Singing the post-operative blues

Hedwig (JJ Parkey, left) and Yitzhak (Ruthie Stephens) trade notes in Hedwig and the Angry Inch (photo by Heather Wack)
Hedwig (JJ Parkey, left) and Yitzhak (Ruthie Stephens) trade notes in Hedwig and the Angry Inch (photo by Heather Wack)

By Richard Ades

I was a little concerned when I learned JJ Parkey was going to play the title role in Short North Stage’s production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

When Parkey played the Emcee in Cabaret at the same venue last year, he depicted the entertainer as pure evil. Since no one is pure anything, that approach made the iconic character less interesting than he might have been.

Still, Parkey seemed talented, and I consoled myself with the thought that actors don’t always have final say over their performances. Sometimes directors dictate a certain approach in order to support their vision of the work. I have personal experience with this because, way back in my college/community-theater days, a director forced me to play a soft-spoken and intuitive character as a loudmouthed jerk in order to support his misguided interpretation of the play.

Maybe that’s what was going on with Cabaret, I thought. Or maybe not. It’s a moot point, really, because Parkey plays the transgendered Hedwig with all the verve and sensitivity that the role demands. It’s a bravura performance.

In case you’re one of the few people who are encountering John Cameron Mitchell’s cult musical for the first time (Short North’s production is my fourth, counting the 2001 movie), it’s about an East German lad who undergoes gender-reassignment surgery in order to marry his way to American citizenship. Unfortunately, the surgery is botched, leaving the former Hansel with a vestige—an “angry inch,” as it were—of his former genitalia where a brand-new vagina was supposed to be.

We actually meet Hedwig, as she’s now known, when she takes the stage along with her rock band, the Angry Inch. In the course of the concert, we hear her sad story, including her unhappy affair with a now-popular musician who’s simultaneously performing up the street. We also meet Yitzhak (a cross-dressing Ruthie Stephens), a sullen band member who clearly has his own rocky history with Hedwig.

Written with both wit and attitude by Mitchell, the melodrama unfolds in the midst of enjoyable ballads and punk-rock tunes by Stephen Trask. Parkey and the golden-throated Stephens do them all justice, as does the onstage band led by P. Tim Valentine.

Director/choreographer Edward Carignan wraps it all up in a production that knows when to let loose and when to stop and smell the rancor. Carignan likewise designed the wigs and gaudy costumes that help to define the title character, as do the clever video images that appear at opportune moments on two backdrop screens.

Technical director Robert Kuhn and lighting designer Amanda Ackers also deserve mention for their contributions to a show that, along with the recent Passing Strange, bolsters Short North Stage’s reputation as a purveyor of first-rate musical entertainment.

Short North Stage will present Hedwig and the Angry Inch through June 22 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St. Show times are 9 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $20. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

Romance is the Maine event

Appearing in Almost, Maine are (from left) Sean Murphy, Harry Sanderson, Emily Vanni and Marina Pires (photo by Ed Syguda)
Appearing in Almost, Maine are (from left) Sean Murphy, Harry Sanderson, Emily Vanni and Marina Pires (photo by Ed Syguda)

By Richard Ades

The Pine Tree State must be a magical place, judging from Almost, Maine.

Whether or not that’s a good thing is a matter of taste.

John Cariani’s collection of vignettes is all about relationships—relationships beginning, relationships ending, relationships in flux. Most writers would be content to tackle the subject by throwing a couple of people together and letting human nature take its course, but Cariani prefers to add an element of unreality. His thesis seems to be that the ordinary rules of existence are skewed in the remote town where he sets his tales.

Take the first story, Her Heart. A woman (Emily Vanni) shows up unannounced on the lawn of a local man (Harry Sanderson), sets up a tent and prepares to wait for the Northern Lights to appear. Why? The woman has an explanation that’s both sad and ingenious, but it’s overshadowed by her odd announcement that she’s carrying her heart in a bag. It seems that the organ was broken—literally broken, into so many pieces—by her husband and had to be replaced.

As if this weren’t enough of a jarring distraction, Cariani also gives the man a name that is more or less the opposite of the husband’s. Coincidence, or is this his way of telling us that these two people have been brought together for a reason?

