Fading film star shares stage with oversized suppository

Doug Joseph (standing) and Ralph E. Scott in Die, Mommie, Die! (photo by Jerri Shafer)
Doug Joseph (standing) and Ralph E. Scott in Die, Mommie, Die! (photo by Jerri Shafer)

By Richard Ades

I first saw Die, Mommie, Die! in its original off-Broadway production back in 2007. Strangely, I don’t remember much about it other than the fact that playwright Charles Busch played Angela Arden, a once-big Hollywood star whose career is as tattered as her marriage.

I think I got a few laughs out of the New York show, but I got many more from Short North Stage’s current revival of the campy comedy. Directed by Edward Carignan, the production boasts all sorts of strengths, starting with its cast.

Filling in for Busch as Angela, Doug Joseph proves once again that he’s the master (mistress?) at this kind of cross-dressing role. He plays the aging diva with just enough exaggeration to make it clear we’re watching a spoof. Specifically, we’re watching a spoof of “hag horror” flicks such as Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte and Die! Die! My Darling!

Equally on the mark is Ralph E. Scott’s portrayal of husband Sol Sussman, a producer who knows Angela has been fooling around while he’s been away raising money for his latest epic. But his wife’s infidelity is no higher than third on his list of problems, which include a business transaction with the mob and a killer case of constipation.

My main reservation about the production is Nick Lingnofski’s take on Angela’s not-so-secret lover, former TV star Tony Parker. Lingnofski can usually be counted on to improve whatever show he’s in, but here he spends so much time preening and posing that the character never comes alive. It’s like Lingnofski is playing a hack actor playing a hack actor, an approach that seems distractingly out of place.

Erin Mellon is fun as daughter Edith, who hates her mother nearly as much as she loves her father—and who expresses that love in ways that border on incest. Johnny Robison has his hands full playing her brother, Lance, a character marked by (1) mental challenges, (2) awakening sexual urges and (3) an out-of-control temper. On opening night, I didn’t always feel he combined all three in a coherent way, but he mostly succeeded.

Rounding out the cast, Josie Merkle does a fine job as longtime maid Bootsie Carp, whose loyalty to Sol makes her a liability to Angela.

In tune with the “hag horror” theme, the 1967-set tale includes murderous plotting on the part of Angela. In tune with the campy atmosphere, the story is spiced up with copious amounts of outrageousness, including an encounter with a painfully large suppository.

Bill Pierson’s set design perfectly captures 1960s decorating trends, right down to the planter and the star-shaped clock on the wall. Rob Kuhn’s lighting, along with well-placed sound effects and snippets of mood music, underline the faux-melodramatic atmosphere.

One reason this all plays so well is that it unfolds in the Garden Theater’s intimate Green Room, which allows viewers to catch the actors’ every glance, leer and frown. But of course, that’s an advantage only because nearly every glance, leer and frown is delivered so flawlessly.

Short North Stage will present Die, Mommie, Die! through Feb. 21 at Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25 general seating, $30 reserved. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

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Love triangle turns deadly in offbeat rock musical

By Richard Ades

Chances are you’ve never seen a musical quite like Murder Ballad. On the other hand, chances are the show’s characters will seem very familiar.

In the first act, young New Yorkers Sara (Kaitlin Descutner) and Tom (Jason Carl Crase) begin a wild affair that appears to be based solely on physical attraction. (Well, maybe alcohol plays a supporting role.)

When they break up two years later, a drunk and lonely Sara bumps into Michael (Nick Cirillo), who is kind, decent, sensitive and, in general, everything Tom is not. They hook up and begin planning a future together.

It’s not hard to predict what will happen next. We know that Sara is attracted to “bad boys.” We know that Michael doesn’t fit that description. We know that Tom is still around—and easy to find, since he tends bar on the Lower East Side. It’s only a matter of time, it would seem, before Sara and Tom reunite.

About the only thing we don’t know is how Murder Ballad will live up to its name. Who gets murdered, and who does the murdering?

