Second helping of ‘Burlesque’ outshines the first

Amy Lay, Morgan Mosley, Nikki Fagin, Stacie Boord and Edelyn Parker (from left) in Burlesque Behind the Curtain (Shadowbox Live photo)
Amy Lay, Morgan Mosley, Nikki Fagin, Stacie Boord and Edelyn Parker (from left) in Burlesque Behind the Curtain (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

One of the most surprising letters I ever got during my time at The Other Paper was from a theater troupe seeking more publicity. What surprised me was the letter’s explanation that troupes need as much ink as they can get because, according to statistics, more people are into sado-masochism than are into live theater.

After getting over my shock at the unlikely comparison, it occurred to me that it’s probably possible to remedy the situation by mounting shows that would appeal to these non-theater-going S&M-ers. Shadowbox Live’s original Burlesque de Voyage, for example, offered a satisfying release, in the form of laughs and sexual energy, but only after forcing viewers to sit through a rather tedious first act. Punishment and reward: Surely that would have attracted members of the whips-and-chains crowd if only they’d known about it.

Unfortunately, this demographic is less likely to be attracted to the follow-up show, Burlesque Behind the Curtain, which stubbornly insists on being entertaining all the way through. The sequel is again centered on a traveling burlesque troupe, but writer Jimmy Mak wisely altered the format in a couple of key ways.

Stacie Boord as Della Clayton (Shadowbox Live photo)
Stacie Boord as Della Clayton (Shadowbox Live photo)

While 2012’s Burlesque devoted its entire first act to backstage dramas that were uninvolving because we hadn’t been properly introduced to the characters, 2013’s sequel alternates such scenes with songs and skits from the fictitious troupe’s stage show. Moreover, it adds interest to the backstage scenes by giving them a focus: the arrival of new cast member Della Clayton (Stacie Boord), a grownup child star with a talent for rubbing people the wrong way.

Act 1 still isn’t perfect—the backstage dramas are fairly shallow (and were sometimes sluggishly performed on opening night), and the comedy skits are so-so. But the song-and-dance numbers are both tuneful and provocative.

The show’s first infusion of lust is Maintenant, sung in French by emcee Busty (Julie Klein) and accompanied by classy/sexy dancers who soon strip down to their bras. (Pasties and thongs make an appearance before the show is over.) Continuing in the same mood, Robbie Nance sings the Coasters’ Little Red Riding Hood while the Big Bad Wolf (Jim Andes) “eats” Grandma (Boord) in a way that was never intended in the original fairy tale.

Finishing up the act, Jeff Simpson sings You Look Like Rain with tones just as beautiful as the notes band member Nicole Rachelle coaxes out of her saxophone solo.

But if Act 1 sounds good, just wait. Act 2 is five times better. Especially improved are the comedy sketches, which consist of vaudeville-type routines performed in the vaudeville style.

The evening’s first huge laugh comes courtesy of Monkey Business, delightfully delivered by Mak as a police detective and Amy Lay as a semi-clothed secretary whose boss has just jumped out of a 20th-story window. Even more laughs come courtesy of the double entendres in The Court of Last Retort, starring Brandon Anderson as the D.A., Mak as the lascivious judge and a cigarette-holder-toting Lay as the witness.

Yet even those laughs are topped by the guffaws Klein and others drag out of a naughty audience-participation bit set to the tune of I Wanna Be Loved by You.

Speaking of which, there’s still plenty of sexual content in Act 2, including a number that might even appeal to S&M types: Director Stev Guyer sings John Legend’s Who Did That to You while scantily clad “Avengers” beat a woman-abusing man (Andes) within an inch of his life.

Laughs, music, dance, nubile bodies and a feminist revenge tale: Really, what more could you ask from a show?

Burlesque Behind the Curtain will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays through Oct. 10 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. (No performances Aug. 28; Sept. 4, 11, 12, 25, 26; Oct. 3, 9.) Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $30, $20 students and seniors. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Teens take the stage at Shadowbox

By Richard Ades

It could have been called Revenge of the Nerds, but Shadowbox Live preferred to call it STEM Rocks the Box.

Presented Monday, it was the latest edition of an annual show that gives students from local Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics high schools the chance to prove that they can cut up with the best of them.

Arranged like a regular Shadowbox show, with a mixture of skits and rock songs, it was an impressive display of talent. More than that, it was a lot of fun.

It helped that the skits were some of the funniest that Shadowbox has presented recently. But it’s saying a lot that they remained as funny as ever—if not funnier—with teenage thespians playing key roles in each.

