Stranded seafarer lives to tell his tale

Lisa Thoma, Robert Behrens and Joe Dallacqua (clockwise from top) perform in CATCO’s production of Shipwrecked! An Entertainment – The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as Told by Himself) (photo by Dave Alkire)
Lisa Thoma, Robert Behrens and Joe Dallacqua (clockwise from top) perform in CATCO’s production of Shipwrecked! An Entertainment – The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as Told by Himself) (photo by Dave Alkire)

By Richard Ades

Louis de Rougemont had quite an adventure, and he desperately wants to tell us about it. With a combination of narration, acting, shadow figures and sound effects, the 19th century Londoner explains how he left home as a youth and went to sea, only to be shipwrecked and stranded for years on a desert island.

A giant octopus, a rare black pearl and a tribe of Australian Aborigines also figure in his tale, which unfolds in Donald Margulies’s Shipwrecked! An Entertainment—The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as Told by Himself).

When I first saw the play in a 2010 Whistling in the Dark production, I thought it was a bit long-winded, but I enjoyed the way it captured the spirit of its real-life adventurer’s times. Because it was presented in a theater that was designed to be environmentally friendly, the production took a low-tech approach that added to the period feel. The live piano accompaniment was particularly effective.

CATCO’s current production, directed by Mark Seamon, is less low-tech and, thus, seems less authentic. Moreover, Seamon and company punctuate the story with goofy sound effects (a slide whistle and the like) that probably are designed to tickle younger viewers. Well, maybe they do, but they detract from the show’s credibility. De Rougemont clearly wants us to amaze us, not amuse us.

Beyond those quibbles, the show has much to recommend it. Shakespearean actor/director Robert Behrens makes a rare stage appearance as the title adventurer, and he gives an entertaining performance. Enthusiastic supporting actors Lisa Thoma and Joe Dallacqua play all the characters de Rougemont comes into contact with, especially a friendly Aborigine woman (Thoma) and an even friendlier dog (Dallacqua).

Even before the action starts, Michael S. Brewer’s handsome set is sure to elicit a few “oohs” and “aahs.” The broad-beamed stage floor is a good stand-in for the ship deck on which the young de Rougemont begins his adventures.

Yes, the play still seems a bit long-winded (I’ve heard of other productions that wrapped things up in less than 90 minutes, though I can’t imagine how). But the tale it tells is a fascinating one, made even more so by the fact that we’re not entirely sure we should believe it.

CATCO will present Shipwrecked! An Entertainment—The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as Told by Himself) through Feb. 23 in Studio Two, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. Tickets are $11.50 for Wednesday matinees, $45 on Fridays and Saturdays, $41 for other shows. Discount student tickets ($15) are offered two hours before show time. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.

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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.

New York-bound ‘Flashdance’ faces an uphill battle

Steelworker/dancer Alex Owens (Jillian Mueller) re-creates an iconic moment from the original movie in Flashdance: The Musical (photo by Jeremy Daniel)
Steelworker/dancer Alex Owens (Jillian Mueller) re-creates an iconic moment from the original movie in Flashdance: The Musical (photo by Jeremy Daniel)

By Richard Ades

“She’s a maniac, maniac on the floor/And she’s dancing like she never danced before…”

Read those lyrics the wrong way, and the fantasy at the heart of Flashdance becomes apparent. Steelworker-by-day/dancer-by-night Alex longs to be accepted into a prestigious ballet academy, but she has no formal training. So how can she hope to win out against dancers who’ve been hitting the barre since they were kids?

The 1983 movie distracted attention from that glaring question by overwhelming us with montages of toned bodies dancing to a rocking soundtrack. It also captured the tenor of the times by setting Alex’s quest against the backdrop of a dying industry: We could relate to her struggle to redefine herself because so many of us were trying to find a way to survive in a changing economy.

Then, of course, there was cinematic newcomer Jennifer Beals and her portrayal of Alex as a tough Pittsburgh girl who could switch from wistful dreamer to sexual predator at the drop of a leg warmer.

So the movie became a hit, and Alex and her wardrobe became cultural icons. Can the new Tom Hedley/Robert Cary/Robbie Roth stage version repeat the magic?

After seeing the touring show Tuesday night at the Palace, I suspect it has a long way to go.

Director/choreographer Trujillo and his cast reimagine some of the movie’s best moments and add some of their own. Overall, though, it fails to make us care about Alex’s journey.

Part of the problem is the role of Alex, which must be almost impossible to cast. Besides acting and singing, the leading lady must be able to dance well enough to convince us she has a shot at a career in ballet. In the touring production, it’s apparent that Jillian Mueller was cast primarily for her dancing skills. Her moves are fine, but her singing voice lacks power and she has little stage presence.

