. Members of the jury will be so impressed by his brave honesty, Harry reasons, that they’ll have to believe him.

In a perfect world, such a courageous act would inspire more courageous acts, all of which would lead to the kind of acceptance the Mattachine Society was seeking. But our world isn’t perfect, and it was even less so in the 1950s. Thus, The Temperamentals is the story of a movement that proves to be ahead of its time.

Because it remains true to history, with its mix of triumphs and disappointments, the play lacks an overall dramatic arc. But it makes up for it by documenting the huge barriers early gay activists faced. And not all the barriers were external; a big first step was learning how to communicate with each other about their shared heartaches and frustrations.

Director Douglas Whaley helps us understand these struggles by drawing relatable performances out of his cast. Burington anchors the production as the abrasive, impatient Hay, while Latek offers contrast as the more diplomatic Rudi. Besides Lockwood’s Dale, other founding members of the Mattachine Society are Chuck (Vargo) and Bob (Mark Phillips Schwamberger).

In addition to their central roles, all of the actors except for Burington play multiple supporting roles, both men and women. For the most part, they rise to the multitasking occasion.

Like Evolution Theatre Company’s spring production of Yank! The Musical, The Temperamentals is an imperfect but engrossing work that offers insights into gay life in the mid-20th century. That makes it invaluable.

Evolution Theatre Company will present The Temperamentals through July 18 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20, $15 students/seniors. 1-800-838-3006 or evolutiontheatre.org.

On his way to writing ‘Rent’…

Appearing in tick, tick…Boom! are (from left) Christopher Storer as Michael, Jonathan Collura as Jon and Kaitlin Descutner as Susan (photo by Zach Hartley)
Appearing in tick, tick…Boom! are (from left) Christopher Storer as Michael, Jonathan Collura as Jon and Kaitlin Descutner as Susan (photo by Zach Hartley)

By Richard Ades

If you’re a fan of Rent or of rock-based musical theater in general, you’ll want to see tick, tick…Boom! The 1990 work is Jonathan Larson’s semi-autobiographical take on his struggle to establish himself as a composer and lyricist.

If you’re not a fan of either Rent or rock-based musical theater, the show is less of a must-see, but it remains tuneful and pleasant enough to be worthwhile.

Of course, the $64,000 question with any locally produced musical is: Does the cast have enough vocal chops to carry it off? Because, let’s face it, that’s not something you can take for granted.

Happily, though, the answer is a resounding yes. Director Zach Hartley has found three performers who sing like pitch-perfect larks. They also have acting chops, though that’s less of a consideration in a show whose appeal is more historical than dramatic.

Jonathan Collura is personable as Jon, a New York composer who’s sweating his way toward both his 30th birthday and a workshop performance of his latest musical. Kaitlin Descutner is equally appealing as his dancer/girlfriend, Susan, who supplies comfort and support when she’s not kvetching about her desire to live in a less-urban environment.

It would nice if Christopher Storer provided a more grounded portrayal of Michael, Jon’s Bimmer-driving roommate. That might make a last-minute revelation about the character seem less gratuitous. But Storer excels—as does Descutner—in colorful secondary roles.

As for the songs, they range from the lightweight Green Dress to the clever Sunday, a trio that reflects Jon’s (and Larson’s) reverence for Stephen Sondheim. Also Sondheim-like is the flashy Come to Your Senses, which gives Descutner a chance to show off her vocal power.

For the most part, the tunes come in flavors of rock, which Larson helped to introduce to musical theater. Whatever their genre, an onstage band led by musical director Hillary Billups provides stalwart support.

Truthfully, as a piece of theater, tick, tick…Boom! is less than overwhelming. But as a piece of theatrical history, it’s a gem.

Evolution Theatre Company will present tick, tick…Boom! through Aug. 17 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 95 minutes. Tickets are $20-$25, $15 for students and seniors. 614-223-1124, 1-800-838-3006 or evolutiontheatre.org.