Tending a plant that won’t take ‘no’ for an answer

Seymour (Lukas Tomasacci) hopes his newly discovered plant will help him win over his beloved Audrey (Edelyn Parker). (Shadowbox Live photo)
Seymour (Lukas Tomasacci) hopes his newly discovered plant will help him win over his beloved Audrey (Edelyn Parker). (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

Skid Row isn’t the best location for a flower shop. That’s the conclusion store owner Mr. Mushnik (Tom Cardinal) reaches following a sales-less day in Little Shop of Horrors.

Luckily, store clerk Seymour (Lukas Tomasacci) discovers a mysterious plant that soon has customers flocking to their door. Well, maybe “luckily” isn’t the right word, since Seymour quickly learns that the plant thrives only when it gets a steady supply of its favorite food: human blood.

Based on a low-budget 1960 film, the stage musical opened off-off-Broadway in 1982 but was soon transplanted to Broadway, where it bloomed into a five-year hit. Its success is mostly due to the sparking collection of rock, pop and blues songs written by lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, the team behind Disney’s The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.

Though obviously darker than those family-friendly flicks, the musical shares a seed of humanity and a sense of fun that prevent it from becoming too macabre.

At Shadowbox, it’s hardly surprising that director Stev Guyer and his cast have no trouble with the musical numbers. The vocals are both strong and expressive, never allowing the characters’ personalities to get lost in the melodic underbrush. Accompanying them is a four-piece band that has a feel for the music, which often sounds like a holdover from rock’s innocent early years.

Between songs, the production mostly hits the right dramatic and comic notes.

Tomasacci wins our sympathy as Seymour, an orphan who was taken in by Mr. Mushnik as a child. As a result of his gratefulness and low self-esteem, Seymour feels unworthy of demanding better treatment from the employer who underpays and overworks him. And he feels even less worthy of the woman he secretly worships, fellow clerk Audrey (Edelyn Parker).

For her part, Audrey has even lower self-esteem, to the extent that she puts up with constant abuse from her sadistic dentist/boyfriend, Orin (Jamie Barrow). Parker plays Audrey as a stereotypical bimbo but with an undercurrent of longing that becomes palpable in the wistful ballad Somewhere That’s Green. Unfortunately, Parker adds a veneer of stagy melodrama by striking poses straight out of the silent-film era. It’s a puzzling choice that undercuts an otherwise sympathetic portrayal.

As Orin, the nitrous oxide-addicted dentist who’s never happy unless he’s making Audrey or his patients miserable, Barrow is like a less-scary version of Dennis Hopper’s maniac in Blue Velvet. He’s amusing, but a bit more menace would make him a better villain.

Then again, when it comes to menace and villainy, it would be hard to beat the bloodthirsty plant that Seymour names Audrey II. Depicted by puppets of ever-increasing sizes, it’s voiced by Billy DePetro in raucous tones that suggest an evil radio deejay.

Helping to establish the neighborhood’s rundown character are a mostly silent wino (Brandon Anderson) and three spunky “urchins” (Noelle Grandison, Nikki Fagin and Ashley Pearce). The latter serve as a streetwise Greek chorus, commenting from the sidelines and occasionally breaking into song.

Watching a scene in which Seymour contemplates committing murder to feed the insatiable Audrey II, some may be reminded of a similar scene from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, which a couple of local troupes revived in the spring. Though otherwise completely different, both musicals sport bloody plots driven by love: love lost in Sweeney Todd and love desired in Little Shop of Horrors.

That fertile bit of humanity, along with the hummable tunes, keeps Ashman and Menken’s cult hit from withering away on its farcical vine.