Don’t bother guessing—it’s the latter. You figure this out after subsequent vignettes arrive with their own meaningfully named characters.

I suppose you could label Cariani’s approach “magic realism,” but it strikes me as an unnecessarily heavy-handed example of the genre. Luckily, the acting is not heavy-handed but is subtle and appealing, allowing the tales’ innate charm to survive their author’s occasional excesses.

Working under Christina Kirk’s direction and in the midst of scenic designer Rob Johnson’s spare depiction of a wintry, nighttime landscape, the four actors create a multitude of relatable personalities.

If there’s a standout, it’s Vanni, whose characters range from the aforementioned trespasser to Rhonda, a grownup tomboy being courted by a longtime friend in Seeing the Thing. The other female cast member, Marina Pires, is solid in lower-key roles such as Marci, a woman struggling to reconnect with her husband in Where It Went.

Sanderson is at his best playing men who are a bit confused by their circumstances, such as Marci’s husband, Phil. Final cast member Sean Murphy shines the brightest as Steve, a boy-man who’s oddly impervious to pain in This Hurts.

Whether or not you share my crankiness over Cariani’s take on the subject of romance, you can’t help loving what Otterbein’s versatile cast does with it.

Note: Don’t be surprised if you arrive at Otterbein’s Cowan Hall and find the auditorium empty. The audience section has been set up on the massive stage, which is the new home of Otterbein Summer Theatre. Personally, I always liked the intimate Campus Center Theatre, but apparently it’s no longer available. That being the case, the Cowan stage is a workable alternative.

Otterbein Summer Theatre will present Almost, Maine at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday (June 6-8) at Cowan Hall, 30 S. Grove St., Westerville. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $22. 614-823-1109 or Otterbein.edu/theatre.

Broadway sightings: singing Mormons and a memorabilia-hawking OSU grad

The Eugene O’Neill Theatre is the Broadway home of The Book of Mormon (photos by Richard Ades)
The Eugene O’Neill Theatre is the Broadway home of The Book of Mormon (photos by Richard Ades)
Actor and OSU grad Paul Moon sells Book of Mormon memorabilia while waiting for his own show, My Big Gay Italian Wedding, to return to the stage
Actor and OSU grad Paul Moon sells Book of Mormon memorabilia while waiting for his own show, My Big Gay Italian Wedding, to return to the stage

By Richard Ades

Are you dying to see The Book of Mormon? If so, you’re probably wondering whether it’s worth catching the show in New York considering the fact that it’s due to arrive in Columbus about a year from now.

Seeing a show on Broadway is certainly more expensive, even without the added cost of getting there and back. But then, Broadway shows have definite advantages over touring shows.

First, the cast is tried and true. Touring casts can be great, but only if the director can find actors as perfectly suited to their roles as their Great White Way counterparts.

Second, even the largest Broadway theaters are far more intimate than the Ohio or the Palace, where big touring shows usually end up in Columbus. Generally speaking, that means there are no bad seats in the house.

Unless, that is, you get stuck behind a tall individual with an extremely large noggin. That’s what happened when I saw The Book of Mormon last weekend at New York’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre. Since even a $169 ticket doesn’t give you the right to ask a neighbor to remove his head, I had to stretch and twist my neck in an attempt to see this Tony-winning song-joke-and-dance fest. As a result, it took me a while to warm up to the show.

However, I soon joined the rest of the crowd in laughing at what Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone had wrought.

If you’ve seen the signature song I Believe performed on TV, you know the musical finds plenty of humor at the expense of what comedian Bill Maher has called the world’s silliest religion. At its heart, though, is the relationship between two young men who are assigned to be partners throughout their two years of compulsory missionary work.

Elder Kevin Price is highly thought of by his teachers—and even more highly thought of by himself. Elder Arnold Cunningham is his exact opposite, a friendless screw-up who readily admits his shortcomings.

“I lie a lot,” he tells Kevin at their first meeting.

But as chagrined as Kevin is by his assigned partner, he soon finds an even greater source of disappointment. Though he has visions of being sent to Disney-perfect Orlando, he and Arnold end up in a Ugandan village where the problems include poverty, ignorance, AIDS and a warlord who threatens to “circumcise” the women.

