Tale of New Jersey songsters improves with age

Brandon Andrus, Nick Cosgrove, Jason Kappus and Nicolas Dromard (from left) play the Four Seasons in Jersey Boys (photo by Jeremy Daniel)
Brandon Andrus, Nick Cosgrove, Jason Kappus and Nicolas Dromard (from left) play the Four Seasons in Jersey Boys (photo by Jeremy Daniel)

By Richard Ades

Why is Jersey Boys so much more fun the second time around?

Part of it may be due to lowered expectations. Prior to the touring show’s Columbus debut in 2011, the press attended a preview during which we were told to expect a spectacle that would put every other musical to shame. We also were informed that male viewers, in particular, would be reduced to manly tears by this trip down the Four Seasons’ Memory Lane.

Well, it didn’t happen. Not to me, at least. The show’s historically correct harmonizing was great, but the dramatic portions left my eyes dry.

Fast forward to earlier this week, when the latest version of the touring show returned to the Ohio Theatre. I went, expecting little, and got a lot. In fact, I had a ball.

But the difference can’t be attributed entirely to my new lack of optimism. I think the production is noticeably better this time around.

That’s particularly true in regards to the key role of lead singer Frankie Valli. Two years ago, the featured actor hit the falsetto notes with aplomb, but he couldn’t carry off some of the tale’s most touching moments. Now, though, Nick Cosgrove does it all without a hitch—singing, acting and even a few athletic dance moves.

Actors playing the rest of the New Jersey-bred quartet are equally fine: Nicolas Dromard as the out-for-himself Tommy DeVito, Jason Kappus as songwriter Bob Gaudio and a comically laconic Brandon Andrus as Nick Massi.

With a book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, this 2006 Tony Award winner relates the history of the Four Seasons by allowing each member of the 1960s rock group to tell his side of the tale in turn. It’s a clever tack and probably a necessary one, given that three of the four original members are still alive and don’t necessarily agree on the details.

A bevy of talented supporting cast members play the many people who wander in and out of the musicians’ lives. Key actors include Barry Anderson as record producer Bob Crewe, Marlana Dunn as Mary Delgado and Thomas Fiscella as sentimental gangster Gyp DeCarlo.

Under Des McAnuff’s direction, the cast and crew work as a unit while the action flows fluidly from one scene to the next, sometimes even in the midst of song. Meanwhile, Klara Zieglerova’s set design and Howell Binkley’s lighting design fill the stage with images that are subtly handsome and perfectly complementary. As a piece of stagecraft, Jersey Boys is a wonder.

But the show’s real highlight is the music—the just-right re-creations of hits such as Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like a Man and Can’t Take My Eyes Off You. And that’s due not only to the actors’ vocal prowess but to conductor Ben Hartman and his onstage band. Special kudos to Mark Papazian, without whose emphatic drumming the night would be far less joyful.

Were my eyes still dry when I left the show this time around? Yes, but I didn’t care. The rest of my face was smiling.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Jersey Boys through Sept. 29 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State 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. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $28-$128. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.

King Arthur and friends hit the road in ‘Spamalot’

Tom Cardinal (right) as King Arthur and Amy Lay as his aide, Patsy, in Spamalot (photo courtesy of Shadowbox Live)
Tom Cardinal (right) as King Arthur and Amy Lay as his aide, Patsy, in Spamalot (photo courtesy of Shadowbox Live)

By Richard Ades

Shadowbox Live’s “metaperformers” are Monty Python fans. That’s obvious throughout their production of Spamalot, the musical inspired by the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

You can see the love in the working-class British accents and the squeaky voices of the suspiciously mannish women. You can see it in the perfect timing with which the “Knights Who Say Ni” squawk out their signature word.

You can see it in director Stev Guyer’s patient willingness to allow each scene to expand to its maximum level of hilarity.

For the unaware, Monty Python was a BBC-bred comedy troupe that combined brainy humor with rampant silliness and an anarchic disregard for societal norms. Spamalot, with book and lyrics by Python alum Eric Idle, simultaneously spoofs the King Arthur legend and Broadway-style musicals. The latter comes out in numbers such as The Song That Goes Like This, a dead ringer for the kind of show-stopping tune that’s become an Andrew Lloyd Webber hallmark.

At Shadowbox, Idle’s Tony-winning musical allows numerous performers to put their acting and singing strengths to optimal use.

Tom Cardinal is heroic but not foolhardy as Arthur, the mythical king whose search for the Holy Grail sends his ragtag group of knights off on a series of dangerous adventures. Amy Lay is delightfully dutiful as Patsy, his aide, who stands in for his “horse” by clapping together two halves of a coconut. (The presence of this tropical fruit, by the way, foments one of the first daffy exchanges as dubious guards question just what kind of bird would be big enough to carry it to medieval England.)

