A look back at ‘2013: The Musical’

Japheal Bondurant as competitor William Barfee in CATCO's production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Red Generation Photography)
Japheal Bondurant as competitor William Barfee in CATCO’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Red Generation Photography)

By Richard Ades

2013 may be remembered as The Year of the Musical in Central Ohio. Or, more likely, as The First Year of the Musical.

In the more than two decades I’ve been reviewing local theater, musicals have always represented a small percentage of the shows I saw each year. But that’s likely to change.

A prime reason is that CATCO dropped its long aversion to the genre when Steven Anderson took over as producing director in 2010. Another reason is the ascendance of Short North Stage, a 2-year-old troupe that specializes in Sondheim’s art form.

Add to that the musicals staged by Otterbein University Theatre and the growing number staged by Shadowbox Live, including its recent collaborations with Opera Columbus. Then figure in the musicals bravely tackled by troupes that normally stick to standard fare.

The end result is a year that was teeming with musicals. And not just musicals: great musicals.

There were so many worthwhile musicals, in fact, that I’ve been forced to abandon the format I always followed at The Other Paper, which divided the nominees into categories such as Best Drama or Best Comedy. Limiting myself to one Best Musical would have forced me to ignore many of the year’s best shows. Instead, I’ve settled for naming the year’s Top 10 shows.

A couple of caveats: First, no one has time to see everything, so I’m sure I missed some award-worthy gems. And second, this is a subjective list based not only on what was done well but on what I found particularly interesting and memorable.

With that said, congratulations to the winners, and thanks to everyone who made this an exceptional year for theater in Central Ohio.

Top 10 Shows of 2013:

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, CATCO. Though the Top 10 list is mostly arranged haphazardly, this was my favorite show of the year. Director Steven Anderson found both the heart and the laughs in this familiar musical, with help from a consistently wonderful cast led by Japheal Bondurant, Elisabeth Zimmerman and Ralph E. Scott.

Sunday in the Park With George, Short North Stage. The Garden Theater-based troupe sometimes imports its directors from New York, and it paid off handsomely here. Sarna Lapine (niece of James Lapine, who wrote the book and directed the Broadway premiere) gave us a Sondheim revival that was both pitch-perfect and picture-perfect. As a bonus, sound designer Leon Rothenberg found a way to tame the theater’s echo-y acoustics, which bodes well for future productions.

Passing Strange, Short North Stage. Green Day fans undoubtedly enjoyed the punk-rock anger of American Idiot, which came through town in March. But those of a thoughtful bent were more likely to enjoy this satirical take on youthful angst, which was beautifully realized by director Mark Clayton Southers and his committed cast.

Duck Variations, A Portable Theatre. The best news was that the fledgling troupe is the new home of Geoffrey Nelson, former artistic director of CATCO. The second-best news was that its premiere show paired Nelson with fellow CATCO alum Jonathan Putnam. These two sly and seasoned pros made the David Mamet comedy one of the year’s funniest shows.

Assassins, Red Herring Productions. Michael Herring’s solo springtime performance of Krapp’s Last Tape launched the rebirth of his long-dormant troupe. But nothing could have prepared us for Red Herring’s next show, a polished production of Sondheim’s most controversial musical. John Dranschak directed an A-list cast led by Ian Short and Nick Lingnofski.

Mercy Killers, On the Verge Productions. 2013’s crop of touring musicals supplied a fair amount of flashy entertainment, but none of them were as impressive or thought-provoking as this one-man touring show. Writer/actor Michael Milligan told a tragic tale that movingly dramatized the shortcomings of the U.S. health-care system.

The Whipping Man, Gallery Players/New Players Theater. If you thought there was no way to come up with a new take on the Civil War, this show proved you wrong. Matthew Lopez’s postwar drama reunited two former slaves with the wounded son of their Jewish master. The fascinating, if imperfect, tale was exquisitely directed by Tim Browning.

The Air Loom, MadLab. Local actor Jim Azelvandre has tried his hand at writing in the past, but this surreal tale is his best work to date. Azelvandre also supplied the canny direction, which ensured that the ingenious storyline and eccentric characters remained entertaining throughout.

Henry IV, Part One, New Players Theater. Besides staging The Taming of the Shrew on its outdoor stage, New Players was brave enough to tackle one of Shakespeare’s seldom-seen historical dramas. Bard-literate director Robert Behrens made 15th-century Britain come to life with the help of a lively cast led by David Tull as the hard-partying Prince Hal and John Tener as the irrepressible Falstaff.

