Timely revue pays homage to groundbreaking artists

Leah Haviland, Nick Wilson, Noelle Grandison, Nikki Davis and Guillermo Jemmott (from left) in Evolutionaries: The Stories and Music of David Bowie and Prince, opening this week at Shadowbox Live (Photo by Buzz Crisafulli)
Leah Haviland, Nick Wilson, Noelle Grandison, Nikki Davis and Guillermo Jemmott (from left) in Evolutionaries: The Stories and Music of David Bowie and Prince (Photo by Buzz Crisafulli)

By Richard Ades

Shadowbox Live has created a new art form of sorts with its musical tribute shows. Past efforts and the musicians they celebrated include Mad Dog and Englishman (Joe Cocker), Which One’s Pink? (Pink Floyd) and Bigger Than Jesus (the Beatles).

The current Evolutionaries differs from its predecessors by celebrating two artists, Prince and David Bowie, both of whom were lost prematurely in 2016. Otherwise, it follows the established pattern by offering great music accompanied by dancing, vintage video footage and enlightening tidbits of information.

With two groundbreaking careers to cover, Evolutionaries could well have run much longer than its two hours and 15 minutes. One way that director Julie Klein and head writer Jimmy Mak keep it to a comfortable length is by limiting the biographical material to short statements delivered by narrator Michelle Daniels. Through these we learn, for instance, that Prince suffered from epileptic fits as a child and that young Bowie dreamed of becoming the British Elvis.

More generally, Daniels points out that Prince and Bowie shared a fluid attitude toward gender and sexuality. In Bowie’s case, his whole identity seemed to be in a continual state of flux, as reflected by Ziggy Stardust and other alter egos who emerged onstage over the years.

Another way the show avoids overstaying its welcome is by restricting itself to the songs that are considered indispensable. No doubt some fans will complain that this or that favorite was left out, but those that were included add up to an entertaining synopsis of two revolutionary careers. Among the many highlights:

When Doves Cry (Prince), sung by Stacie Boord and featuring one of several screaming guitar solos by Matthew Hahn.

Changes (Bowie), featuring honey-sweet vocals by Boord and one of several glorious saxophone solos delivered at alternate performances by Jonathan Weisbrot and Kevin O’Neill.

Ziggy Stardust (Bowie), sung by Gabriel Guyer in the guise of the strutting interplanetary traveler.

Electric Chair (Prince), with lead vocals by Noelle Grandison, a funky guitar solo by Brent Lambert and a wild finish.

Let’s Go Crazy (Prince), a gospel-style number sung by Boord and featuring orgasmic “organ” riffs pounded out by keyboardist Kevin Patrick Sweeney.

Dance moves choreographed by Katy Psenicka provide the perfect visual accompaniment to many numbers. During Bowie’s Let’s Dance, Nikki Davis and Nick Wilson sample vintage dance styles ranging from the Charleston to disco. Later, a blindfolded Guyer sings Bowie’s Lazarus while wandering through a group of graceful but equally blindfolded dancers.

In the funniest number, four preening “models” (Davis, Wilson, Guillermo Jemmott and Eryn Reynolds) vie for our approval while Guyer sings Bowie’s Fame.

Video images edited by David Whitehouse also play a prominent role. The most somber sequence assaults us with scenes from wars, riots and other acts of violence while Boord sings Prince’s Sign o’ the Times.

Timely and informative, Evolutionaries is a heartfelt gift to Bowie and Prince fans, and an opportunity for everybody else to appreciate what we’ve lost.

Evolutionaries: The Stories and Music of Prince and David Bowie continues through May 25 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. select Wednesdays and Thursdays. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (including intermission). Tickets: $25, $20 students/seniors/military. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Comedy offers horrific orgy of sex, blasphemy and puppetry

Jason (Danny Turek), a teenager possessed by his demonic hand puppet, threatens Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam) in Short North Stage’s production of Hand to God. (Photo by Jason Allen)
Jason (Danny Turek), a teenager possessed by his demonic hand puppet, threatens Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam) in Short North Stage’s production of Hand to God. (Photos by Jason Allen)

By Richard Ades

Hand to God has moments of hilarity, along with moments of horror. It starts, though, with a moment of disorientation.

Because set designer Bill Pierson has reconfigured the Garden Theater’s Green Room to resemble a church rec room, and because guests are handed a “church bulletin” on their way in, they may be unprepared for what happens next. A puppet appears on the “stage” of a miniature theater set up on one side of the room. But rather than offer the expected Christian message, he begins talking about “extracurricular fucking” and other things that are bad but “unavoidable.”

This, we learn, is Tyrone, and he’ll be saying and doing things that are even more outrageous before the show is over. Is he the devil, or is he simply a manifestation of a teenage boy’s inner thoughts and desires? That’s one of the questions playwright Robert Askins raises in his religion-taunting comedy.

