Show offers stripped-down, bloodied-up Sondheim

Susan Bunsold Wilson and Bill Hafner in Standing Room Only's production of Sweeney Todd (photo by Dale Bush)
Susan Bunsold Wilson and Bill Hafner in Standing Room Only’s production of Sweeney Todd (photo by Dale Bush)

By Richard Ades

If Columbus barbers have noticed a drop in business recently, it could be because the local theater scene is offering not one, but two productions of the bloodthirsty musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Those whose taste tends toward the grandiose might want to check out the Ohio State version being presented this weekend at Mershon Auditorium. Those who favor more intimate productions might prefer the Standing Room Only production whose two-week run ends Sunday.

I’ve seen the latter, and I can recommend it with one caveat: The unamplified lyrics are sometimes hard to pick out over the accompaniment. That annoyance aside, the production does right by this darkest of musicals, which features a book by Hugh Wheeler and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

In fact, it does brilliantly by the musical, thanks to a well-chosen cast and Patrick McGregor II’s ingenious direction.

This is a “black box” production twice over. Not only is the scenery limited to a black backdrop and little more, but the main prop is a black, coffin-shaped box that is continually being moved and upended to serve a multitude of functions. This minimalistic approach might be distracting if McGregor’s cast weren’t so mesmerizing.

Following his starring role in Gallery Players’ 2015 production of Les Miserables, Bill Hafner again excels playing a 19th century man who’s suffered years of unjust imprisonment. But don’t expect to find much in common between the two portrayals.

Unlike the noble Jean Valjean, Sweeney Todd has vengeance on his mind—vengeance against the judge who sent him away in order to pursue his wife. The former barber’s fury intensifies when he returns to London only to learn that his wife is dead and his daughter has been adopted by that same judge. As portrayed by Hafner, Todd is so overcome by grief and anger that he stumbles around in a state of near catatonia.

In effective contrast, Susan Bunsold Wilson radiates manic energy as Mrs. Lovett, the widowed baker who ultimately becomes Todd’s partner in crime. As amoral as she is personable, Mrs. Lovett quickly finds a way to benefit when the deranged barber’s “shaves” start turning into homicides. It’s no coincidence that her meat pies soon become the talk of the neighborhood.

Both Hafner and Wilson display strong voices on numbers such as their duets By the Sea and the darkly humorous A Little Priest, in which Todd and Mrs. Lovett discuss the optimum ingredients for a tasty pie.

As the dastardly Judge Turpin, Todd Lemmon offers an understated version of villainy that disguises itself under a cloak of piety. Turpin and Hafner join their voices to great effect on Pretty Women, a beautiful song that incongruously arises during a moment of impending murder. A more blatant depiction of evil is offered by Colton Weiss as Turpin’s henchman, the nasal-voiced Beadle.

The musical’s second-most beautiful song, Not While I’m Around, is given a dramatic delivery by Layne Roate as the limping, dimwitted Tobias Ragg. Appearing in other important secondary roles are Ethan White as goodhearted seaman Anthony Hope; Taryn Huffman as Todd’s grown daughter, Johanna; and Laura Crone as a beggar woman and a rival barber.

An impressively large orchestra provides the accompaniment, though music director Josh Cutting ably replaced it with his keyboard at the matinee I attended. Curtis Brown’s lighting not only establishes mood but is used to shift viewers’ focus from one side of the room to the other during quick scene changes.

Filled with dark themes and bloody violence, Sweeney Todd is unsuitable for young children. But SRO’s inventive production makes it a treat for those who appreciate Sondheim’s lovely tunes and graceful lyrics even when they’re sung in the midst of a murder spree.

Standing Room Only Theatre will present Sweeney Todd through Sunday (April 10) at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Remaining show times are 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $12-$21 Saturday, $12-$16 Sunday. 614-258-9495 or srotheatre.org.

The Ohio State School of Music, Opera and Lyric Theatre will present Sweeney Todd through Sunday (April 10) at Mershon Auditorium, 1879 N. High St., Columbus. Remaining show times are 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $20, $10 for senior citizens, students, children and OSU faculty, staff and alumni association members. Show isn’t suitable for ages 12 and under. 614-292-3535 or music.osu.edu.