Burlesque Behind the Curtain, Shadowbox Live. Shadowbox’s production of Spamalot was a blast, too, but Behind the Curtain deserves credit for improving on last year’s Burlesque de Voyage. Writer Jimmy Mak, director Stev Guyer and the talented players created a show that was sometimes very sexy and other times very, very funny.

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The souse who would be king

John Tener (left) as Falstaff and David Tull as Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part One (photo by Matt Hermes)
John Tener (left) as Falstaff and David Tull as Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part One (photo by Matt Hermes)

By Richard Ades

Central Ohio Shakespeare fans currently have an embarrassment of riches. Besides Josh Whedon’s wonderful film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, they have three outdoor theater productions to choose from.

If you’re serious about the Bard, your best bet may be the work you’re probably the least familiar with: Henry IV, Part One. Yes, it’s a history play, but you don’t have to know your Tudors from your Plantagenets to enjoy it. That’s because the central character is a timeless archetype: a son who’s torn between his father’s expectations and his own fun-loving inclinations.

The son is Prince Hal, who likes nothing better than to spend his days drinking and getting into mischief with his tavern buddies, especially the disreputable but somehow lovable Sir John Falstaff. Hal’s lifestyle is extremely troubling to his father, King Henry IV, especially after sundry noblemen begin plotting against the crown.

Will Hal step up to his princely duties in time to help his father survive the threat to his reign? You could cheat by looking it all up on Wikipedia, but it’s more fun to watch the tale unfold on the New Players stage.

Directed by the Bard-literate Robert Behrens, the production benefits from a trio of great performances.

John Tener is a delight as Falstaff, an oversized and comical character who proved so popular that Shakespeare brought him back in two subsequent adventures. As Hal, David Tull is a nice blend of youthful indiscretion and innate decency.

In the scenes revolving around the developing revolt, Rick Clark’s Henry has a rather uncommanding presence, but Chris Austin gives a charismatic and powerful performance as the hot-tempered rebel known as Hotspur. Also making a strong impression, though he ventures right to the edge of a Scottish stereotype in the process, is Scott Willis as the Earl of Douglas.

The talk of rebellion eventually explodes into actual combat, and Behrens makes the most of it with well-staged action scenes involving swords, quarterstaffs and fisticuffs.

It’s noteworthy that, of the three local Shakespeare productions, Henry IV is the only one that isn’t updated. However, that doesn’t mean costume designer Natalie Cagle is a stickler for historical correctness. The men look vaguely 15th-century, but some of the women flit about in short skirts or dresses. One gets the impression that Cagle had to pull out all the creative stops in order to clothe the cast on a limited budget.

Scenic designer Peter Pauze also had to make do with more creativity than cash, it appears. Sometimes the scene changes involve such minor alterations that they hardly seem worth the effort. Still, the choreographed changes are performed with so much spirit that they’re fun to watch.

Anyway, the costumes and scenery are almost beside the point. What makes the production fun is the joy and devotion that Tener, Tull and the rest of the cast bring to this seldom-seen gem from the Shakespeare canon.

Note: New Players Theater is presenting Henry IV, Party One in repertory with The Taming of the Shrew (see previous review). The third local Shakespeare production is Actors’ Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night (review to come).

New Players Theatre will present Henry IV, Part One through July 28 at the Mill Run Amphitheater (behind Church at Mill Run), 3500 Mill Run Drive, Hilliard. Show times are 8 p.m. July 5, 13-14, 18 and 25-28. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (including intermission). Offered on alternate evenings is The Taming of the Shrew, which will be presented at 8 p.m. June 30, July 6-7, 11-12 and 19-21. Tickets: Pay what you will (bring a blanket or lawn chair); “premium reserved seats” also available with reservations. 614-874-6783 or newplayers.org.

Making patriarchy palatable

Amanda Cawthorne as Kate and Tim Browning as Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew (photo by Matt Hermes)
Amanda Cawthorne as Kate and Tim Browning as Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew (photo by Matt Hermes)

By Richard Ades

There are two Shakespeare plays that are hard sells because they’re based on outmoded mores. Of these, the more difficult is The Merchant of Venice, not so much because it has a Jewish villain but because its punishment for his villainy is to force him to convert to Christianity.

If Shakespeare were alive today, I’d sure he’d long since have had an Exodus International-style change of heart and issued an apology.

The other tough sell is The Taming of the Shrew, but after seeing the play twice in the past year, I suspect it may be due for a partial reprieve. The comedy is as patriarchal and sexist as ever, but if it’s done with heart and sensitivity, viewers might be able to overlook its dated viewpoint.