On Broadway, Matt Doyle struts and sings competently as the self-obsessed Kevin, but the real star is Jon Bass as the needy, truth-challenged Arnold. A delightfully child-like Nikki M. James eventually grabs a big share of the spotlight as Nabulungi, daughter of the village leader. Like Doyle, Bass and the rest of the cast, she sings beautifully, especially on the Act 1 solo Sal Tlay Ka Siti.

Given co-creators Parker and Stone’s connections to South Park, it’s not surprising that much of the humor is derived from extreme crassness—one villager repeatedly complains that he has maggots in his scrotum, and cussing is rampant. Indeed, the chief villain goes by the descriptive name General Butt-Fucking Naked. What’s surprising is how much sweetness and heart are mixed in with the gross-outs.

Parker co-directs the show with choreographer Casey Nicholaw, whose witty dance routines constitute a big part of its appeal. Scott Pask’s scenery and Brian MacDevitt’s lighting design combine to great effect in several delirious production numbers, including one set in a Mormon vision of hell.

If you need an excuse to go to New York, seeing The Book of Mormon is a pretty good one. Or you can head to Chicago, which also has a production.

Otherwise, just hold tight. The touring show will arrive at the Ohio Theatre next May.

The Book of Mormon is being presented at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, 230 W. 49th St., New York City. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes (including intermission). For reservations, call 1-800-432-7250 or visit telecharge.com.

Postscript: Why did that guy selling Book of Mormon memorabilia at Sunday’s performance seem so familiar? Because he was Paul Moon, a Colorado native and Ohio State grad who appeared in Columbus shows such as Short North Stage’s production of The Irish Curse (my choice for the best local comedy of 2012). Now carving out a career in New York, Moon has a role in My Big Gay Italian Wedding, an off-Broadway musical comedy that’s temporarily on hiatus. If you want to see the Columbus ex-pat onstage, performances begin again June 22 at St. Luke’s Theatre, 308 W. 46th St. For ticket information, visit bigitalianwedding.com or telecharge.com.

Troupe, playwright take another shot at literary romance

Robyn Rae Stype as the title heroine and Jeff Horst as the mysterious Rochester in Jane Eyre: A Memory, a Fever, a Dream (photo by Matt Slaybaugh)
Robyn Rae Stype as the title heroine and Jeff Horst as the mysterious Rochester in Jane Eyre: A Memory, a Fever, a Dream (photo by Matt Slaybaugh)

By Richard Ades

Don’t boys ever read Jane Eyre? Playwright Daniel Elihu Kramer seems to assume it appeals only to girls in his new stage adaptation, Jane Eyre: A Memory, a Fever, a Dream.

Maybe, maybe not. I know I read it during the youthful years when I was addicted to the Victorian novels of Dickens and others.

But maybe Kramer is right that Charlotte Bronte’s gothic romance means the most to girls. If his onstage “interviewer” (Jeff Horst) were to ask what the book meant to me, I’d have trouble coming up with answers as personal as those of the female “readers” who show up throughout the play.

You probably remember Kramer from his earlier literary adaptation, Pride & Prejudice, which Available Light premiered in 2010. In both works, Kramer periodically interrupts the British tale with digressions that are meant to increase our understanding and appreciation. With P&P, they were explanations of the period’s mores and mindsets; with Jane Eyre, they’re faux interviews with various girls and women who formed a special bond with the fictional Jane.

Personally, I like the new approach better. It seems less like a series of professorial asides, and it occasionally offers interesting insights, such as how girls react to the heroine’s self-described physical plainness. Even so, I feel about Kramer’s Jane Eyre much like I felt about his Pride & Prejudice: It’s most engrossing when he focuses on the original story. Director Acacia Leigh Duncan and her cast do an admirable job throughout, but it’s during the scenes from the book that the production really shines.

Well, maybe “shines” isn’t the best word, because the most memorable moments benefit from Carrie Cox’s dark and moody lighting. It combines with Brian Steinmetz’s roughhewn set and Jordan Fehr’s atmospheric sound design to create an aura of mystery and dread.