Little Shop of Horrors will be presented through Nov. 27 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 2 and 7 p.m. select Sundays (no shows Nov. 6 or 20), plus 2 p.m. Dec. 3, 10 and 17. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 students/seniors. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Advertisements

Fitzgerald’s Gatsby reborn as a dancing lesbian

The cast of Broken Whispers includes (clockwise from front): Miriam King as Daisy, Amy Lay as Gatsby, Nikki Fagin as Jordan, Robbie Nance as Nick and Andy Ankrom as Tom. (Shadowbox Live photo)
The cast of Broken Whispers includes (clockwise from front): Miriam King as Daisy, Amy Lay as Gatsby, Nikki Fagin as Jordan, Robbie Nance as Nick and Andy Ankrom as Tom. (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

Is it possible to sprain your hands by clapping too hard? I came close to doing that during Shadowbox Live’s new dance-centered drama, Broken Whispers.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Broken Whispers is Shadowbox’s take on The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s cautionary tale of envy and obsessive desire in the Roaring ’20s. Like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Fitzgerald’s masterpiece has come to define a troubling era. Just as Twain’s young narrator stands in for America’s conscience in slave-holding, pre-Civil War America, Gatsby narrator Nick Carraway serves as our conscience and guide in a decade marked by greed and irresponsible hedonism.

Does Shadowbox’s version match the brilliance and depth of Fitzgerald’s original? Not overall, but it reimagines the tale in a way that is brilliantly innovative.

Whispers differs from Gatsby in several ways, but the most obvious is that the title character has been changed from a man who made his fortune from bootlegging to a woman who made it from running a brothel. Despite this, it sticks remarkably close to Fitzgerald’s tragic plot.

Our guide and narrator remains Nick (Robbie Nance), a young man who’s struggling to establish a career selling bonds in New York. Though not rich himself, he’s pulled into the lives of the wealthy by his cousin, Daisy Buchannan (Miriam King), and her husband, Tom (Andy Ankrom), as well as Nick’s high-living neighbor, Gatsby (Amy Lay).

It’s through Daisy and Tom that Nick meets and starts a relationship with a woman named Jordan Baker (Nikki Fagin). And it’s through Gatsby that Nick becomes involved in a dangerous attempt to reclaim the past.

Gatsby once had a secret fling with Daisy, but it ended when Daisy married Tom. Now that Gatsby has made her fortune, she believes she can win Daisy back, especially since Tom is a serial cheater who often deserts her for his married mistress, Myrtle Wilson (Edelyn Parker).

Changing a beloved novel into a dance-centered stage piece, and changing the sex of its protagonist along the way, is a tricky endeavor. That director Stev Guyer accomplishes it so well is a tribute to the skill of his cast and many collaborators, especially choreographer Katy Psenicka, writer Jimmy Mak and music director Matt Hahn.

Gatsby (Amy Lay, left) gets reacquainted with the love of her life, Daisy (Miriam King). (Shadowbox Live photo)
Gatsby (Amy Lay, left) gets reacquainted with the love of her life, Daisy (Miriam King). (Shadowbox Live photo)

First of all, the cast is great, especially when it’s expressing itself through dance. Psenicka’s choreography is stellar throughout, but if I had to pick my favorite sequences, it would be the two that define the rekindled relationship of Lay’s Gatsby and King’s Daisy. At first they dance lithely and joyfully to the tune of Foo Fighters’ Everlong. Later, suggesting a more intimate encounter, they perform moves that are both athletic and sensual to the strains of Sade’s The Sweetest Taboo.

In addition to dance, the actors rely largely on facial expressions and posture to define their characters, who are given only minimal dialogue. For the most part, they succeed.

Nance easily communicates the discomfort Nick feels as he’s forced into one morally questionable situation after another. As Tom, the philanderer who sometimes puts him in those situations, Ankrom wears the personality of a man who assumes his gender and wealth allow him to walk over anyone to get what he wants.

Like her literary counterpart, Lay’s Gatsby is self-contained mystery whose main attribute is her optimism that her eternal love for Daisy will be vindicated. Meanwhile, Fagin’s Jordan—unlike her own literary counterpart, whose motivations are hard to pin down—emerges as an instigator who takes perverse pleasure in others’ misfortunes.

My main disappointment among the characterizations is that King’s Daisy doesn’t exhibit as much charm as she does in the novel, perhaps because Shadowbox’s adaptation eliminates the flirtatious dialogue with which Fitzgerald defines her. This Daisy mainly comes across as a victim of Tom’s unfaithfulness, making it easy to understand her susceptibility to Gatsby’s advances but hard to understand why Gatsby is devoted to her in the first place.