The one character who doesn’t seem familiar in Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash’s rock musical is the Narrator (Corinne Davis). Narrators generally are neutral reporters of the action, and that’s the way this Narrator starts out. As time goes on, however, she seems to be increasingly troubled by what she sees—so troubled that at one point she picks up a bottle from Tom’s bar and begins taking deep swigs between songs.

The emotionally involved Narrator is one thing that sets Murder Ballad apart, despite its familiar plot and characters. The staging is another.

Director/production designer Edward Carignan has transformed Short North Stage’s Green Room by installing a high, rectangular “bar top” in the center, with the audience seated around the periphery. The characters often climb onto this elevated platform or other precarious perches, underlining the dangerousness of their situation. Occasionally, they wander among the viewers, making them feel like they’re in the midst of the action.

Since this is a sung-through musical (no spoken dialogue), the songs are designed to tell the story rather than stand alone. Even so, a few have catchy tunes, and all are powerfully delivered by the cast and the four-piece band led by keyboardist Matthew Ebright. The only disappointment is that the lyrics are sometimes hard to pick out on the louder numbers.

Murder Ballad premiered at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Studio at Stage II in late 2012 and reopened in 2013 at an off-Broadway venue. Though the original production reportedly sold out, the off-Broadway version closed after only two months. After seeing Short North Stage’s revival, it’s not hard to guess why. The offbeat production design is striking, but you can’t help wishing the characters were a bit less generic.

Still, it’s fun to see what caught the attention of New York theatergoers a couple of years back. Bravo to Short North Stage for bringing this still-fresh slice of the Big Apple to Columbus.

Short North Stage will present Murder Ballad through Aug. 16 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $30. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

Keeler-like lass sets out to conquer Broadway

Ruby (Haley Jones, on floor) shows off her flexibility in Dames at Sea, which also stars (from left) Ian Taylor, Erin Ulman, Jordan Donica, Courtney Dahl and Sam Parker (photo by Andrew Beers)
Ruby (Haley Jones, on floor) shows off her flexibility in Dames at Sea, which also stars (from left) Ian Taylor, Erin Ulman, Jordan Donica, Courtney Dahl and Sam Parker (photo by Andrew Beers)

By Richard Ades

Otterbein is presenting its summer series on the stage of Cowan Hall. That is, both the audience and the actors share the stage, making for an intimate experience.

At first, it seems like an odd setup for Dames at Sea, a takeoff on 1930s movie musicals. You may find yourself wondering why they didn’t use the entire auditorium, as they do with their spring musical productions.

But it turns out the cozy surroundings work just fine for this George Haimsohn/Robin Miller/Jim Wise comedy, which is far more modest in size than the movies it spoofs. Originally opening off-Broadway in 1966, it features only seven major roles—and two of them are played by the same actor.

In Otterbein’s production, Haley Jones stars as Ruby, who’s determined to make her mark on Broadway even though she’s fresh off the bus from Utah. She’s clearly modeled after the kind of talented lass Ruby Keeler played on Depression-era movie screens, and Jones imbues her with the same kind of fresh-faced innocence and spunk. Almost as appealing is Sam Parker’s portrayal of Dick, the sailor who falls in love with Ruby after learning they both hail from the same small town.

The same town? Gee, what are the chances of that? Well, pretty good in this show, which takes none-too-subtle jabs at the amazing coincidences and strokes of luck that propelled Keeler’s heroines to instant fame and romance.

Also playing important roles are Jordan Donica as flop-prone director Hennesey, Erin Ulman as spoiled diva Mona Kent, Courtney Dahl as sarcastic hoofer Joan and Ian Taylor as Joan’s sailor-boyfriend, Lucky. In Act 2, Donica does double duty as the Captain, whose battleship is commandeered by Hennesey and his cast after their theater becomes unavailable.

Supporting roles are played by Anthony Cason, Emily Vanni, Jeff Gise and—upstaging all the rest—Tux. This pooch, who plays Mona’s lapdog, is the biggest, calmest Pomeranian you’ve ever seen.

In a show this campy, it’s a good idea not to camp up the performances, which amounts to overkill. Working under Doreen Dunn’s spirited direction, most of the cast members manage to avoid this most of the time. The biggest exception is Ulman, who makes Mona a caricature of diva-hood.