Robyn Rae Stype stars as Jane, an orphan who survives a deprived childhood and goes to work as a governess in a house run by the secretive Rochester (Horst). Stype makes an appealing heroine, but her performance is strangely opaque. It’s not a grave failing—we know what she’s thinking thanks to the presence of the narrator (the always good Michelle Gilfillan Schroeder)—but it would be nice if she occasionally allowed Jane’s thought processes to be more apparent.

In contrast, Horst is unfailingly expressive as Rochester, making him the kind of charismatic figure who could win the lonely Jane’s heart without really trying. Elena M. Perantoni is equally emotive as the warm-hearted Mrs. Fairfax and other female characters.

Michelle Whited’s costumes are simple but effective. Except for Schroeder’s outfit, which is modern and rather unflattering, they manage to suggest mid-19th century fashions while coming off as basically timeless.

Pride & Prejudice was a popular production that Available Light has brought back more than once. Kramer’s take on Jane Eyre deserves to enjoy just as much success, and maybe even a bit more.

Available Light Theatre will present Jane Eyre: A Memory, a Fever, a Dream through June 8 in Studio One, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, plus 8 p.m. June 6. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. Tickets are $20 in advance or “pay what you want” at the door. 614-558-7408 or avltheatre.com.

This ‘Roulette’ isn’t that much of a gamble

Melissa Bair as an accident victim and Chad Hewitt as her mysterious benefactor in Holy Hell, part of Theatre Roulette’s Ladies Night (photo by Andy Batt)
Melissa Bair as an accident victim and Chad Hewitt as her mysterious benefactor in Holy Hell, part of Theatre Roulette’s Ladies Night (photo by Andy Batt)

By Richard Ades

A couple more shows like this, and MadLab may have to ditch the name “Theatre Roulette.”

The annual festival’s moniker is a joking reference to its hit-or-miss nature, since it consists of three collections of mostly unknown short plays. But when MadLab fills one of those collections with works by an interesting writer like Barbara Lindsay, success is pretty much guaranteed.

That’s the case with Ladies Night, which launched the 2013 festival last week and alternates with two more-typical Roulette shows. Each of the featured Lindsay playlets is at least worth the time it takes to watch it. Some are even worth the additional time it takes to process the complex questions and emotions they raise.

The most thoughtful piece is the first, Holy Hell, featuring Melissa Bair as a woman who was involved in a tragic accident and Chad Hewitt as a man who mysteriously shows up to help her move on with her life. What the woman doesn’t know is that the man is motivated by guilt, not charity, as he believes he’s the cause of her woes.

As the woman, Bair proves once again that she’s incapable of registering a false emotion. Though Hewitt’s performance is more surface-bound, this series of alternating monologues resonates as a portrayal of the secret pains and motivations we sometimes bring to our relationships.

Not all of the plays are this serious. Some are outright comedies, but even they mix in elements of psychological truth that are sometimes tinged with sadness. With few exceptions, director Michelle Batt helps each piece realize its full potential by pulling finely honed performances out of her actors.

The funniest piece is Spinsters, starring Natasha Ward as the self-doubting Terry and Audrey Rush as the relatively confident Laura, a friend who urges her not to bail on their double date. Rush is especially hilarious, but both exhibit spot-on comic timing in this take on women’s insecurities.

The female psyche also engenders laughs in Cosmic Goofs, mostly thanks to Jennifer Barlup’s witty portrayal of a woman who ties herself in knots over the sudden reappearance of an irresistible but unreliable ex (a smirking Hewitt). The play wanders into less-rewarding territory after a second woman (Erin Prosser) appears, but until then it’s a hoot.

If Cosmic Goofs goes on too long, On the Line seems surprisingly short, but maybe it’s just as well. Brendan Michna is fine as Joe, who’s forced to man a suicide line by himself on Valentine’s Day, but the character’s unprofessionalism strains credibility. Adding to the piece’s problems, Becky Horseman underacts to a debilitating extent as a caller who seeks his help.

Another type of performance problem rears its head in Fighting Mr. Right, about a woman (Brigid Ogden) who tells her date (Travis Horseman) she won’t sleep with him until they’ve had at least three fights. It’s a clever idea—her explanation is that she wants to know whether he’s going to flee at the first sign of trouble—but Ogden talked so low and so fast on opening night that it was hard to catch her lines.