As for the music, it’s just as impressive as the choreography it accompanies. Surprisingly, Shadowbox has opted to use relatively recent cover songs rather than actual music from the 1920s, but the songs are cleverly arranged and performed in a way that makes them seem almost era-appropriate. In the first song, Muse’s Feeling Good, vocalist Stephanie Shull’s voice even seems to be amplified in a way that suggests the tinny sound equipment of the period.

Shull is just one of the many fine singers featured. Others include Julie Klein, Noelle Grandison, Stacie Boord, Lukas Tomasacci, Guyer and Kevin Sweeney, who holds forth while manning the band’s keyboard. All are impeccable, but the closest thing to a showstopper occurs when Leah Haviland accompanies a Tom-Myrtle dance duet with the gorgeous Radiohead lament Creep.

Remember when I wondered whether you can sprain your hands by clapping too hard? This is why.

Haviland also sings the lead vocals when the band gives an inspired performance of the familiar George Michael hit Careless Whisper. Keyboardist Sweeney leads his fellow musicians through abrupt changes of tempo and rhythm as Fagin and other dancers perform the Charleston at one of Gatsby’s wild parties. Amazing!

Amazing in general is the amount of sound that comes from leader/guitarist Hahn’s four-piece band, which also includes standup bassist Buzz Crisafulli and drummer Brandon “Dreds” Smith.

Behind the scenes, Aaron Pelzak’s dark lighting sets the proper mood, while images projected on a video screen establish the proper place, allowing the production to skip over scene changes. A quartet of costume designers clothe the characters appropriately and often beautifully.

Seeing Broken Whispers is no substitute for reading The Great Gatsby. For one thing, the show only hints at the class consciousness and envy that are at the heart of the novel. But there’s no reason why you can’t do both. In fact, knocking off the novel—something that can be accomplished in an afternoon—may well add to your appreciation of one of Shadowbox’s most remarkable achievements yet.

Broken Whispers continues through Nov. 10 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, plus 7 p.m. this Sunday (Aug. 28). Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 students/seniors/military. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Ear pod plays starring role in ‘Best of Shadowbox 2016’

Amy Lay holds forth in Ex’s and Oh’s, one of the cover songs featured in Best of Shadowbox 2016 (photo by Jeffery Crisafulli)
Amy Lay holds forth in Ex’s and Oh’s, one of the cover songs featured in Best of Shadowbox 2016 (photo by Jeffery Crisafulli)

By Richard Ades

When I head to Indiana for my high school reunion in a few weeks, I can only hope it will be half as much fun as another reunion of sorts I attended recently: the annual Best of Shadowbox show.

Just as reunions give you the chance to get reacquainted with old friends, Best of Shadowbox gives you the chance to get reacquainted with skits you’ve seen over the past year. In most cases, it’s a pleasure to see them again, especially since the writers and cast members often find ways to improve them in reaction to audience response.

One skit that didn’t need much improving is The Ear Pod, featuring Tom Cardinal as a husband who hates to miss a big football game to attend a counseling session with his wife (Julie Klein). Trying to have it both ways, he secretly listens to the game via an ear pod while his wife vents about all that’s wrong with their relationship. The misunderstandings multiply hilariously as Cardinal’s enthusiastic reactions to the game are misinterpreted by his angry spouse and the diplomatic counselor (Michelle Daniels).

At least a couple of skits seem more entertaining this time around.

Sexy Nurse imagines what would happen if hospital employees really dressed the way they do in our pornographic fantasies. It centers on a patient (Robbie Nance) who’s excited when his nurse (Amy Lay) shows up in a barely there uniform. It’s still not a laugh riot, but it’s good, raunchy fun.

Also slightly improved—though it was pretty funny to begin with—is Job App. It’s about what happens when a job applicant (Nance) has a social-media history that contradicts everything he says about himself. Klein is admirably restrained as the dubious interviewer, allowing the momentum to build toward the show’s strongest punchline.