After spoofing operatic divas in previous Shadowbox theme shows, Stephanie Shull brings the same kind of energy to the Lady of the Lake, a role that also makes the most of her powerhouse voice. Michelle Daniels narrates Arthur’s adventures as the Historian, while Billy DiPetro supplies comical menace as the disapproving father of a son who fancies himself a maiden in distress.

Also along for the virtual ride are JT Walker III as Galahad, David Whitehouse as Lancelot, Jim Andes as Bedevere and Robbie Nance as Robin, as well as a host of others playing the threatening soldiers, trash-talking “Frenchies,” lascivious ladies and sundry monsters the knights encounter during their quest.

Katy Psenicka’s alternately medieval-rough and Broadway-glitzy choreography adds to the fun, as does Matthew Hahn’s musical direction and a band that’s often dominated by Kevin Patrick Sweeny’s keyboard work.

Due to acoustics and accents, a few lyrics and bits of dialogue may be difficult to catch. But that probably won’t be a problem for true Python fans, who know the show by heart anyway.

Speaking of which, if you are such a fan, don’t give in to the temptation to call out punch lines in advance, as at least one audience member did on opening night. Otherwise, an unpleasant French person may unplug his nose in your general direction.

Spamalot will be presented at 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 17 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $30, $20 for students and seniors. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

You might want to brush up on your Kierkegaard first

Colin (Erik Sternberger, left) strikes a typically dejected pose while Fran (Katharine Pilcher) practices “existential yoga” in The :nv:s:ble Play (photo by Andy Batt)
Colin (Erik Sternberger, left) strikes a dejected pose while Fran (Katharine Pilcher) practices “existential yoga” in The :nv:s:ble Play (photo by Andy Batt)

By Richard Ades

It’s ironic that Alex Dremann’s The :nv:s:ble Play is about a group of book editors. The two-act, two-hour work offers interesting food for thought, but it would benefit from a little editing.

While philosophy majors may be amused by its subtle existential humor, most folks would find it far more palatable if a few minutes—60, say—were cut from its running time.

Set in a New York publishing house that specializes in existential literature, The :nv:s:ble Play is about employees who are so shy and retiring that they gradually disappear from sight. At the center of the action is Colin (Erik Sternberger), who is trying to finish editing a romance novel when he discovers that neither his co-workers nor the book’s author (an unusually hammy Courtney Deuser) can see or hear him.

Actually, saying Colin is at the center of the action is misleading. It would be more accurate to say he’s in the center of the inaction, as he spends scene after scene hunched over his desk in a state of dejection while his oblivious co-workers go about their lives.

Since those lives consist mainly of gossiping about who’s romancing whom and which employees are destined to be laid off, Dremann seems to be suggesting that people like Colin are doomed to be the unappreciated backbones of their companies while their shallow but flashier colleagues gain all the glory.

There’s also a romantic element to the story, but its point is a bit murky. Colin may be in love with Fran (Katharine Pilcher), the Yale-educated woman in the next cubicle, but he also may not be, as he’s not even sure he believes in the emotion. So why should we care? Because a fellow invisible worker comes up with a theory—presumably after watching Beauty and the Beast—that one way to break the spell of invisibility is to make another person fall in love with you.

This sets Colin on a quest to get Fran to fall for him, which means he first must get her to notice him. His bumbling efforts result in several frustratingly slow scenes, including one cribbed from the 1989 rom com Say Anything.

One bright spot in all this is that MadLab’s cast, like most recent MadLab casts, is uniformly good. Director Andy Batt pulls generally well-crafted performances out of his actors.

Besides Sternberger and Pilcher, the leading players include Chad Hewitt as the sleazily ambitious Tim, Shana Kramer as the pregnant Carmen and Megan Corbin as their scary supervisor, Nancy. Most lovable of all is Michelle Batt as Ramona, a self-described asexual arborist who, like Colin, has become invisible to her co-workers.

Rounding out the cast are Joe Liles as Lawrence, an IT guy who has become invisible even to Colin and Ramona, and Deuser as Cass, an aging editor who is unseen because her desk is on the far side of the room.

Speaking of the room, Brendan Michna’s set design is a series of cubicles that will remind many office workers of their place of employment. It certainly reminded me of my former office, except that I don’t remember my days there being quite so uneventful.

The :nv:s:ble Play will be presented at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Sept. 14 at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $12, $10 for students and seniors, $8 for members. 614-221-5418 or madlab.net.