Trevon Mobley exuded paranoia as a 1985 employee startled by the sudden appearance of his business’s first computer in The Office Zone. Henry Kangas generated spastic energy as a boy who wants to adopt a supernatural critter in The Boy Who Cried Werewolf. Rachel Eldridge-Allegra carried off an impersonation of an awkwardly love-struck girl in Slumber Party.

Perhaps the most challenging task was taken on by Annalisa Hartlaub, who matched Shadowbox regular Julie Klein note for note in the musical spoof Divas Do Hard Rock.

Shadowbox probably toned down its usual adult content a bit in some cases, but one skit might have made some viewers squeamish.

Damsels & Dates had a trio of nerds playing a Dungeons & Dragons-type game in which one boy imagined giving away marijuana in order to achieve his goal of making out with one of his school’s most popular girls. The combination of sex and drugs might have produced some uncomfortable moments at tables shared by parents and siblings of featured teens. In any case, Metro High School student Jeremy Boyd portrayed one of the game players with Michael Cera-like appeal.

Metro, by the way, contributed the vast majority of Monday’s teenage performers, but Columbus’s West, Africentric and Linden-McKinley also were represented.

On the musical side of the ledger, Kelly Hooper was stuck with the unenviable task of honchoing the night’s first musical number, Missionary Man. After a brief lapse, she carried it off with aplomb. Launching Act 2, Kangas growled his way through Cross-Eyed Mary with rock-god swagger.

Several other students made strong impressions on vocals and instrumentals. Perhaps the most charismatic was guitarist Jordan Griffith, who leaped around athletically before finally being granted a solo on Aeroplane.

Monday’s show demonstrated that Central Ohio’s STEM students are as comfortable performing onstage as they are peering into a test tube or working out an equation. Bravo to Shadowbox for giving them the chance to prove their versatility.

Not as outrageous as you might think

Betsy Shortt (left) and Julie Klein in The Lost Girl, one of three Don Nigro works featured in Viva Vagina (Studio 66 photo)
Betsy Shortt (left) and Julie Klein in The Lost Girl, one of three Don Nigro works featured in Viva Vagina (Studio 66 photo)

By Richard Ades

If the Shadowboxers are going to do a show called Viva Vagina, they really should include a production number in which an Elvis-impersonating drag king sings the title to the tune of Viva Las Vegas.

Also, for the sake of fairness, they really should plan a sequel called, say, Up With Penises.

Sadly, though, Shadowbox has announced no plans for a follow-up, and the current show does not feature any Viva Las Vegas takeoffs.

It does feature a musical number that’s even more fun and outrageous: Storm Large’s 8 Miles Wide (as in “My vagina is 8 miles wide”). But for most of its running time, this Stage 2 production is pretty close to the low-key spirit of Shadowbox’s long-gone spinoff, 2Co’s Cabaret.

That’s not a bad thing, but it does make the title a tad misleading.

As at 2Co’s, the evening is a combination of songs, one-acts and monologues. Three of the theater pieces are by 2Co’s mainstay Don Nigro.

Of these, the best is Ballerinas, an atmospheric tale that stars Stacie Boord, Leah Haviland and Amy Lay as performers in a run-down dance hall. The other Nigro works, in descending order of interest, are Genesis, in which Eve (Michelle Daniels) remembers life in the Garden of Eden; and The Lost Girl, a metaphorical piece about—well, if you figure it out, let me know.

Better than all three is Martha King De Silva’s The Waiter, in which former flames Ivy (Haviland) and Andrew (David Whitehouse) are chagrined to learn they’ve each arranged to meet someone else at the same restaurant. Boord, Amy Lay and Anita McFarren are also featured in this gentle comedy about a romance that fizzled for reasons that aren’t completely clear.

Besides 8 Miles Wide, a couple of the musical numbers achieve the feminist brand of outrageousness promised by the show’s title: Bitch (sung by Lay) and Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves (sung by Boord and others). Both are fun and nicely done.

But other musical highlights are considerably less fierce. Steve Guyer is a smooth stand-in for Joe Cocker on You Are So Beautiful; Julie Klein’s rendition of The Mind of Love is accompanied by a wistful/lustful dance delicately delivered by Lay; and Boord gives what could be the vocal performance of the year on When a Man Loves a Woman.

Though all of this suggests a show that only occasionally is as provocative as its title, a few monologues and standup routines do help to nudge it back into envelope-pushing territory.