On the other hand, Ulman sings and tap-dances well, as she proves in the first musical number, Wall Street. Other cast members also get ample opportunities to show off their fine pipes and moves, with strong help from Molly Sullivan’s choreography and Dennis Davenport and Lori Kay Harvey’s keyboard accompaniment. Fittingly, no one gets more opportunities than Jones, who is especially impressive on her two ballads, The Sailor of My Dreams and Raining in My Heart.

Rob Johnson’s scenery is nearly nonexistent in Act 1, set on a largely bare stage, but the Captain’s Navy ship is amusingly depicted in Act 2.

Plot-wise, Dames at Sea is little more than a string of self-consciously absurd developments. Music-wise, it’s marked by tunes that are pleasant but mostly unmemorable. It’s a slight pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless.

Otterbein Summer Theatre will present Dames at Sea at 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday (July 23-26), plus 2 p.m. Friday, in Cowan Hall, 30 S. Grove St., Westerville. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25. 614-823-1109 or www.otterbein.edu/drama.

Musical takes young lovers on ‘fantastick’ voyage

Appearing in The Fantasticks are (clockwise from top): Ian Taylor (the Mute), Alex Huffman (Hucklebee), Preston Pounds (Matt), Natalie Szczerba (Luisa) and Kyle Hansen (Bellomy) (photo by Andrew Beers)
Appearing in The Fantasticks are (clockwise from top): Ian Taylor (the Mute), Alex Huffman (Hucklebee), Preston Pounds (Matt), Natalie Szczerba (Luisa) and Kyle Hansen (Bellomy) (photo by Andrew Beers)

By Richard Ades

The Fantasticks is a subtle, tricky work that deals in mood and feeling rather than plot. When you think about it, it’s kind of amazing that the original off-Broadway production made it the world’s longest-running musical.

How did it happen? The biggest factor is likely Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s gorgeous music, beginning with the show-opening Try to Remember. It establishes a sad, wistful tone that colors everything that follows—that is, unless the actors break the spell by mishandling the subsequent forays into silliness and cynicism.

At Otterbein, director David Caldwell leads a production that gets just about everything right.

Sam Parker speaks simply and sings beautifully as El Gallo, the narrator who comes to play a pivotal role in the lives of the young central characters, Matt and Luisa.

Growing up next to each other but separated by a wall erected by their fathers, the two have fallen in love. Or have they simply fallen in love with the idea of falling in love? Truthfully, Matt and Luisa are so filled with youthful optimism and romantic notions that they have little understanding of how the world really works.

Before El Gallo is done with them, that will all change.

Natalie Szczerba imbues the teenaged Luisa with an exalted sense of her own specialness and an operatically soaring voice. As Matt, Preston Pounds is slightly more limited vocally, but he sells us on the young man’s passionate approach to Luisa and everything else.

Alex Huffman and Kyle Hansen give lightly comic turns as the pair’s fathers, who are not as opposed to the developing romance as they’ve let on. In fact, they conspire with El Gallo and itinerant actors Henry and Mortimer to concoct a way to push them together.

As Henry, Jeff Gise at first struggles to give a believable impersonation of old age, but he grows more effective as the show goes on. As Mortimer, a faux Native American who specializes in death scenes, Anthony Cason gives the show’s funniest performance.

Oddly, one of the production’s most expressive performances is delivered by Ian Taylor as the aptly named Mute, who silently portrays the wall and otherwise makes himself useful throughout.

Rob Johnson’s scenery is minimal, as is traditional. Andy Baker’s lighting design is handsome and dramatic.

Accompanying the singers from positions on opposite sides of the stage are music director/pianist Dennis Davenport and harpist James Predovich. Predovich’s playing is lovely, while Davenport’s keyboard work is extraordinary.

How did The Fantasticks attain its legendary popularity? Now that I’ve seen Otterbein’s production, the feat is a bit easier to understand.

Otterbein Summer Theatre will present The Fantasticks through June 21 in the Fritsche Theatre, Cowan Hall, 30 S. Grove St., Westerville. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, plus 2 p.m. this Friday (June 13). Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25. 614-823-1109 or www.otterbein.edu/drama.