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.

Restless teen has a ticket to ride

The Youth (Taylor Moss, center) discovers Dutch-style free love with the help of Amsterdam friends (from left) David Glover, Zoe Lathan, Rico Parker and Mia Angelique Fowler (photo by Megan Leigh)
The Youth (Taylor Moss, center) discovers Dutch-style free love with the help of Amsterdam friends (from left) David Glover, Zoe Lathan, Rico Parker and Mia Angelique Fowler (photo by Megan Leigh)

By Richard Ades

If you saw American Idiot during the touring show’s recent Columbus stop, Passing Strange may give you a feeling of déjà vu. But it won’t last.

Though both musicals are about youthful angst and wanderlust, Passing Strange is infinitely more personal and personable. The black teen at its center may be known simply as the Youth, but his globe-trotting adventures are far from generic.

With book and lyrics by Stew, who co-wrote the music with Heidi Rodewald, the tale is also filled with heart and satirical humor. That distinguishes it from American Idiot and its angry punk-rock rants.

In short, the average (read: non-Green Day-worshipping) theatergoer is more likely to enjoy Passing Strange, especially given the wonderful production that Short North Stage and director Mark Clayton Southers have put together.

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect cast.

Taylor Moss is graceful, impressionable and self-centered as the Youth, who believes he’ll never come into his own as a musician until he escapes his South Central L.A. home. Michelle Golden is devoted, possessive and pitiable as the Mother, who wants her son to be happy but can’t understand why he has to leave home to do it.

Each member of the supporting cast plays multiple roles and has one or two chances to really stand out. For example, Rico Romalus Parker raises spirits as the sermonizing Rev. Jones, while David Glover is delightfully mischievous as his pot-smoking son. Mia Angelique Fowler and Zoe Lathan leave indelible impressions as various girls and women who pull the Youth into their spheres of influence.

All display fine voices, but the mightiest pipes properly belong to Ron Jenkins, who pushes the tale along as the all-seeing Narrator.

The musical’s satirical bent comes out early in its depiction of an African-American church as a weekly fashion show. Later, after the Youth seeks his fortune in Amsterdam and Berlin, it hilariously dissects the self-righteousness of young leftist radicals. When a musician touts Clash as an example of music’s political relevance, a German naysayer retorts, “Punk rock was a marketing strategy.”

Though Passing Strange’s 2008 Broadway production won a Tony only for its book, the songs throb with wit, spirit and warmth. A charismatic band supplies both instrumental and vocal support under the direction of P. Tim Valentine, while gyrating cast members often carry the infectious beats into the aisles.

Back on the somewhat echo-y stage, Robert Kuhn’s two-story set is marked by a series of doors that symbolize the Youth’s quest for relevance and fulfillment.

Speaking of that quest, the musical makes it clear that all choices come with a price. The finale is tinged with regret as it questions the value of art. In creating fiction, the rueful Narrator asks, are artists merely attempting to make up for their real-life shortcomings?

Humorous and uplifting, thoughtful and heartbreaking, Passing Strange is the kind of transcendent musical experience that comes along all too rarely in Columbus. If you miss it, you’ll regret it.

Short North Stage will present Passing Strange through May 5 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $30. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

Simon’s homage to TV pioneers

Max Prince (Donovan Johnson, kneeling at right) is attacked by Kenny Franks (Roddey Nagy, left) and Val Slotsky (Aleksandar Bulajic) in a Julius Caesar parody from Laughter on the 23rd Floor (photo by Lillian DeDomenic)
Max Prince (Donovan Johnson, kneeling at right) is attacked by Kenny Franks (Roddey Nagy, left) and Val Slotsky (Aleksandar Bulajic) in a Julius Caesar parody from Laughter on the 23rd Floor (photo by Lillian DeDomenic)

By Richard Ades

Laughter on the 23rd Floor should be a nostalgia trip for those old enough to remember the early days of television. Others may see it as a joke-filled history lesson.

Though the Neil Simon comedy opened on Broadway in 1993, it’s inspired by Simon’s work as a writer for Your Show of Shows, a 90-minute comedy/variety program that debuted in 1950. Hosted by Sid Caesar and performed live, it ran until 1954, when it was replaced by a similar but shorter program called Caesar’s Hour.

Simon’s fictionalized account is set in 1953, when Caesar stand-in Max Prince (Donovan Johnson) is battling NBC execs over what he sees as their attempt to dumb the show down for Middle America. When the network cuts the program’s running time by 30 minutes and simultaneously slashes its budget, Prince interprets the development as a sign that he’s losing the war.

Prince shares his worries with his writers, who are said to represent actual Show of Shows contributors. That explains why Simon makes the cast bigger than seems absolutely necessary.

The best-known real-life counterparts are Mel Brooks, represented by Ira Stone (Joel B. Cohen); future M*A*S*H contributor Larry Gelbart, represented by Kenny Franks (Roddey Nagy); and Simon himself, represented by neophyte writer Lucas Brickman (Kyle Snyder).

These obviously are/were funny people, but Simon mostly relegates their fictional alter egos to one comic attribute apiece. Stone, for example, is a hypochondriac who arrives late each day because he’s busy consulting doctors about his latest imagined ailment. Cohen plays him with panache, but Stone still seems a pale shadow of Brooks, the clown who went on to create The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.

Likewise, Prince mainly is characterized by his violent excitability, which causes him to inflict a good deal of damage on Edith Wadkins’s set. Caesar reportedly was a volatile guy, but it would have been nice to see other aspects of his personality reflected in Simon’s script.

Director Janetta Davis pulls distinctive portrayals out of her cast, which also includes Mark Passerrello, Aleksandar Bulajic, Jason David Collins, Keely M. Kurtas-Chapman and Katharine Pilcher. Some of the biggest guffaws are won by Bulajic, who displays spot-on timing as Val Slotsky, a Russian immigrant who struggles to deliver the F-bomb with the proper pronunciation.

Others also win laughs, though more sporadically. The material is mostly to blame, though a snappier tempo might help matters in the weaker sections.

One section that doesn’t need help is a read-through of a skit making fun of the 1953 film version of Julius Caesar. It reveals the kind of parody that would turn up in many later TV shows, as well as an anarchic spirit that has seldom been matched in the past 60 years of television.

The skit, more than all the backstage intrigue that makes up the bulk of Laughter on the 23rd Floor, demonstrates why Your Show of Shows was such an important and influential part of our cultural past.

SRO Theatre Company will present Laughter on the 23rd Floor through Sunday (April 21) at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (including intermission). Show times are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $20, $17 seniors (55-plus), $15 members and $10 students (grades 6-12 and college). 614-258-9495 or srotheatre.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.