It’s admirable that the producers didn’t follow the movie’s tack and have Alex’s dance moves performed by a body double (though it appears they do just that in one scene, for no apparent reason). But because they failed to find the rare individual who can act, sing and dance like a maniac, Alex mostly disappears into Klara Zieglerova’s serviceable but generic scenery. As a result, few sparks are generated by the central romance between Alex and her smitten boss, Nick, even though Corey Mach gives the latter a likable personality and sonorous voice.

Filling some of that void, Ginna Claire Mason and David R. Gordon do make us care about the rocky relationship between Alex’s dancer friend Gloria and would-be comedian Jimmy. We particularly care about Gloria, whose naïve search for fame makes her susceptible to the advances of C.C. (Christian Whelan), proprietor of the disreputable dance club down the street. Her crestfallen rendition of Gloria is one of the more effective holdovers from the movie.

Back at the raunchy but relatively wholesome club run by the fatherly Harry (Matthew Henerson), Alex spends her nights sharing the stage with Tess and Kiki, seasoned hoofers well played by Alison Ewing and DeQuina Moore. Moore is especially fiery in the energetically choreographed Manhunt, another movie holdover.

Not all of the show’s songs are inherited from the movie, by the way. Of the new tunes, some are pretty, and some are even catchy, but none matches the toe-tapping power of the originals.

Will Flashdance make it to New York? If it does, it will accomplish a major miracle, as it’s not easy to construct a conventional stage musical out of a movie that was basically an extended music video. The show reportedly has been tweaked quite a bit to get this far, and it likely will need a lot more tweaking to get to Broadway.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Flashdance: The Musical through Dec. 22 at the Palace Theatre, 34 W. Broad St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $28-$78. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.

I want a table, and I want it now

Jeff Horst plays 40 different characters in CATCO’s one-man show Fully Committed (Red Generation Photography)
Jeff Horst plays 40 different characters in CATCO’s one-man show Fully Committed (Red Generation Photography)

By Richard Ades

And I thought I had it bad.

During the two years I waited tables, my worst experience came when our cook fell off the wagon and showed up drunk. When the lunchtime crowd arrived, I had to keep dropping off orders in the kitchen even though I knew it was like dropping them down a well. I then had to make excuses to our customers about why their burgers and Reubens never seemed to materialize.

But all that was a walk in the park compared what Sam goes through in Fully Committed. Working the reservation desk at an exclusive New York restaurant, the would-be actor regularly has to put up with an egotistical chef, an uncooperative maître d’ and self-important customers who make impossible demands.

Written by Becky Mode, the one-man play follows Sam on a particularly difficult day. A co-worker has failed to show up, leaving Sam to deal with all the crazies on his own. Adding to the pressure, his father keeps calling and asking if he’s coming home for Christmas. Plus, another actor makes frequent calls whose apparent purpose is to rub his own success in Sam’s face.

One of my quibbles with a show like this—in which one person plays a plethora of roles—is that many of the characters invariably come off as stereotypes. It’s hard not to fall back on ethnic clichés in such a situation, especially if your aim is to provoke laughs.

In CATCO’s production, however, actor Jeff Horst and director Steven Anderson avoid taking that easy route. Sure, the chef is a haughty Brit and the maître d’ is a snooty Frenchman, but the 40 or so characters seldom fit into overused pigeonholes. They may not be as grittily believable as Michael S. Brewer’s messy set, but they’re far from one-note creations.

“Fully committed,” by the way, means a restaurant is completed booked, but it also describes an actor who invests himself totally in his characters. That’s something Horst does many times over.

Particularly memorable are the AWOL co-worker, who exudes an oily Jack Nicholson-like aura; the gangster who caresses himself while speaking in a voice filled with menace and power; and Sam’s folksy father, who is too self-effacing to admit how desperately he wants his son to come home for the holidays.

And then there’s Sam himself, who seems to have inherited his dad’s decency. Or maybe he’s decided that being calm and diplomatic is the only way to survive in a job that regularly requires him to walk through a minefield filled with explosive egos.

Whatever his motivation, he manages to keep himself together through most of his hectic day, but he eventually starts to lose his equilibrium. And that’s when things start to get interesting.

Until then, truthfully, this supposed comedy is more annoying than funny, with characters who are as unpleasant as the constantly ringing phones. For much of its running time, the show’s main draw is the opportunity to see Horst earn his keep in what reportedly is his first role as a member of Actors’ Equity.

But that should be enough for many viewers. After all, Horst’s performance, even more than his union card, proves that he’s a full-fledged professional.

CATCO will present Fully Committed through Nov. 24 in Studio Two, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. Tickets are $45, $11.50 for Wednesday matinees. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.

Unlucky horse hardly leads a stable existence

Conscripted horses Joey (right) and Topthorn prepare to charge the Germans in a battle scene from War Horse (photo © Brinkhoff/Mogenburg)
Conscripted horses Joey (right) and Topthorn prepare to charge the Germans in a battle scene from War Horse (photo © Brinkhoff/Mogenburg)

By Richard Ades

When you saw The Phantom of the Opera or Miss Saigon for the first time, chances are you didn’t come out of the theater exclaiming, “What a chandelier!” or “What a helicopter!”

