Front Street troupe was particularly ambitious in 2015

One of the beautiful stage pictures offered by Short North Stage’s production of A Little Night Music (photo by Ray Zupp)
One of the beautiful stage pictures offered by Short North Stage’s production of A Little Night Music (photo by Ray Zupp)

By Richard Ades

I try not to play favorites when I’m making out my annual “best of” list, but it’s hard to avoid the fact that one Columbus theater company was a dominant force in 2015. Shadowbox Live had so many great and unique shows that I could just about draw up a separate list devoted solely to the troupe on Front Street.

To some extent, this is no surprise. Shadowbox is by far the biggest and busiest company in town. At any given time, it divides its week up among multiple productions.

In 2015, though, Shadowbox seemed to be trying harder than ever. Not only were several of its variety shows particularly enjoyable, but it launched all-new productions that were like nothing we’d ever seen.

Shadowbox’s ambition didn’t always pay off. After putting everything else on hold for its fall production of The Tenshu, the kabuki-inspired tale turned out to be visually exhilarating but dramatically dull. But Joe Cocker: Mad Dog and Englishman was a joyful musical tribute, while the Pink Floyd retrospective Which One’s Pink? had moments of pure genius.

To top the year off, Shadowbox announced plans to purchase its expansive Brewery District venue. It’s a gutsy move, but if anyone can pull it off, it’s Stev Guyer and company.

Jean Valjean (Bill Hafner, left) risks being recognized by Javert (Scott Green, center) when he intercedes on behalf of Fantine (Melissa Muguruza), who’s being detained by two local constables (Derryck Menard and Emerson Elias) in this scene from Les Miserables (photo by Jerri Shafer)
Jean Valjean (Bill Hafner, left) risks being recognized by Javert (Scott Green, center) when he intercedes on behalf of Fantine (Melissa Muguruza) in this scene from Gallery Players’ production of Les Miserables (photo by Jerri Shafer)

Beyond Shadowbox, my 2015 was highlighted by two wonderful musical productions: Gallery Players’ Les Miserables and Short North Stage’s A Little Night Music. The former was the year’s biggest surprise. I’d previously seen four productions of Les Miz, including two touring shows and the 2012 film version, but I’d never found Jean Valjean’s saga as moving as it was on the Jewish Community Center stage.

On a more modest scale, several of the year’s biggest treats were provided by little Evolution Theatre Company, which staged gay-centered shows that were at once enjoyable and consciousness-raising. Especially rewarding were the WWII musical Yank!, the historical drama The Temperamentals and the Texas-based comedy Sordid Lives.

Also interesting: Wild Women Writing’s On the Edge and Over the Edge, collaborations with Short North Stage that featured short works by Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and contemporary American playwright Will Eno.

A few of the other shows were mixed successes for me: I had reservations about the works themselves, but I admired the way they were staged. Warehouse Theatre Company’s This Is Our Youth, Available Light Theatre’s The Christians, MadLab’s Clowntime Is Over and A&B Theatrical’s Devotion all fell into this category.

Outright disappointments? Of course there were some, but maybe the biggest was that I missed many shows that doubtlessly were worthwhile. Often I was too busy or out of town. In the case of one popular show staged in a relatively small space, I simply couldn’t get a ticket. At any rate, it should be remembered that any “best of” list is limited by what that particular critic has or hasn’t seen.

Obviously, 2015’s biggest shock was the unexpected death of Actors’ Theatre artistic director John S. Kuhn in late February. Though it was a great loss to the company and the theater community at large, Actors’ staff and supporters came together to ensure that the outdoor troupe’s summer season went forward as planned. Since then, Actors’ Theatre has named Philip J. Hickman as its new artistic director and announced a promising 2016 season, offering hope that the troupe will continue to build on the gains it made under Kuhn’s leadership.

On that somber but optimistic note, here’s my list of the best productions and performances of 2015:

Best play: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Adrenaline Theatre Company. Director Audrey Rush and her cast brought fire and commitment to Edward Albee’s tale of a monstrously dysfunctional relationship.

Best musical (tie): Les Miserables, Gallery Players; and A Little Night Music, Short North Stage. The former demonstrated that Les Miz still has the power to move us. The latter proved once again that Short North Stage has a way with Sondheim.

A sampling of the characters and costumes featured in Sex at the Box (Shadowbox Live photo)
A sampling of the characters and costumes featured in Sex at the Box (Shadowbox Live photo)

Best variety show: Sex at the Box, Shadowbox Live. The show’s many highlights included Shadowbox’s funniest skit in years (Funk Daddy Love, starring Brandon Anderson) and perhaps its best cover song ever (Ball and Chain, with Julie Klein expertly channeling Janis Joplin).

Best touring show: Anything Goes, Broadway in Columbus/CAPA. Watching the seagoing musical was like crossing the Atlantic while time-traveling back to the 1930s.

Best new work: Krampus: A Yuletide Tale, Short North Stage. Created by Nils-Petter Ankarblom and Carrie Gilchrist, the musical was a delightfully menacing alternative to A Christmas Carol. Honorable mention: The Great One: A Hockey Musical, Short North Stage.