The scariest of these, performed by Klein and based on “Being That Woman” by Morgan Moss, explains the difference between a “bitch” and a “crazy bitch” and speaks admiringly of Lorena Bobbitt. It might be easier to enjoy if Klein delivered it as a character rather than as herself—otherwise, you can’t help wondering if someone shouldn’t frisk her for sharp objects.

But I suspect the evening’s most outrageous act is the Nickey Winkelman standup routine that launches Act 2. I can’t say for sure because Winkelman was unfortunately absent on the night I was there, but her online videos suggest that her presence would go a long way toward making the show as vagtastic as its title.

Viva Vagina will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays through July 11 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $30, $20 for students and seniors. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Shadowbox has a new theme; Red Herring has a new life

Nikki Fagin belts out a song in Taboo (photo courtesy of Shadowbox Live)
Nikki Fagin belts out a song in Taboo (photo courtesy of Shadowbox Live)

By Richard Ades

Appropriately titled Taboo, Shadowbox Live’s latest theme show is designed to raise people’s hackles. So it’s not surprising that one of its skits raised mine.

In Waiting for Paradise, Stacie Boord plays a Presbyterian who runs into a Catholic (Tom Cardinal) in heaven’s “waiting room” and insinuates that she’s more deserving of salvation because she’s a “true” Christian. Having been raised as a Presbyterian, I can tell you that’s very unlikely to happen. Presbyterians subscribe to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, which means they can take little credit for anything that happens to them. So how can they feel qualified to lord it over anyone?

But what really irks me is that Boord’s character is mislabeled to begin with. The Catholic insults her by charging that the only things Presbyterians need for baptism are a swimming pool and a pocket Bible. Wrong! You show me a Presbyterian who was baptized in a pool, and I’ll show you a Baptist.

Obviously, Shadowbox is confusing Presbyterians with another brand of Protestants who are all too often known for their “my way or the hell way” attitude.

This denominational error notwithstanding, Waiting for Paradise does make a valid point about religious intolerance. It just makes it a little too bluntly to be really funny. But that’s OK, because there are other skits here that are really funny.

One of the wittiest is Good Driver Discount, in which an attempt to diversify a commercial for car insurance keeps running into cultural stereotypes. Show a black guy eating at the wheel? Fine, but can we find him something to eat besides a bucket of fried chicken? And let’s not, by any means, suggest that Asian women are prone to accidents.

Also hilarious is Face to Facebook, though I hesitate to say why for fear of offending my Facebook friends. Suffice it to say that its targets include anti-Obama ranters, PC-minded carpers and parents who think every image of their newborn is deserving of Web-wide attention.

Several other skits are at least worthy of an appreciate chuckle. An example is Coming Out & Going Home, about a college student (Jimmy Mak) who has a potentially shocking announcement to make to his backwoods parents (Robbie Nance and Boord). The bit builds to a clever twist before petering off in a formulaic way.

The scattered video segments are similarly edgy, including Too Taboo, in which JT Walker III unwittingly reveals his encyclopedic knowledge of kinky sexual practices.

As for the songs, they’re both complementary and fun. Highlights include Don’t Stand So Close to Me (sung by Stephanie Shull), Face Down in the Dirt (sung by Boord) and Let’s Go Get Stoned (delivered by a soulful and bluesy Walker).

Starting it all off in an amusingly outrageous manner—if you’re lucky enough to attend one of the performances where he appears—is a standup routine by comedian Justin Golak. His act reaches its envelope-pushing zenith with a joke about Hitler, Beethoven and the Right to Life movement.

Many Shadowbox shows seem to be variations on each other. Taboo takes off in a whole new direction and makes the most of the virgin territory.

Taboo continues through June 8 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $30, $20 for students and seniors. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Watch out for that banana peel!

If you paid attention to the Columbus theater scene in the 1990s, you were familiar with Red Herring. Michael Herring’s troupe was responsible for some of the decade’s more offbeat offerings.

The company closed down soon after the turn of the millennium, and Herring left town in 2003. But now the actor/director appears ready to bring Red Herring back with the help of former collaborator John Dranschak.

The first glimpse of its rebirth is Krapp’s Last Tape, a semi-autobiographical one-man play by Samuel Beckett. Dranschak directs and Herring stars, appearing onstage for the first time since the early aughts.

His performance won’t surprise the average Red Herring alum. Playing a 69-year-old writer who revisits his youth with the help of boxes full of reel-to-reel audiotapes, Herring is physically precise and dramatically understated.

Long moments are spent shuffling back and forth between the tape recorder and the closet where Krapp stores his tapes—and his alcohol. An early gag involving a banana peel unfolds so slowly that you anticipate the payoff minutes before it actually happens.