The evening’s most puzzling piece is Spirit That Won’t Let Me Go, starring a wonderful Courtney Douser as a romance-minded woman having dinner with her boyfriend (Travis Horseman). The puzzle revolves around the “spirit” (Bair), an unseen being who seems to have an unsettling effect on the man. Who is she? If you aren’t too distracted by the question, it’s a bittersweet study of the baggage we all bring to relationships.

The night ends with The Psycho Bitch and the Throbbing Blue Veiner, directed by Amanda Bauer (rather than Batt) and starring Prosser and Erik Sternberger as a couple in the awkward final moments of their first date. Shana Kramer and Michna portray their respective thought processes, which reveal that the two don’t understand each other as well as they think.

Though it’s raunchy, and though it sounds like the kind of “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” humor we’ve seen in the past, playwright Lindsay isn’t satisfied with just making us laugh. The pair’s misunderstandings may also leave you feeling just a bit sad. Like much of what precedes it, the play affects the viewer on more than one level.

Theatre Roulette”? If trips to the Hollywood Casino paid off this consistently, it would quickly go out of business.

Ladies Night will be repeated at 8 p.m. May 17 and 25 at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St. Running time: 90 minutes. Other Theatre Roulette collections are Local Brew, 8 p.m. May 18 and 23 and 2 p.m. May 25; and Mixed Drinks, 8 p.m. May 16 and 24 and 4 p.m. May 25. Tickets are $12, $10 for students and seniors, $8 for members. 614-221-5418 or madlab.net.

How do you want your theater: toe-tapping or thought-provoking?

Playing the Moes in Five Guys Named Moe are (from left): Franklin Grace, LeRon Lee Hudson, Troy Anthony Harris, Japheal Bondurant and Terrence Brian Brown (Red Generation Photography)
Playing the Moes in Five Guys Named Moe are (from left): Franklin Grace, LeRon Lee Hudson, Troy Anthony Harris, Japheal Bondurant and Terrence Brian Brown (Red Generation Photography)
Christopher Austin, Bryant Bentley and Chris Tucci (from left) in The Whipping Man  (photo by Matt Hermes)
Christopher Austin, Bryant Bentley and Chris Tucci (from left) in The Whipping Man (photo by Matt Hermes)

By Richard Ades

I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but it was unavoidable. I happened to be standing nearby when a couple of theatergoers were discussing the then-current CATCO production.

I’d seen the show—a black comedy with nudity and adult situations—and loved it. But it seemed to have rubbed one of the strangers the wrong way, to the extent that he was disappointed he’d wasted his time seeing it.

OK, it’s a small incident, and one that happened several years ago. Still, it sticks in my mind because it’s so unlikely to be repeated anytime soon.

The lineup for CATCO’s upcoming 2013-14 season suggests that Columbus’s premier theater troupe is increasingly devoting itself to the tried and true rather than the offbeat and unfamiliar—i.e., works that could potentially disappoint or offend anyone. With one or two exceptions, these are plays and musicals that the average theatergoer has had one or multiple chances to see.

You can’t blame CATCO, let alone artistic director Steven Anderson, for taking a cautious approach to programming. The troupe is probably doing what it has to do to survive in an increasingly tough artistic environment. And, truthfully, its shows are likely to please most people.

That description certainly fits the current production, Five Guys Named Moe, which sets toes a-tapping while giving audience members a chance to join in the singing or even get up and dance. With a book by Clarke Peters and music and lyrics by “jump blues” composer/bandleader Louis Jordan and others, it’s basically a musical revue held together by a bare-bones plot.

Nomax (Kevin Ferguson) is lamenting his recent breakup with his girlfriend when he’s accosted by the titular five Moes. They proceed to give him lessons on love and life with the help of vintage songs ranging from the romantic Azure Te to the silly I Like ’Em Fat Like That and the nonsensical sing-along Push Ka Pi Shi Pie.

