Gamblers take a chance on romance in Loesser musical

Playing gamblers in Guys & Dolls are (from left): Bradley Davis Barbin, Kent Stuckey (Benny Southstreet), Todd Covert (Nathan Detroit), Derryck Menard and Ryan Kopycinski (Nicely Nicely) (photo by Jared Saltman)
Admiring a wad of cash in Guys & Dolls are (from left): Bradley Davis Barbin, Kent Stuckey, Todd Covert, Derryck Menard and Ryan Kopycinski (photo by Jared Saltman)

By Richard Ades

Guys & Dolls opened on Broadway in 1950 and subsequently won the Tony for best musical. I can only see that as a sign of how much society’s tastes have changed over the intervening decades.

Composer/lyricist Frank Loesser’s songs include the classic Luck Be a Lady and the infectious Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat. But they also include several unmemorable tunes and Sue Me, which combines a tender melody with the puzzling lyrics “So sue me, sue me, what can you do me?” Say what?

In short, Guys & Dolls is a mixed bag. And at 66 years of age, it’s a very dusty mixed bag. Adapted by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows from short stories by Damon Runyon, it’s set in a quaintly old-fashioned version of New York’s underworld (dubbed “Runyonland”) where all the women are “dolls” and all the men are gamblers with hearts of gold.

Faced with the thankless task of resuscitating this chestnut for Gallery Players, director Mark Mann starts off by filling the four leading roles with likable and talented performers:
• Todd Covert as Nathan Detroit, a perpetually struggling gambler
• Amy Silver Judd as Miss Adelaide, a night club singer and Nathan’s longtime fiancée
• Kristin Yarger as Sarah Brown, head of a Salvation Army-like mission that tries to reform local “sinners”
• Christopher Storer as Sky Masterson, a traveling gambler and confirmed bachelor

The two women offer particularly distinct portrayals, Judd’s Adelaide coming off as a good-natured floozy while Yarger’s Sarah is sincere and grounded. Of the two men, Covert’s Nathan is slightly nicer, but both he and Storer’s Sky strike us as basically decent sorts.

As I said, all four of the leads are likable—maybe to a fault. If their characters had a bit more edge to them, their romantic intrigues might seem less blandly sweet.

Making up for the lack of dramatic tension, all four performers sing well and often beautifully under Bryan Babcock’s musical direction. An eight-piece band provides the big-sounding and mostly tuneful accompaniment.

Nathan Detroit (Todd Covert) and his longtime fiancee Miss Adelaide (Amy Silver Judd) in the Gallery Players production of Guys & Dolls (photo by Jared Saltman)
Nathan Detroit (Todd Covert) has an uncomfortable moment with his longtime fiancee, Miss Adelaide (Amy Silver Judd) in the Gallery Players production of Guys & Dolls (photo by Jared Saltman)

The plot centers on the illegal craps game Nathan is trying to set up for local and visiting gamblers. Short on the cash he needs to rent a space, he tricks Sky into betting he can lure the high-minded Sarah to accompany him to Havana. Sky leaps to the challenge by visiting Sarah’s mission and pretending he needs her help to repent from his evil ways.

Peripherally involved in the goings-on are Denae Sullivan as one of Sarah’s fellow missionaries; Ryan Kopycinski and Kent D. Stuckey as Nathan’s colleagues Nicely and Benny; Brad Barbin as police Lt. Brannigan; and Rick Cohen as Big Jule, a gat-packing gangster from Chicago.

Benny and various other gamblers are distinguished mainly by their colorful and era-appropriate suits, which were designed by Debbie Hamrick. The only one who gets a chance to stand out is Kopycinski’s Nicely, who helms the show’s most entertaining musical number, Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat.

Danielle Mann’s choreography is generally low-key except for a few acrobatic moves performed during the opening strains of Luck Be a Lady. Jon Baggs’s spare scenery is efficiently designed, keeping scene changes short.

Unfortunately, some of the scenes themselves tended to drag on opening night. A little tightening would help to keep things moving in between songs.

I’ve used terms such as “nice” and “likable” to describe the characters, and those are good descriptions of the production as a whole. If you’re in a mellow mood, that might be enough. But considering the show demands nearly three hours of your time, you may find yourself wishing for something more.

Gallery Players will present Guys & Dolls through March 13 at the Jewish Community Center, 1125 College Ave., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25 ($20 for JCC member), $23 for ages 60-plus ($18 for JCC members), $15 for students/children. 614-231-2731 or www.jccgalleryplayers.org.