Admittedly, I first came to this conclusion after seeing it performed at London’s Globe Theatre, where I joined the other “groundlings” standing at the foot of the stage. Not only was the production a witty delight, garnering the biggest laughs of any Shakespearean outing I’d ever seen, but the theater’s 16th-century design might have made it easier to dip one’s mental toes into the mindset of the Bard’s era.

Still, you don’t have to go to the Globe to appreciate Shrew. If it’s been reprieved, the probable reason is simply that women’s place in the world has changed.

When a character declares that wives owe their husbands obedience because the men are the ones who go out and earn a living, we know she’s talking about a time that’s safely in the past. For most of us living in 21st-century America, the play’s sexism is too anachronistic to be threatening.

As I said, the comedy still must be performed with heart and sensitivity in order to work. New Players Theater’s current production, directed by Jocelyn Wiebe, is not perfect. But it does get the all-important relationship between Katherina (the “shrew”) and Petruchio (her would-be “tamer”) exactly right.

The situation: Baptista (Scott Willis), a rich resident of Padua, Italy, has two daughters of marriageable age. The gentle Bianca (Erin Mellon) has several suitors, but Baptista insists that her older sister, Kate (Amanda Cawthorne), must be married first. Trouble is, Kate’s mercurial temper scares off all prospective husbands.

Enter Petruchio (Tim Browning), who’s in search of a rich wife and insists that he can mold Kate into a devoted spouse. With help from his long-suffering servant, Grumio (Todd Covert), he sets out to do just that by adopting a plan of action that convinces her and everyone else that he’s outlandishly eccentric and possibly insane.

What makes all this palatable is that Browning portrays Petruchio as manipulative but never disrespectful toward Kate, while Cawthorne portrays Kate as ill-tempered but never undignified. Besides, we can’t help suspecting that these two fiery spirits are well-suited to each other.

A subplot involving Bianca’s suitors is marked by the typical Shakespearean disguises. Both Lucentio (Austin Andres) and Hortensio (Matthew Moore) pretend to be tutors in order to gain alone time with her (a goal that will resonate with fans of The Bachelorette), while Lucentio’s servant Tranio (Clifton Holznagel) masquerades as his master. The ruses are good for a few laughs, but the funniest suitor of all, thanks to Miles Drake’s crusty portrayal, is the doddering Gremio.

Mellon’s Bianca seems a tad too shallow to justify all the attention she receives, but the acting in the subplot is mostly on-target. Unfortunately, this part of the play is weakened by hackneyed bits of slapstick accompanied by overbearing sound effects (“Boing!”) and musical flourishes (“Whah, whah, whah, whah”). To be sure, slapstick has a place in Shakespeare, but it should serve the plot rather than acting as an over-the-top distraction.

Director Wiebe seems to set the tale somewhere in the mid-20th century, judging from the recorded musical accompaniment and Natalie Cagle’s costume designs. Again, the music is sometimes overbearing, but the costumes are distinctive and attractive. Alas, none is as daring as the ass-less outfit Petruchio wore to his wedding at the Globe, but that approach probably would have gotten the troupe thrown out of Hilliard.

And that would have been a shame. Despite its outdated attitudes, The Taming of the Shrew remains a clever and entertaining take on the war between the sexes.

New Players Theater will present The Taming of the Shrew through July 21 at the Mill Run Amphitheater (behind the Church at Mill Run), 3500 Mill Run Drive, Hilliard. Show times are 8 p.m. June 20-23 and 30, and July 6-7, 11-12 and 19-21. (Henry IV, Part One will be presented at 8 p.m. June 27-29, July 5, 13-14, 18 and 25-28.) Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets: Pay what you will. “Premium reserved seats” are available with paid reservations; otherwise, bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-874-6783 or newplayers.org.

How do you want your theater: toe-tapping or thought-provoking?

Playing the Moes in Five Guys Named Moe are (from left): Franklin Grace, LeRon Lee Hudson, Troy Anthony Harris, Japheal Bondurant and Terrence Brian Brown (Red Generation Photography)
Playing the Moes in Five Guys Named Moe are (from left): Franklin Grace, LeRon Lee Hudson, Troy Anthony Harris, Japheal Bondurant and Terrence Brian Brown (Red Generation Photography)
Christopher Austin, Bryant Bentley and Chris Tucci (from left) in The Whipping Man  (photo by Matt Hermes)
Christopher Austin, Bryant Bentley and Chris Tucci (from left) in The Whipping Man (photo by Matt Hermes)

By Richard Ades

I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but it was unavoidable. I happened to be standing nearby when a couple of theatergoers were discussing the then-current CATCO production.