Of the five Moes, Big Moe (Troy Anthony Harris) has the most personality and Four-Eyed Moe (LaRon Lee Hudson) has the handsomest voice, but all of the actors sing pleasantly. With direction by Anderson, music direction by Matt Clemens and spare choreography by Liz Wheeler, it all amounts to breezy entertainment.

On opening night, Ferguson had a few pitchy notes, and the actors and the backstage band sometimes had trouble agreeing on a tempo. Otherwise, problems were few. The only people who’ll be disappointed by this show are those who wax nostalgic for the old days when CATCO was more willing to challenge its audience.

Then again, there are other, smaller troupes that don’t mind pushing the envelope. And two of them, Gallery Players and New Players Theater, have joined forces to present a play that’s as dramatic and provocative as Five Guy Named Moe is safe and soothing.

Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man is set in the ruins of a Richmond, Va., home in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. But this is no ordinary tale of the postwar era. That becomes clear as soon as freed slave Simon (Bryant Bentley) begins speaking in Hebrew.

We learn that Simon and fellow servant John (Christopher Austin) belonged to a Jewish family and were raised in that faith. The irony that members of one oppressed group owned members of another oppressed group is one of the issues that are explored dramatically after their former master’s son, Caleb (Chris Tucci), returns home from the war with a grievous wound.

Sometimes long-winded, sometimes stomach-churning and finally a bit abrupt, The Whipping Man is nevertheless fascinating. Best of all, it’s exquisitely staged by director Tim Browning and his cast.

Of the three actors, only Tucci seems overly restrained, and that’s partly because he’s limited by his role. As the kind and ethical Simon, Bentley gives one of the strongest performances of recent memory, one that gains depth and passion as the play proceeds. Meanwhile, Austin adds touches of humor and a sense of danger as the unscrupulous John.

Important contributions are made by scenic designer Peter Pauze, who’s created a depiction of a once-grand house that’s been devastated by war, and by lighting/sound designer Jarod Wilson, who sets key moments in the midst of a storm that mirrors the psychological turmoil the characters are experiencing.

Overall, it’s a powerful experience.

So you have a choice, theatergoers. If you like to be entertained, see Five Guys Named Moe. If you like to be entertained, educated and challenged, see The Whipping Man.

CATCO will present Five Guys Named Moe through May 26 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: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $11.50 for Wednesday matinees, $45 for evening performances and $41 for Sunday matinees. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.

Gallery Players and New Players Theater will present The Whipping Man through May 19 at the Jewish Community Center, 1125 College Ave. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday (no show May 16), 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20 ($15 for JCC members), $18 for seniors ($13 for senior JCC members), $10 for students and children. 614-231-2731, jccgalleryplayers.org or newplayers.org.

Teens take the stage at Shadowbox

By Richard Ades

It could have been called Revenge of the Nerds, but Shadowbox Live preferred to call it STEM Rocks the Box.

Presented Monday, it was the latest edition of an annual show that gives students from local Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics high schools the chance to prove that they can cut up with the best of them.

Arranged like a regular Shadowbox show, with a mixture of skits and rock songs, it was an impressive display of talent. More than that, it was a lot of fun.

It helped that the skits were some of the funniest that Shadowbox has presented recently. But it’s saying a lot that they remained as funny as ever—if not funnier—with teenage thespians playing key roles in each.

Trevon Mobley exuded paranoia as a 1985 employee startled by the sudden appearance of his business’s first computer in The Office Zone. Henry Kangas generated spastic energy as a boy who wants to adopt a supernatural critter in The Boy Who Cried Werewolf. Rachel Eldridge-Allegra carried off an impersonation of an awkwardly love-struck girl in Slumber Party.

Perhaps the most challenging task was taken on by Annalisa Hartlaub, who matched Shadowbox regular Julie Klein note for note in the musical spoof Divas Do Hard Rock.

Shadowbox probably toned down its usual adult content a bit in some cases, but one skit might have made some viewers squeamish.

Damsels & Dates had a trio of nerds playing a Dungeons & Dragons-type game in which one boy imagined giving away marijuana in order to achieve his goal of making out with one of his school’s most popular girls. The combination of sex and drugs might have produced some uncomfortable moments at tables shared by parents and siblings of featured teens. In any case, Metro High School student Jeremy Boyd portrayed one of the game players with Michael Cera-like appeal.

