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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Dittohead with a grudge against the health-care system

By Richard Ades

Mercy Killers is a play with a message.

Playwright/actor Michael Milligan makes no attempt to hide that fact. And even if he did, the secret would be out as soon as you hit the ticket table and found it littered with handouts from a group called the Single-Payer Action Network.

The one-man play’s message is that America’s health-care system leaves people vulnerable to physical and financial ruin. And that’s true even if they have health insurance.

Fortunately, Ohio State alum Milligan is a thespian rather than a clergyman. As a result, the play is much more than a glorified sermon.

As Joe, a car mechanic who’s a fan of Rush Limbaugh, Milligan tells a tale involving a cancer-stricken wife and an insurance company that finds an excuse to bail as soon as the medical bills start piling up. It all unfolds in the form of a rambling statement made to an unseen police officer who suspects Joe of committing a serious crime.

The nature of that crime is unspecified until the end, but Milligan throws in enough foreshadowing to give it away to all but the most optimistic viewers. Despite this, all but the most hard-hearted audience members are likely to find themselves tearing up when the moment of truth finally arrives.

Up until then, the tale is slightly hampered by its structure. The play’s setup—not to mention the title—gives us no reason to believe things will go well. So when Joe relates the ups and downs of his relationship with his wife, Jane, we know better than to hope for the best.

It’s also not hard to see the author’s politically motivated thought processes at work: Joe is portrayed as a Limbaugh dittohead in order to give more weight to his eventual indictment of the health-care system.

But two things work in the play’s favor.

First, it’s filled with details that are both plausible and relatable. And second, Milligan is a very good actor, allowing him to breathe touching reality into what could have come off as a mere propaganda piece.

Will the Affordable Care Act, once it’s fully implemented, prevent tragedies such as the one that befalls Joe and Jane? Hopefully it will make them less likely, but Milligan and the group that’s helping to coordinate the show clearly feel more change is needed. For a look at what the group is advocating, visit spanohio.org.

For a refresher course on why the health-care system is in need of change, see Mercy Killers.

On the Verge Productions will present Mercy Killers through March 9 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave. Show times are 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Friday, 7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour. Free; donations encouraged. Mercykillerstheplay.com.