Best “far out!” moment: Act 2 of Which One’s Pink?, Shadowbox Live. Footage from The Wizard of Oz was combined with live re-enactments of scenes from the film, live performances of music from Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon album and interpretive video by CCAD students. Bravo to director Stev Guyer and his talented collaborators.

Best direction (tie): David R. Bahgat, Les Miserables, Gallery Players; and Michael Licata, A Little Night Music, Short North Stage. Both directors performed miracles with the help of talented casts and crews. Bahgat made the familiar Les Miz as affecting as ever, while Licata brought out every tender, aching moment in Sondheim’s tale of longing and regret.

Best performance, female: Marya Spring, A Little Night Music, Short North Stage. Spring exuded both worldly confidence and vulnerability as glamorous actress Desiree.

Dr. Eve Bolinger (Ruth Sternberg) tries to “de-homosexualize” Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram (Mark Phillips Schwamberger) in Evolution Theatre Company’s production of Sordid Lives (photo by Jerri Shafer)
Dr. Eve Bolinger (Ruth Sternberg) tries to “de-homosexualize” Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram (Mark Phillips Schwamberger) in Evolution Theatre Company’s production of Sordid Lives (photo by Jerri Shafer)

Best performance, male: Bill Hafner, Les Miserables, Gallery Players. Hafner sang beautifully while portraying Jean Valjean with just the right combination of nobility and humility.

Best cross-dressing performance: Mark Phillips Schwamberger, Sordid Lives, Evolution Theatre Company. The musical shifted into high gear only after Schwamberger appeared as the pitiable but hilarious “Brother Boy.”

Annual theater celebration features awards, speeches, songs

Matt Clemens (seen sharing a scene with Laura Griffith) received a Theatre Roundtable award for his leading role in Short North Stage's production of Sunday in the Park With George (photo by Megan Leigh)
Matt Clemens (seen sharing a scene with Laura Griffith) received a Theatre Roundtable award for his leading role in Short North Stage’s production of Sunday in the Park With George (photo by Megan Leigh)

By Richard Ades

It’s all over but the Facebook posts.

The Central Ohio Theatre Roundtable held its annual awards night Sunday at the Jewish Community Center. As in the past, the fast-paced show punctuated its presentations and speeches with songs from some of the past year’s musical productions.

The treats included Matt Clemens’s emotional rendition of Finishing the Hat from Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George. The number provided proof that Clemens richly deserved the award the Roundtable gave him for his leading role in the Short North Stage production.

One of the night’s most heartwarming moments came when the Central Ohio Theatre Critics Circle—representing local print, on-air and online critics—presented a citation to Short North Stage for that same production. When troupe co-founders Rich Gore and Peter Yockel came onstage to accept the award, Yockel found himself getting a little choked up. That prompted Gore to observe that he hadn’t seen his partner tear up like that since their recent wedding day.

In a conversation prior to the show, the two recalled that they were just one of many same-sex couples who’d headed to New York and queued up to get hitched in a civil ceremony on Halloween. But they stood out from the crowd, they noted, being one of the few pairs who hadn’t turned up in Halloween costumes.

Two troupes received the Roundtable’s Harold Awards for, essentially, persevering: Columbus Children’s Theatre for turning 50 and Shadowbox Live for turning 25 (as measured from the appearance of Stev Guyer and company’s earliest “rock operas”). Accepting his Harold, Guyer explained why he and his cohorts had stuck it out in a profession that kept them working longer-than-average hours for lower-than-average pay.

“It’s a calling,” he said. “It’s what you do.”

Guyer also praised Columbus theatergoers who were willing to take a chance on unknown productions—such as most of those presented by Shadowbox.

For a list of other Theatre Roundtable nominees and winners, visit www.theatre-roundtable.org/trnominations/. For a list of the Central Ohio Theatre Critics Circle’s 20th annual round of citations, which were presented at Sunday’s event, see below:

▪ To CATCO and the Columbus Museum of Art, for educating Central Ohio about the power of art and the creative challenges of artists by jointly scheduling CATCO’s area premiere of Red, John Logan’s 2010 Tony winner for best play about Rothko at a pivotal point in his career, and “Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade,” the museum’s first major exhibit of works by the abstract master.

▪ To Short North Stage, for raising the standard in locally produced musicals with an ambitious 2013 season that culminated in the long-awaited Central Ohio premiere of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park With George, a challenging 1985 Pulitzer Prize winner that was brought to vivid life by blending local talents with such New York experts as sound designer Leon Rothenberg, a 2013 Tony Award winner, and director Sarna Lapine, niece of James Lapine.

▪ A Roy Bowen Lifetime Achievement Award to William Goldsmith for nurturing the talents and imaginations of tens of thousands of children and for writing and directing many popular stage adaptations of classic tales as youth theater director at Players Theatre Columbus in the 1970s and ’80s and, for 25 years since 1989, as artistic director of Columbus Children’s Theatre, a troupe that celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2013.