Romeo (Robbie Nance) and Juliet (Amy Lay) discover they share singular tastes in 50 Shades of Romeo (photo by Jeffery Crisafulli)
Romeo (Robbie Nance) and Juliet (Amy Lay) discover they share singular tastes in 50 Shades of Romeo (photo by Jeffery Crisafulli)

On the other hand, 50 Shades of Romeo seems less amusing on second viewing. Merging Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with E.L. James’s kinky best-seller is a clever idea, but much of the humor consists of adding “-eth” to sundry words (including F-bombs) to make them sound Elizabethan. As if to make up for the labored jokes, Lay slaps on an extra layer of ditsiness as the S&M-prone Juliet, but it doesn’t help.

Among the skits I missed the first time around, the funniest is Happy Haunting, in which two fey ghosts (Jimmy Mak and Brandon Anderson) try to protect their unaware roommate (Leah Haviland) from her boorish date (Nance). The weakest is Camping Without a Net, in which a group of millennials are terrified to learn they’ve lost their Internet connection. The skit itself seems lost, generating more than one “huh?” moment as it meanders toward an unsatisfying ending.

But there’s nothing unsatisfying about the show’s musical numbers, which mix great singing with great musicianship on the part of the house band. The highlights (and their lead singers) include Life in the Fast Lane (Klein), Walk on the Ocean (Cardinal) and Sexual Healing (Noelle Grandison and Guillermo Jemmott).

Even more fun is the number that ends Act 1, Elle King’s Ex’s and Oh’s, sung by a deliciously attired Lay, Haviland, Ashley Pearce, Chyna Cheaney and Katy Psenicka. And most fun of all is the final song, Meat Loaf’s Paradise by the Dashboard Light, featuring a back-and-forth duet by Klein and Lukas Tomasacci. Amusing interplay among the backup singers is an added bonus in a number that I wouldn’t mind getting reacquainted with a few more times.

Best of Shadowbox 2016 continues through Sept. 3 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday (no 10:30 performances July 22 or 29). Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

‘Best of Burlesque’ strips out the plot, leaves the stripping

Leah Haviland, one of the featured performers in The Best of Shadowbox (Shadowbox Live photo)
Leah Haviland, one of the featured performers in The Best of Burlesque (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

Shadowbox Live’s annual Best of Shadowbox shows often benefit from honing—the honing that takes place once the players have enough performances under their belts to realize what does and doesn’t work.

You’d think the same would apply to the current Best of Burlesque show, which repeats the best skits and song/dance/striptease numbers from the three previous Burlesque shows. But it doesn’t, at least as far as the skits are concerned.

Since they’re based on actual routines that were performed in old vaudeville houses, director Stev Guyer and his cast probably don’t feel free to tweak the material. And since the acting is based on the over-the-top clowning that was practiced back in the day, Shadowbox doesn’t have much room to tweak that, either.

The result is that if you’ve seen these skits before, you won’t find much that’s fresh here. Of course, if you haven’t been to the previous Burlesque shows, you’ll likely enjoy the comedy, assuming you have a high tolerance for corny jokes about the kinds of things our grandparents or great-grandparents found amusing.

Fortunately, the rest of the show bases its appeal on something that’s more timeless: sex. Because The Best of Burlesque omits the loose storyline that tied its predecessors together, it can pack in more song-and-dance numbers that inevitably leave women stripped down to their pasties and/or men stripped down to their skivvies.

Not all of these numbers are equally inspired. But when the songs are strong, the costumes are colorful and the stripping is done with panache and attitude, you can’t help sitting up and taking notice.

One number that combines great singing and great stripping is Bang Bang, with lead vocals by a fearless Leah Haviland. Shadowbox wisely places it at the end of Act 1, which allows viewers to step outside and cool off during intermission.

Act 2 kicks back into high gear with The Mating Game, in which vocalist Amy Lay holds forth in an impossibly tall and feathery hat while fairy-like creatures cavort around her. That’s soon followed by a funny and sexy take on the Coasters song Little Red Riding Hood. Brandon Anderson handles the vocals while a raunchy version of the titular fairy tale is acted out by Nikki Fagin as Red, Stacie Boord as Grandma and Guillermo Jemmott as the lascivious Wolf.