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Waltzing through a tender tale of longing and infidelity

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

To succeed, a musical production needs basic ingredients such as strong singing, a good band, pretty scenery, etc. If a show has all of these things, it’s probably worth seeing.

But it can be so much more if the director has a feel for the material’s subtleties (assuming there are any) and knows how to communicate them to the cast and crew. Then the musical becomes a transcendent experience.

At Short North Stage, I’ve seen two such productions, both written by Stephen Sondheim: 2013’s Sunday in the Park With George and, now, A Little Night Music. In the current show, a bittersweet reverie on love and regret, director Michael Licata and his cast bring out every knowing chuckle and every tender, aching moment.

Adapted by Hugh Wheeler from the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, the 1973 Tony winner centers on two Swedish households at the turn of the last century.

In one, middle-aged lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Mark A. Harmon) lives with young wife Anne (Jennifer Barnaba) and his son from a previous marriage, seminary student Henrik (JJ Parkey). In the other, Madame Armfeldt (Linda Dorff) cares for granddaughter Fredrika (Maria Delanno) while the girl’s mother, actress Desiree (Marya Spring), is off touring with her latest play.

From the start, it’s apparent that the Egerman household is emotionally unstable. Fredrik loves his girlish wife but is frustrated by her reluctance to take part in marital relations. When Desiree’s touring show arrives in town, he can’t resist going to see the woman with whom he had an affair some 14 years earlier.

This leads to a night of passion that arouses the suspicions of Desiree’s current lover, the pinheaded Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Nick Lingnofski). Being a first-class male chauvinist, he then complains about his mistress’s indiscretion to his long-suffering wife, Charlotte (Kate Lingnofski).

All the desires, suspicions and resentments that were fomented in Act 1 come to a delicious head in Act 2, when everyone converges at Madame Armfeldt’s estate for a country outing.

It’s hard to find fault with the large cast, except to note that Barnaba’s Anne sometimes fades into the woodwork and that her pretty soprano voice was occasionally overwhelmed by the band on opening night. Really, though, there are no weak links.

Spring exudes worldly confidence as Desiree, which makes her vulnerable rendition of the show’s most memorable tune, Send in the Clowns, all the more devastating. As former lover Fredrik, Harmon offers a deftly sketched portrait of a decent man tottering on a tightrope between obligation and desire.

Parkey, a familiar visitor on the Short North stage, gives one of his best performances yet as Henrik, a young man pulled in opposite directions by his religious ideals and his unspoken love for his 18-year-old stepmother. Another career-topping performance is given by Dorff as Madame Armfeldt, whether she’s tackling Sondheim’s tricky melodies or waxing philosophical about roads not taken.

Several hearty laughs are earned by Nick Lingnofski as the preening, adulterous count, while Kate Lingnofski communicates all of the conflicting emotions felt by his wronged but loving wife, Charlotte. In another important supporting role, Eli Brickey gives a saucy but warmhearted portrayal as Petra, Anne’s maid and confidante, and delivers a rousing rendition of The Miller’s Son, a Celtic-flavored statement of female self-sufficiency.

Meanwhile, young Maria Delanno shows remarkable poise as the wise-beyond-her-years Fredrika—to the extent that she didn’t even flinch when a piano bench collapsed under her on opening night.

Adding to the production’s texture are the varied voices who serve as a sort of musical Greek chorus, as well as the backstage musicians who perform under Lloyd Butler’s direction. Interestingly, nearly all of the songs are written in waltz time, which makes it fitting that the most prominent dance numbers (choreographed by Dionysia Williams) are actual waltzes.

Like the troupe’s 2013 staging of Sunday in the Park With George, the current show is a visual treat thanks to Ray Zupp’s gauze-strewn scenery, Adam Zeek’s ethereal lighting and a colorful array of costumes supervised by Stephanie Keller. But perhaps the most important of the backstage talents is sound designer Michael Mason, who succeeds in making nearly every syllable come through clearly—not an easy feat in the Garden Theater’s cavernous main auditorium.