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.”

What’s a nice Jewish girl like you doing in a Christmas pageant like this?

Rose Clubok (right) as Shirley and Georgia Fried as her best friend, Evie, in the Gallery Players production of Coney Island Christmas (photo by Rebecca Barger-Amato)
Rose Clubok (right) as Shirley and Georgia Fried as her best friend, Evie, in the Gallery Players production of Coney Island Christmas (photo by Rebecca Barger-Amato)

By Richard Ades

I always wondered how Sandy Cohen felt about playing the Virgin Mary.

Sandy was one of the two Jewish girls who were in my class in elementary school. She played Mary in our annual Christmas pageant, this being back in the days when most people thought it was perfectly normal to hold a religious drama in a public school.

Then again, most people weren’t Jewish. I assume Sandy wanted to play the plum part or she wouldn’t have tried out for it, but how did she feel about our school hosting this seasonal Christian event while ignoring Hanukkah? For that matter, how did her parents feel?

Such questions occurred to me after seeing Gallery Players’ charming production of Coney Island Christmas. Written by Donald Margulies (The Loman Family Picnic), it’s about a Jewish girl who lands an even bigger role in her own school’s Christmas pageant: Jesus Christ.

Cursed with an obnoxiously loud voice and low self-esteem, Shirley Abromowitz (Rose Clubok) is thrilled when drama teacher Mr. Hilton (Rick Cohen) asks her to play the adult Jesus, who serves as the pageant’s narrator. Her supportive father (Brian A. Belair) also is thrilled for her, but her mother (Kate Willis), not so much. An immigrant who came to America to escape anti-Semitism, she sees the play as yet another form of persecution.

The family dispute develops in Brooklyn in the 1940s and is presented in the form of a memory that the adult Shirley (Laurie Alexander) relates to her young granddaughter, Clara (Nora Butter).

Nora Butter (left) as Clara, Laurie Alexander as adult Shirley and Rose Clubok as young Shirley (photo by Jared Saltman)
Nora Butter (left) as Clara, Laurie Alexander as adult Shirley and Rose Clubok as young Shirley (photo by Jared Saltman)

Co-directors April Olt and Sonda Staley make good use of the Jewish Community Center’s big stage, allowing the story to hop from place to place, and from the present to the past, without skipping a beat. More importantly, they make good use of their large cast, particularly its younger members.

Rose Clubok’s Shirley seldom sounds as loud as she’s described, but she’s a lovable and compelling heroine. Other youngsters give unforced performances as her fellow students, which makes it all the funnier when they overact their way through Mr. Hilton’s Thanksgiving and Christmas productions.

The adult cast members—including Laura Crone as music teacher Mrs. Glace—are equally on target. Mr. and Mrs. Abromowitz’s squabbling scenes do tend to drag a bit, but the eventual emotional payoff is worth the wait.

Alexander holds it all together as the adult Shirley, who both narrates and plays a supporting role in the extended flashback to her childhood. As the granddaughter to whom she tells the tale—a role that mostly consists of observing quietly—Nora Butter displays poise and confidence.

Jon Baggs’s scenery, Debbie Hamrick’s costumes and Jarod Wilson’s sound and lighting design are all unobtrusively effective.

My only real quibble with Margulies’s comedy is that it could be more sympathetic to Mrs. Abromowitz. She comes across as an unfeeling parent when she tries to keep Shirley out of the Christmas pageant, but she really is right that the school shouldn’t be favoring one religion over another.

As a memory play, though, Coney Island Christmas captures the spirit of a time when few questioned this lack of division between church and state. It also celebrates children like Shirley who were strong enough to survive the era with their identities intact.

Gallery Players will present Coney Island Christmas through Dec. 20 at the Jewish Community Center, 1125 College Ave., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes. Tickets are $20 ($15 for JCC member), $18 for ages 60-plus ($13 for JCC members), $10 students/children. 614-231-2731 or www.jccgalleryplayers.org.

Where’s President Bartlet when you need him?

By Richard Ades

As a writer, Aaron Sorkin has had much success.

On TV, The West Wing was a critically praised hit. Onstage and at the cinema, A Few Good Men was a triumph.

But Sorkin also has had some failures. The most obvious was Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a much-anticipated series that didn’t outlast its first season.

Then there’s The Farnsworth Invention, originally written as a movie that never quite came to fruition. Sorkin then rewrote it as a play that opened on Broadway in late 2007 and closed three months later after receiving mixed reviews.