A dark perversion of sexuality is represented by Sweet Dreams, sung by Fagin and Jemmott while Jack the Ripper (Andy Ankrom) saunters around in search of his next victim. It’s one of several numbers that owe much to Aaron Pelzek’s moody lighting.

Also memorable: You Look Like Rain, with lead vocals by Kevin Sweeney and tasty instrumentals by guitarist Matthew Hahn and his band.

As stated earlier, The Best of Burlesque dispenses with a storyline. Partially taking its place are video biographies of Gypsy Rose Lee and other iconic strippers of years past. These are scattered throughout and offer interesting tidbits of information, such as the fact that erotic dancers were sometimes featured at world’s fairs. I’d always assumed these were more family-friendly affairs.

The videos made me wonder whether Shadowbox might decide to re-create some of these ladies’ classic dances for future Burlesque shows. From a historic, nostalgic and, ahem, every other standpoint, they’d be a great addition.

The Best of Burlesque continues through April 17 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 student/senior/military. Special Valentine’s Day packages are available for Feb. 14 performances. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Graczyk, Grossberg honored at Roundtable awards gala

The cast of Gallery Players' production of Les Miserables sings One Day More at the Theatre Roundtable's 2016 Awards Night (photos by Jerri Shafer
The Theatre Roundtable’s 2016 Awards Night featured performances from nominated musicals, including Gallery Players’ 2015 production of Les Miserables (photos by Jerri Shafer)

By Richard Ades

At one point during the Theatre Roundtable’s annual Awards Night on Sunday, a presenter joked that it was just like the Oscars because we’d been there two hours and were only halfway through. He was exaggerating a little, but the show did run quite a bit longer than usual.

At least the weather was cooperative—unlike last year, when an incoming winter storm darkened the usually festive atmosphere. Besides, there were enough high points that most people probably didn’t mind sticking around.

The Central Ohio Theatre Critics Circle provided one of the highest points: an appearance by Ed Graczyk. He received the circle’s Roy Bowen Lifetime Achievement Award for, among other things, leading Players Theatre Columbus for many years and writing the groundbreaking play Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.

Taking part in the Theatre Roundtable’s 2016 Awards Night are critics (from left) Paul Batterson, Jay Weitz, Christina Mancuso, Michael Grossberg, Margaret Quamme, Richard Sanford and (at the podium) Richard Ades (photos by Jerri Shafer)
Taking part in the Theatre Roundtable’s 2016 Awards Night are critics (from left) Paul Batterson, Jay Weitz, Christina Mancuso, Michael Grossberg, Margaret Quamme, Richard Sanford and (at the podium) Richard Ades

Also honored by the critics were Evolution Theatre Company, Short North Stage, Shadowbox Live and MadLab’s former artistic director, Andy Batt. Before walking off with his citation, Batt delighted the audience by turning the tables on the critics, passing out both praise and pans to the people who’d long been judging his work as an actor and director.

Later—much later—in the evening, critic Michael Grossberg received an honor of his own: the Roundtable’s treasured Harold Award. The group probably chose to present it this year because Grossberg officially retired in 2015 when The Columbus Dispatch’s new owners made dozens of staff cuts. But fortunately for the local theater scene, the Dispatch is still counting on him to lead theater coverage, the only difference being that now he’s doing it as a freelancer.

The evening also included excerpts from 2015 musicals that were nominated for Roundtable awards. For me, the most exciting moment came when Gallery PlayersLes Miserables cast reassembled for a rendition of One Day More. It was a spectacular reminder of just how great that production really was.

For a list of Sunday’s nominees and winners, visit www.theatre-roundtable.org. It includes everything but the citations presented by the Central Ohio Theatre Critics Circle, which are listed below:

▪ To Evolution Theatre Company and managing artistic director Mark Schwamberger for a lineup of 2015 productions that entertained viewers while fulfilling the troupe’s refocused mission of advancing the understanding of gender issues and exploring gay and lesbian themes.

