Funk Daddy Love shares bill with spirit of Janis Joplin

Two gay fathers (Tom Cardinal, left, and Jimmy Mak) suspect their daughter (Nikki Fagin) of being a closet Republican in Elephant in the Room, one of the skits featured in Best of Shadowbox (Studio 66 photo)
Two gay fathers (Tom Cardinal, left, and Jimmy Mak) suspect their daughter (Nikki Fagin) of being a closet Republican in Elephant in the Room, one of the skits featured in Best of Shadowbox (Studio 66 photo)

By Richard Ades

The annual Best of Shadowbox show basically amounts to summer reruns, consisting of selected songs and skits from previous shows. As a result, it isn’t always something I look forward to.

But this year’s version was different. So much of the material was awesome the first time around that I couldn’t wait to see it again.

Last Friday, I finally got the chance. It turned out to be just as good as I expected.

Lots of people deserve credit for the show’s success, but let’s start by acknowledging the contributions of Brandon Anderson. Not only does he bookend the first act by handling lead vocals on two of the most entertaining songs—Mama Told Me Not to Come and Bruno Mars’s catchy Uptown Funk—but he portrays the central character in the funniest Shadowbox skit in recent memory.

In Funk Daddy Love, Anderson plays a soul singer who’s on trial for the “crime” of being too sexy. As one witness after another explains how his crooning has affected them, Love repeatedly pulls out a microphone and launches into his unbelievably raunchy ballads.

Anderson is great in the role, but it’s all the little touches that really sell the comedy: the nightclub-style lighting that accompanies his warbling, Katy Psenicka’s turn as the uptight prosecutor, Robbie Nance’s portrayal of the awkward defense attorney, Tom Cardinal’s high-pitched attempts to keep order as the judge. In this and every other featured skit, directors Stev Guyer and Julie Klein make sure everything is honed to perfection.

Other welcome returnees include:

Life Duet: The night’s most romantic skit stars Jimmy Mak and Nikki Fagin as a couple whose decades-long relationship is defined by the songs they listen to on the radio.

Sneak a Peek—Dirty Movies: The best episode yet of the faux movie-review series finds hosts Klein and David Whitehouse sampling adult-rated flicks such as Saving Ryan’s Privates and the badly dubbed Samurai Frog Proctologist. The running joke is that the horny heroine inevitably has an equally horny sister who shows up at an opportune moment.

The Friend Zone: The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling (Nance) narrates the horrifying tale of a hapless guy (Mak) who can’t get to first base because his favorite girl (Fagin) doesn’t even know he’s suited up and ready to play.

Holy Hell: A parishioner (Gabriel Guyer) goes to his priest (Cardinal) to confess a night of debauchery. The piece would be even funnier if the priest’s insistence on details weren’t so unlikely, but it deserves recognition as Shadowbox’s most explicitly sexual skit of all time.

Of the comedy bits I missed the first time around, my favorite is Gymnauseum, in which a substitute gym teacher (Whitehouse) is shocked to learn that dodgeball is considered too taxing for today’s mollycoddled students. Also appealing—at least, up until the weak ending—is Elephant in the Room. It’s about what happens when two gay fathers (Cardinal and a particularly funny Mak) are shocked to learn their daughter (Fagin) may be a closet Republican.

In honor of its 25th anniversary, Shadowbox is bringing back highlights from the troupe’s early years. In this show, the highlight is Steven Lynch’s Lullaby, a song last heard in 2006 at the now-defunct 2Co’s Cabaret. Cardinal again favors the piece with his sweet voice, setting the audience up for a humorous jolt when the lyrics take an unexpected turn.

Other musical selections of note include the two that bookend the second act: Portishead’s All Mine, sung by Stephanie Shull and accompanied by suitably spooky dancing featuring Nance, Fagin and Psenicka; and Queen’s Somebody to Love, harmonized by a gospel-like choir. Sandwiched between these two is the most notable number of all: Klein’s fervent re-creation of Janis Joplin’s Ball and Chain, complete with an extended a cappella section.