It’s probably unfair to label this reality-inspired drama a failure, but you can’t really call it a success. Yes, you do learn something about the invention of television, but you can’t take this history lesson too literally, as Sorkin bends the facts to suit his purposes. What’s worse, even after taking liberties with the truth, he still doesn’t manufacture enough drama to yield an absorbing story.

Director John Dranschak and a strong cast do what they can to sell the tale in Gallery Players’ production, but they fail to weave Sorkin’s straw into theatrical gold.

The play tells the life stories of David Sarnoff (Ian Short), an immigrant who becomes a top executive in America’s early broadcast industry, and Philo T. Farnsworth (Stefan Langer), an American genius who’s determined to invent television. From the beginning, it’s obvious the two are antagonistic toward each other, but it’s not until halfway through that we actually find out why.

Did I mention that the play lacks drama? Fortunately, it also has some strengths.

If you’re into science, you may learn some interesting tidbits about the challenges Farnsworth and others faced as they tried to send images through the air electronically. If you’re into broadcasting, you may learn something about the early days of radio and television.

And if you’re just generally into American history, circa the 1920s and ’30s, you’ll no doubt glean some new understanding of the era. For instance, did you know that pretty much everyone back then had a potty mouth? Or, at least, they do in Sorkin’s version of that time period.

Cursing or otherwise, the supporting cast does a decent job of portraying the people who played major and minor roles in the development of television. Particularly prominent is Robyn Rae Stype as Farnsworth’s loving wife, Pem. Their sturdy efforts, along with those of Short and Langer, help to keep us from tuning out entirely as the play follows its anemic dramatic arc.

One more problem with the play: One gets the feeling that Sorkin is going out of his way to put Sarnoff’s actions in the best possible light—even when he uses questionable means to get what he wants, and even when Farnsworth gets screwed over as a result.

But don’t worry too much about Farnsworth. He actually came out better in real life than he does here, both during and after his run-in with Sarnoff.

To sum up: good production, bad history, bad drama.

Gallery Players will present The Farnsworth Invention through May 17 at the Jewish Community Center, 1125 College Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Thursday (May 14 only). Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20 ($15 JCC members), $18 for ages 60-plus ($13 JCC members), $10 for students and children. 614-231-2731 or www.jccgalleryplayers.org.

Heartfelt performances, fine vocals mark revival of ‘Les Miserables’

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), who’s being detained by two local constables (Derryck Menard and Emerson Elias) in this scene from Les Miserables (photo by Jerri Shafer)

By Richard Ades

As the familiar opening strains of Les Miserables filled the air, I held my breath. Having seen the blockbuster musical at least four times (including the 2012 movie), I knew how much depended on the actor playing Jean Valjean.

Would he have a voice powerful enough to carry off the demanding part? Would he have enough acting chops to make us care about the put-upon French fugitive?

But as soon as Bill Hafner sang Valjean’s first few notes, I began to relax. Hafner not only has an exceptional voice, but he’s able to project the combination of nobility and humility that makes Valjean such an appealing hero.

And Hafner is far from the only talent who’s up to the Les Miz challenge. Director David R. Bahgat and his cast and crew have created something remarkable on the JCC stage. Every performance, every lighting effect, every costume contributes to an experience that builds to one emotional climax after another.

Set in the early 19th century, the Claude Michel Schonberg/Alain Boublil/Jeffrey Hatcher musical focuses on Valjean’s attempt to remake and redeem himself after serving years at hard labor for the petty crime of stealing a loaf of bread. When he unknowingly contributes to the downfall of a single mother named Fantine, he takes on a new responsibility as the guardian of her young daughter, Cosette.

Meanwhile, he’s constantly forced to be on the lookout for Javert, a police officer who’s determined to bring him to justice for violating his parole. But that doesn’t stop him from becoming entangled with young idealists who are determined to launch a revolution.

Besides Hafner, many cast members give affecting performances in this sung-through musical. They include:

• Melissa Muguruza as Fantine
• Violet Hicks (alternating with Sigal Judd) as her young daughter, Cosette
• Amy Rittberger as the grown Cosette
• Madeline Bolzenius as the lovelorn Eponine

Eponine’s disreputable parents, the Thenardiers, are deliciously played by Mark Schuliger and Mary Sink. Their appearances, especially the rousing number Master of the House, give the tragedy-prone musical a few welcome moments of comic relief.

Moments of romantic relief arise after the grown Cosette falls for young revolutionary Marius (Elisha Beachy), leading to such beautiful ballads as A Heart Full of Love. But this subplot, too, has a tragic element, as it dooms Eponine’s own feelings for Marius, as expressed in her heart-rending lament On My Own.