The sacrilegious fun starts in earnest when we meet the flesh-and-blood characters who come into contact with Tyrone (and lose a little flesh and blood in the process).

Jessica (Kate Lingnofski) is a recently widowed mom who is supervising a puppet-making project at the Pilgrim Lutheran Church in Cypress, Texas. Taking part in the project are teenagers Margery (Barbara Weetman) and Timothy (Chad Goodwin), along with Jessica’s son, Jason (Danny Turek). Overseeing it all is Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam), who hopes the puppets will be used to spread the Gospel.

Thanks to Tyrone, that never happens. Created by Jason and attached more or less permanently to his left hand, the puppet appears to have a mind of his own. And what a disturbing mind it is—by Texas Lutheran standards, at least. He insists on blurting out thoughts that the shy and conflicted Jason would prefer to keep private, such as his carnal feelings toward Margery. Saddled with what amounts to a dual role, Turek does an admirable job of switching back and forth between the put-upon Jason and his vicious alter ego.

Jessica (Kate Lingnofski) watches as Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam) confronts an amorous Timothy (Chad Goodwin).
Jessica (Kate Lingnofski) watches as Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam) confronts an amorous Timothy (Chad Goodwin).

Working under Edward Carignan’s exuberant direction, the other cast members perform at the same high level. Weetman makes Margery an appealing combination of sweetness and pluck, while Putnam gives Pastor Greg a believable blend of human fallibility and heroic strength. As the frustrated Jessica and the hormone-driven Timothy, Lingnofski and Goodwin create big laughs while acting out an encounter that is aggressively kinky and probably illegal.

My only quibble with Askins’s comedy is that it tries too hard to be outrageous. OK, I can buy that Bible Belt Christians have secret frustrations and desires that sometimes lead them into unspeakable acts, but would they really drop so many F-bombs in the process? That’s a minor point, though.

Overall, the show is a provocative delight. As a bonus, it even leaves viewers with a final thought from Tyrone that gives them something to mull over on the way home.

Short North Stage will present Hand to God through March 5 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday (no 3 p.m. show Feb. 25), and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $30. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

Musical mermaid yearns for love in Disney do-over

Diana Huey as Ariel in the touring production of The Little Mermaid, presented by Broadway in Columbus and CAPA (Photo by Mark & Tracy Photography)
Diana Huey as Ariel in the touring production of The Little Mermaid, presented by Broadway in Columbus and CAPA (Photos by Mark & Tracy Photography)

By Richard Ades

In mythic lore, mermaids were seductive creatures whose haunting voices lured sailors to their deaths. In modern times, The Little Mermaid lured Disney to one of its rare stumbles: a 2008 Broadway musical that failed to reclaim the magic of the company’s 1989 animated flick. The production garnered so-so reviews and sank a year and a half later.

Now, in a salvage operation consisting of a complete overhaul, Disney has relaunched the tale in a touring show that corrects most of the original production’s faults. It’s still no Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, but it’s a likable show that should keep parents and their young princes and princesses entertained.

Directed by Glenn Casale, the show uses cables and Kenneth Foy’s modest but attractive scenery to re-create the title character’s underwater world. The cables allow Ariel (Diana Huey) and others to “swim” through the domain ruled by her father, King Triton (Steve Blanchard). In scenes set at the surface or edge of the ocean, they allow her feathered friend Scuttle (Jamie Torcellini) to “fly.”

Though much has changed in the way the tale is told, the basic plot remains the same: Ariel is a teenage mermaid who has long been fascinated by humans despite her father’s claim that they’re barbarians who murdered her mother. Her fascination blossoms into a full-blown crush when she spies the seagoing Prince Eric (Matthew Kacergis) and subsequently saves his life when he falls overboard in a sudden storm.

Determined to meet the handsome Eric (who was unconscious when she pulled him from the sea), she makes a Faustian bargain with her evil aunt, Ursula (Jennifer Allen): Ariel will become human, but she will forfeit her soul unless she can persuade the prince to kiss her within three days. In addition, she will immediately lose her voice. That’s unfortunate for her, because Eric has fallen in love with the singing voice he heard before the storm and is determined to find and marry its owner.

Jennifer Allen as the villainous Ursula
Jennifer Allen as the villainous Ursula

Though The Little Mermaid lacks the emotional depth of the best Disney musicals, it partially makes up for it by throwing in a boatload of humor. Scuttle’s misuse of the English language is a bit forced, but Allen’s tentacled and self-amused Ursula is good for chuckles. Funnier still is a scene in which a French chef (Dane Stokinger) prepares a meal by smashing deceased sea creatures with various kitchen utensils.