Herring’s performance is impressive in its self-control, but some will find it too deliberate and repressed to be dramatically stimulating. Longtime theater fans will find it exciting in another way, though. Given what Herring and his troupe once meant to Columbus, seeing him onstage in 2013 is like watching a piece of history come back to life.

With any luck, that piece of history will morph into a harbinger of theater yet to come.

Red Herring Productions will present Krapp’s Last Tape at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday (April 4-6) at MadLab Theatre, 227 N. Third St. Running time: 50 minutes. Tickets: $20 in advance, pay what you want at the door. 614-723-1996 or redherring.info.

You probably weren’t there, but you’ll wish you were

Brandon Anderson (left) and Leah Haviland sing Mellow Yellow in a scene from Underland (photo by Mark Bealer)
Brandon Anderson (left) and Leah Haviland sing Mellow Yellow in a scene from Underland (Studio 66 photo)

By Richard Ades

I didn’t make it to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district until several years after the 1967 “Summer of Love.” By then, most of the flower children seemed to have disappeared.

What I found, instead, was dog poop. Mounds and mounds of dog poop, effectively turning the sidewalks into obstacle courses. It seemed that curbing your dog, much less picking up after it, was a foreign concept in this former capital of the counter-culture.

As a result of my tardy arrival at the Haight, I reacted to Shadowbox Live’s Underland much like I reacted to its earlier original musical, the Woodstock-based Back to the Garden. In each case, I was left with a feeling of wistful nostalgia—wistful because I hadn’t experienced either Woodstock or the Summer of Love. I only wished I had.

Written by Shadowbox’s Jimmy Mak, both musicals attempt to re-create a bygone era with the aid of a sketchy plot and memorable musical hits of the day. Both accomplish the task, but Back to the Garden did it a bit more successfully: The story was more compelling, and many of the rock songs were sung by facsimiles of the original performers, raising the fun quotient.

But Underland, directed by the always-inventive Stev Guyer, is impressive in its own right. It’s impossible not to enjoy a show that starts with If You’re Going to San Francisco, ends with A Whiter Shade of Pale and includes more than a dozen other classics in between. Music director Matt Hahn captures their original sound and spirit so effectively that suspicious patrons may think the performers are simply lip-synching to the originals. (They’re not, of course.)

Tying it all together is a plot that’s a mixture of Alice in Wonderland-inspired fantasy and wartime reality.

Albert (Robbie Nance), a vet who served as a sniper in Vietnam, arrives in the Haight in search of his missing daughter. His quest brings him into contact with local eccentrics such as Father William (JT Walker III), who doles out drugs along with spiritual guidance. More disturbingly, Albert encounters mystical characters seen only by him: the supportive Mouse (Edelyn Parker), the hyper-critical Cat (Amy Lay) and the gung-ho warrior Greenie (Tom Cardinal).

As Albert, a sincere Nance fulfills his main purpose, which is to anchor this return to a time and place that helped to define a decade. Still, his part is rather thinly written. More interesting than Albert’s search are the sights and sounds he encounters along the way.

The sights include the Diggers, a group of thespians who supplied the real-life Haight with both political satire and food. In Underland, they force Albert to take part in a skit involving a giant head representing LBJ.

But the sounds, in the form of ’60s rock hits, are the real backbone of Underland’s appeal. Oddly, the most fun of all is the laid-back Mellow Yellow, thanks to inspired performances by Brandon Anderson as an animated shopkeeper and Leah Haviland as his downer-addicted wife.

Among the most beautiful numbers is Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence, sung by Walker’s Father William and a series of strangers who wander by. Others include How Can I Be Sure, sung by Nikki Fagin with a rich voice that may remind you of Karen Carpenter.

Purists may complain about the way some classics are used. The Who’s I Can See for Miles, for example, is about an unfaithful lover, not about a struggle for battlefield survival. That said, Underland’s version, sung by Cardinal and accompanied by video images of wartime violence, does achieve a kind of surreal power.

A more serious complaint is that a couple of songs are cut off in the prime of life. It’s especially annoying that Respect ends just as vocalist Katy Psenicka and the band really start cookin’.

All will likely be forgiven by the time Julie Klein wraps up the show with a gorgeous rendition of Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale, but still. After waiting 46 years for Shadowbox’s take on the Summer of Love, we can certainly wait a few minutes more for it to come to an end.

Underland continues through May 19 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $30, $20 for students and seniors. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.