Marius’s fellow revolutionaries include leader Enjolras (Jay Rittberger) and a plucky street urchin named Gavroche (Yaakov Newman). Their anthems, including Do You Hear the People Sing?, are as glorious as ever, but they take on a touching note of pathos in this production. That’s because the performances and even director Bahgat’s costume designs suggest that Enjolras and his followers are really just idealistic “schoolboys,” as Javert derisively calls them.

As for Javert, Scott Green plays him with the ramrod posture of a man who’s unable to see beyond his narrow interpretation of right and wrong. Green mostly meets the role’s vocal needs, but his voice occasionally showed signs of strain at the matinee I attended.

Les Miz fans know that Javert’s final exit is a challenge for a semiprofessional troupe like Gallery Players. Fortunately, Bahgat handles it with creativity and dramatic flair—qualities that mark the entire production.

As I said in the beginning, much rides on Jean Valjean’s broad shoulders, and actor Hafner never disappoints. His rendition of the difficult Act 2 solo Bring Him Home is simply the highpoint of a triumphant lead performance.

But there is so much else that contributes to the show’s success, including Jon Baggs’s scenery and Jarod Wilson’s light and sound design.

Yes, there are minor problems: the odd sour note from the band, a few voices that are under-amplified. None of these detract from the show’s ability to pull us into a musical that retains its ability to move us even after multiple viewings.

At its best, Les Miserables is a mesmerizing experience. In case you haven’t figured it out by now, this is Les Miserables at its best.

Gallery Players will present Les Miserables through March 29 at the Jewish Community Center, 1125 College Ave., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 3 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $25 ($20 JCC members), $20 ages 60-plus ($18 JCC members), $15 students and children. 614-231-2731 or www.jccgalleryplayers.org.

2014: A brilliant ‘Hamlet’ and a sad departure

Grace Bolander plays the title role in Actors' Theatre's production of Hamlet (photo by Richard Ades)
Grace Bolander plays the title role in Actors’ Theatre’s production of Hamlet (photo by Richard Ades)

By Richard Ades

Two of the most memorable theatrical events of 2014 took place in Schiller Park.

The first was Actors’ Theatre’s production of Hamlet. Though it garnered the most attention for its offbeat casting of a teenage girl in the title role, what really set the show apart was its overall quality. Every role—from the Danish prince to the lowly gravedigger—was cast and performed to perfection.

The second event was the May 30 memorial for actor Carl Novak, who died unexpectedly last spring. I first met Carl several years ago when he approached me during intermission at a local show and said some nice things about my reviews—frank but fair, something along that line. I didn’t yet know who he was other than a familiar face at opening nights, but I appreciated the supportive words.

It was only after Carl’s death that I learned he’d said equally supportive things to many people. On Facebook and at the memorial service, people described him as a man who went out of his way to make others feel important and appreciated.

Though I don’t share the strong Christian faith that guided Carl, it’s hard for me to think of him without recalling words from the New Testament: “Go and do likewise.” What a world it would be if we all followed his example.

Back to business: This being the end of the year, it’s time for me to share my list of the best theatrical performances and productions I saw in 2014. Notice the “I saw.” No one has time to see everything, and I almost certainly missed many worthy contenders.

Thanks to everyone who made 2014 a good year to go to the theater.

Best Play: Hamlet, Actors’ Theatre. Co-directors John S. Kuhn and Nick Baldasare coaxed incisive performances from the entire cast, starting with Grace Bolander, the high school senior who gave such a brilliant interpretation of the title prince. Runner-up: How We Got On, Available Light Theatre.

Best Musical: The Producers, Gallery Players. Director Mark Mann and his crew paid amazing attention to detail while creating a tuneful show with many laugh-out-loud moments. The entire cast performed with spirit, but special commendations are due to supporting actors Doug Joseph (as Roger De Bris, alternating with Stewart Bender) and Brooke Walters (as Swedish secretary Ulla). Runner-up: Always…Patsy Cline, CATCO.

Best New Work: Memory Fragments, MadLab. Sam Wallin’s “cyberpunk” mystery constantly shifted between the present and the past, and between physical and virtual reality, but director Andy Batt handled the changes with aplomb. Runner-up: Gallery of Echoes, Shadowbox Live.

Best Revised Work: Evo, Shadowbox Live. Stev Guyer’s Evolution was an ambitious but plodding work from the troupe’s early days. The new version, which Guyer revised with help from head writer Jimmy Mak, musical director Matthew Hahn and choreographer Katy Psenicka, was just an ambitious but far more watchable.