Andy Batt critiques the critics after accepting a citation for his longtime leadership of MadLab Theatre
Accepting a citation for his longtime leadership of MadLab Theatre, Andy Batt takes advantage of the opportunity to critique the critics

▪ To Andy Batt, who stepped down as MadLab’s artistic director at the end of 2015, for leading the troupe through 13 years of growth and development that included its 2012 launch of an annual festival for high school playwrights and its 2010 purchase and renovation of a performance space and gallery that has helped to nurture both the performing and visual arts in Downtown Columbus.

▪ To Short North Stage for making a major commitment to nurturing new musicals in 2015 with its successful world premieres of The Great One, The Last Night of Disco and Krampus: A Yuletide Fable.

▪ To Shadowbox Live for celebrating its 25th anniversary by stretching itself with inventive rock tribute shows and collaborations, both local and international.

Critic Michael Grossberg prepares to present a Roy Bowen Lifetime Achievement Award to Ed Graczyk
Critic Michael Grossberg prepares to present a Roy Bowen Lifetime Achievement Award to Ed Graczyk

▪ A Roy Bowen Lifetime Achievement Award to Ed Graczyk, an accomplished director and nationally known playwright, who led Players Theatre Columbus from the 1970s into the early 1990s and wrote Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, a pioneering transgender comedy-drama that premiered at Players in 1976, ran on Broadway and became a Robert Altman film in 1982 and is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2016.

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou holding a whip and handcuffs?

Fifty ShadesBy Richard Ades

Given what they say about lightning striking twice, I had little reason to believe 50 Shades of Shadowbox would be as much fun as its 2015 predecessor.

That show, Sex at the Box, turned out to be my second-most-fun non-horizontal experience of the entire year. I knew it would be impossible to beat, but I hoped the new show would come close to matching its inspired lunacy.

Mostly, it doesn’t. But sometimes it does.

The skit that best reflects the show’s theme is 50 Shades of Romeo, in which star-crossed lovers Romeo (Robbie Nance) and Juliet (Amy Lay) find they share a penchant for kinky canoodling. Adding to the mock-Shakespearean atmosphere is the liberal use of Elizabethan suffixes (“musteth”).

Even funnier is The Ear Pod, featuring Tom Cardinal as a football fan who’s forced to miss the big game so he can attend couples counseling with his unhappy wife (Julie Klein). Miracle of miracles, it even has a punchline that’s both unexpected and amusing.

Maybe I’m being redundant there, as it’s hard for something to make us laugh if it isn’t unexpected. That’s the trouble with some of the evening’s weaker skits: They’re instantly predictable.

As soon as Kyle (JT Walker III) and his sexy girlfriend (Lay) walk into a room in The Jealous Boyfriend, it’s obvious she’s going to meet one ex-beau after another. It’s also obvious how Kyle will react, since the skit’s title gives it away.

Then there’s Spell Check, in which parents Katy Psenicka and Cardinal accuse their son of seeking out Internet porn. The punchline falls flat because it merely confirms what we knew all along.

The show gets off on the wrong foot with its first skit, Laid Off, about a boss (Klein) who decides to “fire” her lover (Cardinal) from the relationship. It’s disappointing because it tries to find laughs in heavy-handed double entendres rather than characterization or clever developments.

Thankfully, several of the other skits are more inventive, even if they aren’t absolute laugh riots. They include RiDickulous (about an app for girls deluged with photos of classmates’ not-so-private parts) and Sexy Nurse (about a hospital in which nurses dress just like they do in men’s lurid fantasies).

Also fairly amusing is Aw Fuk Me, about a 911 service for embarrassed victims of sexual shenanigans gone awry. However, at the performance I attended, it seemed to be cut short by a lighting miscue. It was a rare instance of imperfection for a troupe whose shows usually run like clockwork.

Shadowbox is such an expert at sketch humor that it’s likely director Stev Guyer and his cast will find ways to squeeze more humor out of the show as its run continues. But for now, the skits aren’t as reliably entertaining as the musical numbers.