With A Little Night Music, Short North Stage proves once again that it understands Sondheim. The show is tender, wise, witty and—for devoted fans of the composer/lyricist—completely unmissable.

Short North Stage will present A Little Night Music through Nov. 1 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 3 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$40. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

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.

Daring to spoof Broadway

By Richard Ades

Appearing in Forbidden Broadway’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 are (from left) Dionysia Williams, Joe Bishara (front), Christopher Storer and Dionysia Williams (Red Generation Photography)
Appearing in Forbidden Broadway’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 are (from left) Dionysia Williams, Joe Bishara (front), Christopher Storer and Liz Wheeler (Red Generation Photography)

Lighthearted summer musicals have become a staple with CATCO, and the troupe’s patrons seem to approve. They’ve bought so many tickets that both Evil Dead: The Musical (2011) and Avenue Q (2012) were extended and/or revived.

This year’s offering, Forbidden Broadway’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 1, appears to be continuing that tradition. The satirical revue opened just last week, and it’s already been extended by four performances.

It couldn’t have happened to a nicer cast—or one that’s harder-working. Joe Bishara (who also directs), Christopher Storer, Liz Wheeler and Dionysia Williams reveal impressive singing and improvisational skills as they storm their way through an evening filled with take-no-prisoners lyrics and blink-of-an-eye costume changes. Their purpose: to spoof a slew of well-known Broadway shows and stars.

Created and written by Gerard Alessandrini, Forbidden Broadway has been updated numerous times since it opened off-Broadway in 1982. The latest New York version included takeoffs on current Broadway blockbuster The Book of Mormon and on Hugh Jackman, star of last year’s cinematic production of Les Miserables.

Not surprisingly, the Greatest Hits show is less up to date. Some of its satirical targets, in fact, are more than a bit dusty.

Williams does a nifty impersonation of Liza Minnelli in Liza One Note, for example, but when was the last time the star of the silver screen’s Cabaret has grabbed the spotlight? And the show’s version of America, featuring Wheeler as Chita Rivera and Williams as Rita Moreno, really tests the audience’s long-term memory—since it jokes about a presumed rivalry between the performers who played Anita in the Broadway and Hollywood versions, respectively, of West Side Story.

Some of the targeted shows are equally ancient. Cats? Yes, it ran longer than any other Broadway show except The Phantom of the Opera, but the New York production used up the last of its nine lives 13 years ago.

Still, even when the subject matter seems past its prime, the cast members are always admirable. And when their talent combines with one of Alessandrini’s particularly clever conceits, the results are sublime.

Yes, Ethel Merman is long gone, but Wheeler brings her back in all of her full-throated glory in a piece that takes aim at modern singers’ tendency to let the amplification do the heavy lifting. Among the male impersonations, the funniest is Bishara’s take on “male chanteuse” Mandy Patinkin in an Over the Rainbow spoof that’s understatedly named Somewhat Overindulgent.

Of course, satire wouldn’t be satire if it didn’t rub some people the wrong way.

If you worship at the altar of Stephen Sondheim, you may be put off by a segment that rips into the composer/lyricist’s tendency to pack a whole lot of words and ideas into small amounts of time and melody. Even the audience gets into the act on this one, courtesy of a sing-along that eventually accelerates to breakneck speed.

And what will fans of Les Miz think of Forbidden Broadway’s eight-song attack on the mega-musical? Well, they’ll probably be won over multiple times. The best part comes when Jackman’s version of Jean Valjean (Storer) sings the words that probably have been on the mind of every man who’s ever attempted the plaintive Bring Him Home: “It’s too high.”

Adding to the show’s fun is the fact that it’s performed in an intimate cabaret setting on a tiny stage the performers share with music director and accomplished pianist Matt Clemens. The glitzy set, lighting and costumes—designed by Michael S. Brewer, Curtis “Nitz” Brown and Marcia Hain, respectively—are further pluses.

Satire is said to be something that closes on Saturday night, but CATCO’s latest summer musical is proving to be an exception to the rule.

CATCO will present Forbidden Broadway’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 through July 14 in Studio Three, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday (no show July 4) and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $35. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.