I’d seen the show—a black comedy with nudity and adult situations—and loved it. But it seemed to have rubbed one of the strangers the wrong way, to the extent that he was disappointed he’d wasted his time seeing it.

OK, it’s a small incident, and one that happened several years ago. Still, it sticks in my mind because it’s so unlikely to be repeated anytime soon.

The lineup for CATCO’s upcoming 2013-14 season suggests that Columbus’s premier theater troupe is increasingly devoting itself to the tried and true rather than the offbeat and unfamiliar—i.e., works that could potentially disappoint or offend anyone. With one or two exceptions, these are plays and musicals that the average theatergoer has had one or multiple chances to see.

You can’t blame CATCO, let alone artistic director Steven Anderson, for taking a cautious approach to programming. The troupe is probably doing what it has to do to survive in an increasingly tough artistic environment. And, truthfully, its shows are likely to please most people.

That description certainly fits the current production, Five Guys Named Moe, which sets toes a-tapping while giving audience members a chance to join in the singing or even get up and dance. With a book by Clarke Peters and music and lyrics by “jump blues” composer/bandleader Louis Jordan and others, it’s basically a musical revue held together by a bare-bones plot.

Nomax (Kevin Ferguson) is lamenting his recent breakup with his girlfriend when he’s accosted by the titular five Moes. They proceed to give him lessons on love and life with the help of vintage songs ranging from the romantic Azure Te to the silly I Like ’Em Fat Like That and the nonsensical sing-along Push Ka Pi Shi Pie.

Of the five Moes, Big Moe (Troy Anthony Harris) has the most personality and Four-Eyed Moe (LaRon Lee Hudson) has the handsomest voice, but all of the actors sing pleasantly. With direction by Anderson, music direction by Matt Clemens and spare choreography by Liz Wheeler, it all amounts to breezy entertainment.

On opening night, Ferguson had a few pitchy notes, and the actors and the backstage band sometimes had trouble agreeing on a tempo. Otherwise, problems were few. The only people who’ll be disappointed by this show are those who wax nostalgic for the old days when CATCO was more willing to challenge its audience.

Then again, there are other, smaller troupes that don’t mind pushing the envelope. And two of them, Gallery Players and New Players Theater, have joined forces to present a play that’s as dramatic and provocative as Five Guy Named Moe is safe and soothing.

Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man is set in the ruins of a Richmond, Va., home in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. But this is no ordinary tale of the postwar era. That becomes clear as soon as freed slave Simon (Bryant Bentley) begins speaking in Hebrew.

We learn that Simon and fellow servant John (Christopher Austin) belonged to a Jewish family and were raised in that faith. The irony that members of one oppressed group owned members of another oppressed group is one of the issues that are explored dramatically after their former master’s son, Caleb (Chris Tucci), returns home from the war with a grievous wound.

Sometimes long-winded, sometimes stomach-churning and finally a bit abrupt, The Whipping Man is nevertheless fascinating. Best of all, it’s exquisitely staged by director Tim Browning and his cast.

Of the three actors, only Tucci seems overly restrained, and that’s partly because he’s limited by his role. As the kind and ethical Simon, Bentley gives one of the strongest performances of recent memory, one that gains depth and passion as the play proceeds. Meanwhile, Austin adds touches of humor and a sense of danger as the unscrupulous John.

Important contributions are made by scenic designer Peter Pauze, who’s created a depiction of a once-grand house that’s been devastated by war, and by lighting/sound designer Jarod Wilson, who sets key moments in the midst of a storm that mirrors the psychological turmoil the characters are experiencing.

Overall, it’s a powerful experience.

So you have a choice, theatergoers. If you like to be entertained, see Five Guys Named Moe. If you like to be entertained, educated and challenged, see The Whipping Man.

CATCO will present Five Guys Named Moe through May 26 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: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $11.50 for Wednesday matinees, $45 for evening performances and $41 for Sunday matinees. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.

Gallery Players and New Players Theater will present The Whipping Man through May 19 at the Jewish Community Center, 1125 College Ave. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday (no show May 16), 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20 ($15 for JCC members), $18 for seniors ($13 for senior JCC members), $10 for students and children. 614-231-2731, jccgalleryplayers.org or newplayers.org.