The best cover songs include Bruno Mars’s Gorilla (sung by Noelle Grandison and Maurin Penn), Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing (sung by Grandison and Guillermo Jemmott) and Prince’s Little Red Corvette (sung by a very Prince-ly Walker).

Judiciously, Shadowbox saves the best for last: Meat Loaf’s Paradise by the Dashboard Light, with Kline and Lucas Tomasacci trading verses as the dueling leads. The show may not be epic, but it ends in a tunefully epic fashion.

50 Shades of Shadowbox continues through March 19 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-716-7625 or www.shadowboxlive.org.

You say kabuki, I say ka-pokey…

Julie Klein, Nikki Fagin, Stacie Boord and Billy DePetro (from left) in The Tenshu (Shadowbox Live photo)
Julie Klein, Nikki Fagin, Stacie Boord and Billy DePetro (from left) in The Tenshu (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

No one ventures outside its comfort zone more than Shadowbox Live.

The troupe could play it safe by sticking to its usual formula of skits and rock tunes, but it continually pushes beyond that SNL-like envelope by putting on ambitious, original shows. In recent years, those shows have largely been huge successes.

With The Tenshu, the kabuki-inspired tale that opened last week, Shadowbox pushes the envelope more than ever. Not only has it consulted with an international collaborator for the first time, but it’s completely redesigned its space—to the extent that its other current productions had to be placed on hold for the show’s three-week run.

What a shame that all of this effort has added up to a decidedly mixed success.

Visually, the show is striking, thanks to Britton Mauk’s Japanese-style scenery, Linda Mullin’s ornate costumes, David Mack’s macabre makeup and Aaron Pelzek’s lighting, along with puppets designed by Beth Kattelman and others.

Musically, the show is a bit less satisfying, though the original score is an interesting attempt to combine traditional Japanese sounds with rock beats.

But it’s in the drama department that the show really lags, suggesting that there’s a reason kabuki has never caught on in America. Adapted from a play written by Izumi Kyoka and translated from the Japanese by Hiromi Sakamoto, it lacks the unifying plot that Western viewers expect from a theatrical work.

Instead, it’s united by a single character and her mysterious home. All of the events occur in and around an ancient castle whose fifth floor is inhabited by a ghostly noblewoman named Tomihime (Stacie Boord) and her entourage.

Act 1 deals with Tomihime’s preparations for a visit from her friend Kamehime (Leah Haviland), as well as her use of supernatural powers to repel a band of samurai warriors led by the evil Lord Harima (Jimmy Mak). There are moments of enchantment and beauty, but much of the time is spent simply telling stories or exchanging gifts and pleasantries.

Act 2 finally gets to the meat of the tale: Tomihime’s potentially romantic encounter with a disgraced samurai named Zusho (JT Walker III). Unfortunately, the encounter proceeds so slowly that viewers’ patience may be put to the test.

Throughout, director Stev Guyer has the actors speak in a deliberate, declamatory manner. It’s probably meant to mimic the style of kabuki acting, but the approach makes it even harder for Western viewers to maintain interest in the slow-paced tale.

Shadowbox head writer Mak tries to make up for the script’s talkiness by adding action scenes reminiscent of Japanese samurai flicks or anime cartoons. Among them are two intricately choreographed swordfights and an attack by a huge, flying creature with glowing eyes.

Dancing also plays a role, courtesy of Katie Psenicka’s choreography. The most memorable dance represents a battle between a falcon (Nick Wilson) and a crane (Amy Lay).

The dance numbers are graceful, while the action sequences are thrilling. There just aren’t enough of them to make up for the show’s long stretches of lifeless dialogue.

The talent is all top-notch, both onstage and off-, but it’s not enough to sell the exotic story. Maybe what’s needed are subtitles—not to translate what happens but to explain why we’re supposed to find it compelling.

The Tenshu continues through Oct. 25 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 1 and 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40, $10 for ages 12 and under. An abridged version will be presented at 1 p.m. Friday (doors at noon). Running time: 45 minutes. Tickets are $10, $5 students/seniors/military. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.