Best Touring Show: The Book of Mormon, Broadway in Columbus. Only a poor sod with maggots in his scrotum could fail to enjoy this raunchy but warmhearted satire.

Worst Trend: musicals with canned accompaniment. CATCO’s production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels handled the prerecorded soundtrack pretty well, but taped music drained much of the life out of SRO’s The Sound of Music. Besides, musicians need the work!

Best Direction: Hamlet, John S. Kuhn and Nick Baldasare, Actors’ Theatre. Every role was handled with such clarity that even Shakespeare buffs probably gained new appreciation of the venerable tragedy.

Best Performance, Male: Isaac Nippert, My Name Is Asher Lev, CATCO/Gallery Players. As Asher, Nippert expertly navigated a role that required him to narrate his own tale while playing himself at ages ranging from youngster to adult.

Best Performance, Female: Grace Bolander, Hamlet, Actors’ Theatre. Casting a teenage girl as the melancholy Dane might seem like a gimmick, but Bolander gave an impassioned yet witty performance that proved she was simply the best person for the part.

Portrait of an artist as a Hasidic young man

Ralph Scott, Isaac Nippert and Melissa Graves (from left) in CATCO and Gallery Players' co-production of My Name Is Asher Lev (photo by Ben Sostrom)
Ralph Scott, Isaac Nippert and Melissa Graves (from left) in CATCO and Gallery Players’ co-production of My Name Is Asher Lev (photo by Ben Sostrom)

By Richard Ades

The protagonist of My Name Is Asher Lev is still a boy when he begins drawing pictures of Jesus and nude women. Not surprisingly, the images upset his Hasidic Jewish parents.

“No Torah Jew would think of drawing such things,” thunders his father, Aryeh Lev (Ralph Scott).

But the parents soon learn that trying to stifle the youth’s artistic impulses is no easy task. Though he wants to be a good son and a good Jew, Asher himself (Isaac Nippert) seems unable to control his need for self-expression. The result is a recurring argument with his devout father and a source of stress for his mother, Rivkeh (Melissa Graves), who tries to be loyal to both her husband and her gifted son.

Adapted from a novel by Chaim Potok, Aaron Posner’s one-act is set in a particular time and place: a Hasidic enclave in Brooklyn in the 1950s. The basic situation, however, is universal: The parents want their child to obey them and respect their traditions, while the child is driven by his need to find his own way.

Though the play sometimes seems like a collection of biographical scenes rather than a cohesive drama, the unifying factor is Asher’s fierce need to create art. Nippert expresses that need with a portrayal that incorporates joyful discovery and youthful enthusiasm—and, sometimes, youthful petulance. All the while, he succeeds in suggesting ages as young as 5 without turning into a childish caricature.

As Asher’s mother, Graves projects quiet dignity and equally quiet desperation. Because we see Rivkeh through her son’s eyes, she comes off as more of a symbol of long-suffering motherhood than a flesh-and-blood woman, but Graves fills the need by radiating an aura of profound sadness.

Graves also doubles as a couple of relatively minor female characters, but it’s Scott who does the heavy lifting in terms of multiple roles. In addition to Asher’s father, he plays a supportive uncle, a local Hasidic leader and, most notably, Jacob Kahn, a secular Jewish artist who becomes Asher’s mentor. Though some of the portrayals carry a whiff of stereotype, Kahn comes across as distinctive and fully human.

Under Kahn’s exacting tutelage, Asher is encouraged to remain true to his Hasidic identity while studying the European and largely Christian traditions that shaped Western art. The resulting tension leads to a climax that supplies the drama—melodrama, even—that much of the play lacks.

Steven C. Anderson’s sensitive direction makes the most of the work’s strengths, including its portrait of a youth torn between his art and his devotion to his family and faith. Jarod Wilson’s lighting design brings out every nuance of that portrait, while well-chosen background music adds both drama and ethnic flavor. Eric Barker’s painterly scenic design includes a floor divided into multiple, odd-shaped levels and distorted windows that play a symbolic role in later scenes.

The sum total of all this effort is a nearly perfect staging of an interesting, if not-quite-perfect, work of theater.

CATCO and Gallery Players will present My Name Is Asher Lev through Nov. 9 in Studio Two, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 95 minutes. Tickets are $11.50 for Wednesday matinees, $30 Thursday, $45 Friday-Saturday and $41 Sunday. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.