Metro, by the way, contributed the vast majority of Monday’s teenage performers, but Columbus’s West, Africentric and Linden-McKinley also were represented.

On the musical side of the ledger, Kelly Hooper was stuck with the unenviable task of honchoing the night’s first musical number, Missionary Man. After a brief lapse, she carried it off with aplomb. Launching Act 2, Kangas growled his way through Cross-Eyed Mary with rock-god swagger.

Several other students made strong impressions on vocals and instrumentals. Perhaps the most charismatic was guitarist Jordan Griffith, who leaped around athletically before finally being granted a solo on Aeroplane.

Monday’s show demonstrated that Central Ohio’s STEM students are as comfortable performing onstage as they are peering into a test tube or working out an equation. Bravo to Shadowbox for giving them the chance to prove their versatility.

Not as outrageous as you might think

Betsy Shortt (left) and Julie Klein in The Lost Girl, one of three Don Nigro works featured in Viva Vagina (Studio 66 photo)
Betsy Shortt (left) and Julie Klein in The Lost Girl, one of three Don Nigro works featured in Viva Vagina (Studio 66 photo)

By Richard Ades

If the Shadowboxers are going to do a show called Viva Vagina, they really should include a production number in which an Elvis-impersonating drag king sings the title to the tune of Viva Las Vegas.

Also, for the sake of fairness, they really should plan a sequel called, say, Up With Penises.

Sadly, though, Shadowbox has announced no plans for a follow-up, and the current show does not feature any Viva Las Vegas takeoffs.

It does feature a musical number that’s even more fun and outrageous: Storm Large’s 8 Miles Wide (as in “My vagina is 8 miles wide”). But for most of its running time, this Stage 2 production is pretty close to the low-key spirit of Shadowbox’s long-gone spinoff, 2Co’s Cabaret.

That’s not a bad thing, but it does make the title a tad misleading.

As at 2Co’s, the evening is a combination of songs, one-acts and monologues. Three of the theater pieces are by 2Co’s mainstay Don Nigro.

Of these, the best is Ballerinas, an atmospheric tale that stars Stacie Boord, Leah Haviland and Amy Lay as performers in a run-down dance hall. The other Nigro works, in descending order of interest, are Genesis, in which Eve (Michelle Daniels) remembers life in the Garden of Eden; and The Lost Girl, a metaphorical piece about—well, if you figure it out, let me know.

Better than all three is Martha King De Silva’s The Waiter, in which former flames Ivy (Haviland) and Andrew (David Whitehouse) are chagrined to learn they’ve each arranged to meet someone else at the same restaurant. Boord, Amy Lay and Anita McFarren are also featured in this gentle comedy about a romance that fizzled for reasons that aren’t completely clear.

Besides 8 Miles Wide, a couple of the musical numbers achieve the feminist brand of outrageousness promised by the show’s title: Bitch (sung by Lay) and Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves (sung by Boord and others). Both are fun and nicely done.

But other musical highlights are considerably less fierce. Steve Guyer is a smooth stand-in for Joe Cocker on You Are So Beautiful; Julie Klein’s rendition of The Mind of Love is accompanied by a wistful/lustful dance delicately delivered by Lay; and Boord gives what could be the vocal performance of the year on When a Man Loves a Woman.

Though all of this suggests a show that only occasionally is as provocative as its title, a few monologues and standup routines do help to nudge it back into envelope-pushing territory.

The scariest of these, performed by Klein and based on “Being That Woman” by Morgan Moss, explains the difference between a “bitch” and a “crazy bitch” and speaks admiringly of Lorena Bobbitt. It might be easier to enjoy if Klein delivered it as a character rather than as herself—otherwise, you can’t help wondering if someone shouldn’t frisk her for sharp objects.

But I suspect the evening’s most outrageous act is the Nickey Winkelman standup routine that launches Act 2. I can’t say for sure because Winkelman was unfortunately absent on the night I was there, but her online videos suggest that her presence would go a long way toward making the show as vagtastic as its title.

Viva Vagina will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays through July 11 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $30, $20 for students and seniors. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.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.

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.