The special effects, as spectacular as they were, simply played supporting roles to the stories and the music of the night.

When you come out of War Horse, conversely, chances are you will say something along the lines of “What a horse!” Which is to say, “What a puppet!”

The life-size puppets that portray titular steed Joey and other equines are the best thing about this Tony-winning British import. They trot and gallop, fight and play, eat, swat flies and generally behave like real-life horses.

In Act 1, frankly, they’re more believable than their human co-stars. Working under Bejan Sheibani’s direction (which is based on the work of original co-directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris), the actors often emote in melodramatic tones that suggest every moment of every day is a life-or-death struggle.

Credibility does improve in Act 2, when both the humans and the horses actually are engaged in a life-or-death struggle—namely, World War I. But even then, the tale is less impressive than the stagecraft with which it’s told: not only the horses, but the sights and sounds that suggest, rather than depict, the horrors of battle.

Adapted by Nick Stafford from a novel by Michael Murpugo, War Horse is a simple story.

In Devon, England, a poor farmer named Ted Narracott (Todd Cerveris) buys a foal at auction simply to show up his brother. Ted’s wife, Rose (Angela Reed), is not pleased, as the family can’t afford a horse that was bred as a hunter rather than a beast of burden. But their son, Albert (Alex Morf), quickly makes friends with the colt and takes on its care and training.

The real drama begins years later, when war breaks out and Ted sells the now-grown Joey to the army to fight the Germans. Though underage, a heartbroken Albert secretly enlists and is sent to France, where he hopes to be reunited with his old friend. What he doesn’t know is that Joey has fallen into German hands—in particular, those of a horse lover named Capt. Muller (a nuanced Andrew May), who does what he can to keep this beautiful animal away from the battlefield.

There are complications and close calls throughout the adventure, some of them quite harrowing. Even so, most viewers will have little trouble predicting how it will come out. As a result, the main surprises involve the way the tale is told, rather than the tale itself.

Besides the puppeteers, the real heroes are behind-the-scenes talents such as set designer Rae Smith, lighting designers Paule Constable and Karen Spahn, and “horse” choreographer Toby Sedgwick. An onstage singer (Megan Loomis replaced regular vocalist John Milosich on opening night) also plays an influential role by contributing mournful folk-style tunes.

War Horse is melodrama—melodrama that is sometimes overdone and ultimately predictable. But for most viewers, the innovative staging should make it a memorable ride.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present War Horse through Sunday (April 28) at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St. Show times are 8 p.m. Wednesday and Friday, 1 and 8 p.m. Thursday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $35-$95. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.

Dittohead with a grudge against the health-care system

By Richard Ades

Mercy Killers is a play with a message.

Playwright/actor Michael Milligan makes no attempt to hide that fact. And even if he did, the secret would be out as soon as you hit the ticket table and found it littered with handouts from a group called the Single-Payer Action Network.

The one-man play’s message is that America’s health-care system leaves people vulnerable to physical and financial ruin. And that’s true even if they have health insurance.

Fortunately, Ohio State alum Milligan is a thespian rather than a clergyman. As a result, the play is much more than a glorified sermon.

As Joe, a car mechanic who’s a fan of Rush Limbaugh, Milligan tells a tale involving a cancer-stricken wife and an insurance company that finds an excuse to bail as soon as the medical bills start piling up. It all unfolds in the form of a rambling statement made to an unseen police officer who suspects Joe of committing a serious crime.

The nature of that crime is unspecified until the end, but Milligan throws in enough foreshadowing to give it away to all but the most optimistic viewers. Despite this, all but the most hard-hearted audience members are likely to find themselves tearing up when the moment of truth finally arrives.

Up until then, the tale is slightly hampered by its structure. The play’s setup—not to mention the title—gives us no reason to believe things will go well. So when Joe relates the ups and downs of his relationship with his wife, Jane, we know better than to hope for the best.

It’s also not hard to see the author’s politically motivated thought processes at work: Joe is portrayed as a Limbaugh dittohead in order to give more weight to his eventual indictment of the health-care system.

But two things work in the play’s favor.

First, it’s filled with details that are both plausible and relatable. And second, Milligan is a very good actor, allowing him to breathe touching reality into what could have come off as a mere propaganda piece.

Will the Affordable Care Act, once it’s fully implemented, prevent tragedies such as the one that befalls Joe and Jane? Hopefully it will make them less likely, but Milligan and the group that’s helping to coordinate the show clearly feel more change is needed. For a look at what the group is advocating, visit spanohio.org.

For a refresher course on why the health-care system is in need of change, see Mercy Killers.

On the Verge Productions will present Mercy Killers through March 9 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave. Show times are 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Friday, 7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour. Free; donations encouraged. Mercykillerstheplay.com.