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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Duck-centered talk is both funny and philosophical

Poster for the debut production of Geoff Nelson's new troupe, A Portable Theatre
Poster for The Duck Variations, starring Jonathan Putnam (seated) and Geoffrey Nelson (photo courtesy of A Portable Theatre)

By Richard Ades

After watching a local 2012 production of November, David Mamet’s clunky attempt at political satire, it was hard to get enthused over the prospect of seeing another Mamet comedy.

On the other hand, it was easy to get enthused over the prospect of seeing the debut of Geoffrey Nelson’s new touring troupe, A Portable Theatre. Especially since the production starred both Nelson and longtime cohort Jonathan Putnam.

The two CATCO alums have been doing theater together for more than 30 years, as Nelson noted on opening night, and it shows in the easy way they play off each other. Working under Nelson’s direction, they mine every bit of humor from Mamet’s two-person one-act, The Duck Variations.

The surprising bonus, for those who suffered through November, is that the one-act has quite of bit of humor to mine. Written in 1972, when Mamet was just closing in on the quarter-century mark, it’s basically a wide-ranging conversation between two strangers who meet in a park.

Politics, economics, friendship, pollution—these and more topics come up. But the conversation starts with and often returns to ducks, with which each of the men seems to identify in various ways. Being at an age when they’re aware of their own mortality, they particularly sympathize with the males who attain leadership roles only to be replaced by younger males when they’re felled by death.

It’s all a bit profound, and just a little sad. Mostly, though, it’s funny, thanks to the personality clashes that arise.

Emil (Nelson) is frankly lonely and is happy to find someone to talk to, but he can’t help being annoyed by his companion’s tendency to bloviate on subjects he obviously knows little about. George (Putnam), for his part, becomes both annoyed and defensive when his misstatements are questioned.

At one point, George goes so far as to insist that birds are the only animals capable of flight. Only later, after Emil drops the subject, is he willing to admit that insects also have been known to take wing.

In a talkback session after the opening-night performance, Nelson explained that the characters are meant to be in their 60s. That probably seemed ancient to the then-20-something playwright, who imbued them with several familiar characteristics of old age.

Being in his 60s himself, Nelson said, he actually thinks of the men as being in their 80s. However, neither actor makes an obvious effort to age his character. This subtle approach allows Emil and George to come across, not as stereotypical oldsters, but as individuals who are touchingly vulnerable and recognizably—and hilariously—human.

A Portable Theatre will present The Duck Variations through June 23. Show times are 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the BalletMet Performance Space, 322 Mount Vernon Ave.; and 8 p.m. Wednesday and 11 a.m. Thursday at Abbey Theater of Dublin, 5600 Post Road. Running time: 50 minutes. Tickets are $20, $10 students ($15/$10 students at Thursday matinee). Aportabletheatre.com.