As Ariel, Huey is most successful at portraying the humorous side of puppy (guppy?) love, especially after the mermaid transforms into a human. In the sea, she’s often overshadowed by the more colorful characters around her, but on land, she’s amusingly awkward as Ariel struggles to deal with an unfamiliar body and emotions. (It’s probably unnecessary to point out that the former mermaid’s struggles symbolically parallel what the average girl goes through during her teen years.)

Despite the emphasis on comedy, The Little Mermaid’s biggest strengths are the tunes penned by composer Alan Menken and lyricists Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater. Sebastian (Melvin Abston), a crab who becomes Ariel’s protector, makes the most of two popular holdovers from the movie: Under the Sea and Kiss the Girl. Huey’s lovely voice soars on Ariel solos such as Part of Your World, while Kacergis displays the production’s strongest pipes on Eric’s numbers Her Voice and One Step Closer.

One element of the plot could use further honing: The inevitable happy ending comes about thanks to a sudden development that left both me and my date scratching our heads. Otherwise, The Little Mermaid—both the title character and the revised telling of her story—offers an inspiring lesson on the value of perseverance.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Disney’s The Little Mermaid through Sunday (Feb. 5) at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $29-$94. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, broadway.columbus.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Sexy skits remain funny through the final punchline

Brandon Anderson as Funk Daddy Love in a skit from Body Heat (Shadowbox Live photo)
Brandon Anderson as Funk Daddy Love in a skit from Body Heat (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

Are sex and romance the best antidotes for the post-holiday blahs? Shadowbox Live seems to think so, as it always starts out the new year with the theatrical equivalent of a roll in the hay. Accordingly, the new Body Heat theme show holds forth with nearly two hours’ worth of heavy-breathing skits and songs.

Is the show sponge-worthy, as Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes might ask? Yes, thanks to three laudable attributes: (1) Some of the skits are pretty clever. (2) Some of the songs are dynamite. And (3) Funk Daddy Love is back!

For me, the last attribute may be the most important. The singer, played with satirical relish by Brandon Anderson, specializes in songs that attempt to stimulate listeners’ libidos with the help of lyrics that are to subtlety what Donald Trump is to diplomacy.

In Funk Daddy’s current skit, Funk Your Brains Out, the singer promotes such sexually explicit hits as Blew Velvet. “Velvet is the name of my penis,” he helpfully explains. Obviously, you have to have a taste for raunchy humor to appreciate this sort of thing, and apparently I do. Funk Daddy Love cracks me up.

You know what else cracks me up? Skits that are funny right up until the ultimate punchline. If you’ve been to many Shadowbox theme shows, you know the troupe doesn’t always pull that particular rabbit out of the hat, but this time it usually succeeds.

A few skits even have final twists that are as surprising as they are amusing. One of the best is Win Her Back, in which a teacher (Nikki Fagin) wraps up a “Romance 101” course by instructing her male students on how to save their relationship when they inevitably screw up. Another is Promposal, a cute piece about a high-schooler (Jimmy Mak) who’s sure he’ll never land a date to the prom unless he spends big bucks on an extravagantly creative invitation.

Also boasting a twist of sorts, but funnier for what happens before it, is Pro Pickup. It features Tom Cardinal and Amy Lay as sports-style commentators describing the interpersonal action during Ladies Night at a popular meat market. Key characters include the hapless Trent (Jamie Barrow), the out-for-a-good-time Krista (Nikki Davis) and the late-arriving Bill “The Bullet” (Guillermo Jemmott), a former player who’s returning to the singles scene after being “released from his contract.”

In between the winners, there are the usual misfires. They include Office Romance, in which recurring character Johnson (Julie Klein) tries to find out what secret admirer sent her flowers. This one has a twist, too, but it’s as so-so as the rest of the piece.

As for the night’s final skit, Shake Your Whole, it could be described as DOA—that is, Depends on Alcohol. If you’ve had a few drinks, you’ll have a better chance of enjoying this latest confrontation between suburbanites Dick and Betsy Anderson (Mak and Katy Psenicka) and South Siders Puck Ducky and Misty Duck (David Whitehouse and Lay). Besides a few provocative variations on yoga positions, there’s not a lot going on.

Music-wise, the show gets off to an appropriate start with Do You Wanna Touch Me. It’s lustily sung by Fagin, who also handles the lead vocals on an even sexier later number, I Get Off. A sultrier kind of sexiness comes across in Strange Face of Love, sung by Klein with her usual consummate skill.

One of the biggest musical surprises—and not in a good way—is the Robert Palmer hit Addicted to Love. Lead vocalist Cardinal and the house band usually excel at cover songs, but their rendition this classic is, well, less than classic. Not helping is the decision to spoof the iconic Palmer video by having two of the robotic backup dancers played by men in drag. Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching a lot of Transparent lately, but this kind of humor is starting to seem passé.

