By Richard Ades
Fabulous costumes, a smokin’ guitar solo and a very funny Jack Hanna. These are some of the highlights of Shadowbox Live’s Freak Show.
More generally, the show offers some really smart comedy, including a vintage skit that’s being repeated as part of the troupe’s 25th anniversary celebration.
Let’s start with Jack Hanna. The Columbus Zoo’s director emeritus has demonstrated his deadpan sense of humor over the years during his many appearances on The Late Show With David Letterman, but he’s never been funnier than he is here.
In a video segment, Shadowbox executive producer Stev Guyer seeks out Hanna’s advice on how to keep the troupe going for another 25 years. Instead, Jungle Jack begins paddling down a stream of consciousness that carries us into areas that are hilariously personal.
As for the guitar solo, it takes place in a cover of Van Halen’s House of Pain and features the nimble fingers of Brent Lambert. Amy Lay ably handles the vocals, but make no mistake: Lambert’s screaming guitar is the tune’s reason for being.
And the costumes? Designed by Linda Mullin, Nick Wilson and Lyn Walker, they accentuate the show’s spooky theme while turning several musical numbers into visual as well as aural treats. My favorites include the colorful tutus lead vocalist Anita McFarren and her backup singers don for Mz. Hyde.
Comedy-wise, Shadowbox theme shows easily beat the success ratio of Saturday Night Live, but that’s really damning with faint praise. For Freak Show, director Guyer, head writer Jimmy Mak and the cast actually approach the success ratio of Modern Family.
Not everything inspires big laughs. Jason’s Scary Poem, a narrated and mimed homage to Dr. Seuss, is more apt to inspire appreciative nods and chuckles. And Zombie or Not to Be?, a faux TV show about the undead, is mostly unfunny. But an astounding number of skits are ingeniously written and brilliantly performed. Some of the standouts:
▪ Modern Day Freaks: A carnival barker (JT Walker III) introduces such contemporary oddities as a 6-year-old girl who hates Frozen and a tea partier who’s down with gay marriage.
▪ Literal Wizard: A substitute teacher (Tom Cardinal) uses his wizardly skills to instruct his students on the proper use of the word “literally.” (English majors will love this one!)
▪ The Line: Disney makes a horror film inspired by Disneyland’s scariest attraction of all: those endless lines.
▪ Haunted House Training: The socially inept Gary (Mak) thinks he knows how to scare people at a Halloween haunted house because he’s so good at inadvertently scaring them in real life.
▪ Captain’s Kirk’s Advice: Office worker Herb (Jamie Barrow) is too shy to ask out co-worker Lisa (Carrie Lynn McDonald) until he’s goaded on by video clips of that planet-hopping Lothario himself, James T. Kirk.
Incidentally, McDonald is a former Shadowbox regular who’s making a return visit for this show, probably in honor of the anniversary season. Other welcome returnees include the final skit, The Exorsister, and the spectacular final tune, Thriller, featuring vocals by Leah Laviland and a stageful of creepy dancers.
There’s much more of worth in Freak Show, including such musical numbers as Save Me (sung by a gruff-voiced Walker) and the familiar Mama Told Me Not to Come (talk-sung by Brandon Anderson).
Even the video segments, which normally function as semi-cute fillers, are great. Besides the Jungle Jack interview, my favorite is Flashback, in which a prophetic spirit tells young Shadowbox founder Steve Guyer to postpone his ambitious dream of staging original rock operas and concentrate on sketch comedy. And, oh yes, he’s advised to change his first name to Stev.
Sure, it’s self-referential and maybe even self-indulgent. But after 25 years, Shadowbox is entitled.
Freak Show continues through Nov. 1 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.