As if the show’s live entertainment weren’t enough, it’s punctuated by a collection of often-clever videos. The best is the last: Stev Guyer’s interview with the Columbus Zoo’s Jungle Jack Hanna. Hanna is such a treasure trove of unpredictable drollness that he inspires laughs without even trying.

Presumably, Shadowbox’s regular performers have to work at being as funny and tuneful as they are. Luckily for us, they made the effort.

Best of Shadowbox continues through Aug. 22 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday ( no shows July 3-4). Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Shadowbox gets anniversary season off to a freaky start

 

By Richard Ades

Fabulous costumes, a smokin’ guitar solo and a very funny Jack Hanna. These are some of the highlights of Shadowbox Live’s Freak Show.

More generally, the show offers some really smart comedy, including a vintage skit that’s being repeated as part of the troupe’s 25th anniversary celebration.

Let’s start with Jack Hanna. The Columbus Zoo’s director emeritus has demonstrated his deadpan sense of humor over the years during his many appearances on The Late Show With David Letterman, but he’s never been funnier than he is here.

In a video segment, Shadowbox executive producer Stev Guyer seeks out Hanna’s advice on how to keep the troupe going for another 25 years. Instead, Jungle Jack begins paddling down a stream of consciousness that carries us into areas that are hilariously personal.

As for the guitar solo, it takes place in a cover of Van Halen’s House of Pain and features the nimble fingers of Brent Lambert. Amy Lay ably handles the vocals, but make no mistake: Lambert’s screaming guitar is the tune’s reason for being.

And the costumes? Designed by Linda Mullin, Nick Wilson and Lyn Walker, they accentuate the show’s spooky theme while turning several musical numbers into visual as well as aural treats. My favorites include the colorful tutus lead vocalist Anita McFarren and her backup singers don for Mz. Hyde.

Comedy-wise, Shadowbox theme shows easily beat the success ratio of Saturday Night Live, but that’s really damning with faint praise. For Freak Show, director Guyer, head writer Jimmy Mak and the cast actually approach the success ratio of Modern Family.

Not everything inspires big laughs. Jason’s Scary Poem, a narrated and mimed homage to Dr. Seuss, is more apt to inspire appreciative nods and chuckles. And Zombie or Not to Be?, a faux TV show about the undead, is mostly unfunny. But an astounding number of skits are ingeniously written and brilliantly performed. Some of the standouts:

Modern Day Freaks: A carnival barker (JT Walker III) introduces such contemporary oddities as a 6-year-old girl who hates Frozen and a tea partier who’s down with gay marriage.

Literal Wizard: A substitute teacher (Tom Cardinal) uses his wizardly skills to instruct his students on the proper use of the word “literally.” (English majors will love this one!)

The Line: Disney makes a horror film inspired by Disneyland’s scariest attraction of all: those endless lines.

Haunted House Training: The socially inept Gary (Mak) thinks he knows how to scare people at a Halloween haunted house because he’s so good at inadvertently scaring them in real life.

Captain’s Kirk’s Advice: Office worker Herb (Jamie Barrow) is too shy to ask out co-worker Lisa (Carrie Lynn McDonald) until he’s goaded on by video clips of that planet-hopping Lothario himself, James T. Kirk.

Incidentally, McDonald is a former Shadowbox regular who’s making a return visit for this show, probably in honor of the anniversary season. Other welcome returnees include the final skit, The Exorsister, and the spectacular final tune, Thriller, featuring vocals by Leah Laviland and a stageful of creepy dancers.

There’s much more of worth in Freak Show, including such musical numbers as Save Me (sung by a gruff-voiced Walker) and the familiar Mama Told Me Not to Come (talk-sung by Brandon Anderson).

Even the video segments, which normally function as semi-cute fillers, are great. Besides the Jungle Jack interview, my favorite is Flashback, in which a prophetic spirit tells young Shadowbox founder Steve Guyer to postpone his ambitious dream of staging original rock operas and concentrate on sketch comedy. And, oh yes, he’s advised to change his first name to Stev.

Sure, it’s self-referential and maybe even self-indulgent. But after 25 years, Shadowbox is entitled.

Freak Show continues through Nov. 1 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.