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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Graczyk, Grossberg honored at Roundtable awards gala

The cast of Gallery Players' production of Les Miserables sings One Day More at the Theatre Roundtable's 2016 Awards Night (photos by Jerri Shafer
The Theatre Roundtable’s 2016 Awards Night featured performances from nominated musicals, including Gallery Players’ 2015 production of Les Miserables (photos by Jerri Shafer)

By Richard Ades

At one point during the Theatre Roundtable’s annual Awards Night on Sunday, a presenter joked that it was just like the Oscars because we’d been there two hours and were only halfway through. He was exaggerating a little, but the show did run quite a bit longer than usual.

At least the weather was cooperative—unlike last year, when an incoming winter storm darkened the usually festive atmosphere. Besides, there were enough high points that most people probably didn’t mind sticking around.

The Central Ohio Theatre Critics Circle provided one of the highest points: an appearance by Ed Graczyk. He received the circle’s Roy Bowen Lifetime Achievement Award for, among other things, leading Players Theatre Columbus for many years and writing the groundbreaking play Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.

Taking part in the Theatre Roundtable’s 2016 Awards Night are critics (from left) Paul Batterson, Jay Weitz, Christina Mancuso, Michael Grossberg, Margaret Quamme, Richard Sanford and (at the podium) Richard Ades (photos by Jerri Shafer)
Taking part in the Theatre Roundtable’s 2016 Awards Night are critics (from left) Paul Batterson, Jay Weitz, Christina Mancuso, Michael Grossberg, Margaret Quamme, Richard Sanford and (at the podium) Richard Ades

Also honored by the critics were Evolution Theatre Company, Short North Stage, Shadowbox Live and MadLab’s former artistic director, Andy Batt. Before walking off with his citation, Batt delighted the audience by turning the tables on the critics, passing out both praise and pans to the people who’d long been judging his work as an actor and director.

Later—much later—in the evening, critic Michael Grossberg received an honor of his own: the Roundtable’s treasured Harold Award. The group probably chose to present it this year because Grossberg officially retired in 2015 when The Columbus Dispatch’s new owners made dozens of staff cuts. But fortunately for the local theater scene, the Dispatch is still counting on him to lead theater coverage, the only difference being that now he’s doing it as a freelancer.

The evening also included excerpts from 2015 musicals that were nominated for Roundtable awards. For me, the most exciting moment came when Gallery PlayersLes Miserables cast reassembled for a rendition of One Day More. It was a spectacular reminder of just how great that production really was.

For a list of Sunday’s nominees and winners, visit www.theatre-roundtable.org. It includes everything but the citations presented by the Central Ohio Theatre Critics Circle, which are listed below:

▪ To Evolution Theatre Company and managing artistic director Mark Schwamberger for a lineup of 2015 productions that entertained viewers while fulfilling the troupe’s refocused mission of advancing the understanding of gender issues and exploring gay and lesbian themes.

Andy Batt critiques the critics after accepting a citation for his longtime leadership of MadLab Theatre
Accepting a citation for his longtime leadership of MadLab Theatre, Andy Batt takes advantage of the opportunity to critique the critics

▪ To Andy Batt, who stepped down as MadLab’s artistic director at the end of 2015, for leading the troupe through 13 years of growth and development that included its 2012 launch of an annual festival for high school playwrights and its 2010 purchase and renovation of a performance space and gallery that has helped to nurture both the performing and visual arts in Downtown Columbus.

▪ To Short North Stage for making a major commitment to nurturing new musicals in 2015 with its successful world premieres of The Great One, The Last Night of Disco and Krampus: A Yuletide Fable.

▪ To Shadowbox Live for celebrating its 25th anniversary by stretching itself with inventive rock tribute shows and collaborations, both local and international.

Critic Michael Grossberg prepares to present a Roy Bowen Lifetime Achievement Award to Ed Graczyk
Critic Michael Grossberg prepares to present a Roy Bowen Lifetime Achievement Award to Ed Graczyk

▪ A Roy Bowen Lifetime Achievement Award to Ed Graczyk, an accomplished director and nationally known playwright, who led Players Theatre Columbus from the 1970s into the early 1990s and wrote Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, a pioneering transgender comedy-drama that premiered at Players in 1976, ran on Broadway and became a Robert Altman film in 1982 and is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2016.

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.”

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.