Much funnier is Shadowbox’s take on the Lonely Island/Saturday Night Live music video I Just Had Sex. The rapped and sung lyrics are performed with nerdy awkwardness by Lay, Barrow, David Whitehouse and Joey Ahern.

Wrapping up both the first and second acts, Anderson sets aside his Funk Daddy Love character to deliver the lead vocals on Bruno Mars’s 24K Magic and James Brown’s Sex Machine. Both are great.

Body Heat continues through March 18 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Holiday show enhanced by ASL interpretation

By Richard Ades

Stephanie Shull, Julie Klein and Stacie Boord (from left) return as the Santa Babies in Holiday Hoopla, opening Thursday at Shadowbox Live (Shadowbox Live photo)
Stephanie Shull, Julie Klein and Stacie Boord (from left) return as the Santa Babies in Holiday Hoopla. (Shadowbox Live photo)

I lucked out. When I finally had time to catch Holiday Hoopla 2016, I arrived on a night when talented Columbus State students were offering American Sign Language interpretation.

It was beautiful effort. Not content to have a single interpreter gesticulate from the side of the stage, Shadowbox Live and Columbus State had worked out something far more elaborate. During the sketches, nearly every character was represented by a separate interpreter who took on that person’s personality while signing his or her lines. During the songs, interpreters swayed gracefully with the music while signing lyrics that even hearing patrons sometimes had trouble picking out.

If you want to see what Hoopla is like with sign interpretation, the service will be offered again at 7:30 Wednesday, Dec. 14. (Hearing-impaired patrons receive a $10 discount.)

Obviously, sign interpretation is most valuable for those who rely on it to understand the action, but I enjoyed it as a variation on a show that has been sticking to the same format for most of the past quarter century. Even without the interpretation, though, this Hoopla has much to recommend it.

Yes, most of the songs have been repeated annually for years, but they’ve become such an integral part of this local tradition that leaving them out would be unthinkable. A jazzy Merry Christmas Baby (sung by Stacie Boord), a bleak Hounds of Winter (sung by Leah Haviland), a forlorn The Old Man (sung by Stev Guyer): All are as gorgeous as they are indispensable.

Most important of all are the rousing instrumental Christmas in Sarajevo and the gospel-like Children Go Where I Send Thee. My only comment on the latter is that this year’s version could be even bigger, with still more singers added as it builds to its soul-stirring finale.

A TV host (Guillermo Jemmott, left) is shocked to hear a guest (Jimmy Mak) expound on why he believes Santa is an alien. (Shadowbox Live photo)
A TV host (Guillermo Jemmott, left) is shocked to hear a guest (Jimmy Mak) expound on why he believes Santa is an alien. (Shadowbox Live photo)

Among the skits, there are the expected duds and near-duds. One of them is the first, Your Own Personal Santa, in which a neighborhood meeting turns into a gripe session on parents’ odd Christmas traditions. Better is the following skit, Ancient Aliens, in which an eccentrically coifed Jimmy Mak shares his theory that Santa Claus is capable of superhuman feats because he actually hails from another planet.

In general, the sketches get better as the show goes on, particularly after intermission.

The Firstest Christmas, in which elementary-school kids present a musical depiction of the holiday’s roots, improves on a familiar Shadowbox theme by adding a satirical edge. Because they’re students at a Montessori school that refuses to rein in children’s creativity, teacher Mrs. Boddington (Katy Psenicka) is helpless to object when the kids stray from biblical accuracy. For instance, they have Mary (Haviland) arrive at the stable riding a certain red-nosed reindeer rather than a donkey. And, oh yes, the stable is located, not in Bethlehem, but at the North Pole.

More satire is invoked in Xmas Do Not Play List, about a radio disc jockey (David Whitehouse) who’s ordered to stop playing a slew of familiar Christmas tunes for fear they’ll offend viewers with precariously thin skins.

A series of short skits is built around a fictitious line of Hallmark “Honesty” cards that replace generic greetings with messages tailored to very specific—and very unpleasant—situations. Like the show as a whole, these get better as they go along.

As always, the Santa Babies (Julie Klein, Stephanie Shull and Boord) finish things off with their kitschy lounge act. Highlights include a seasonally adjusted and beautifully harmonized version of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, a dry-land synchronized swimming routine and the It’s Raining Men finale.

Then there’s the inevitable moment when they drag a male customer onstage in a suggestive routine that’s been repeated with nary a variation for the last 25 years. Watching this has long since become a tedious ordeal for me, but everyone else at the performance I attended seemed to be busting a gut.

One more tradition we can expect to return in Holiday Hoopla 2017.

Holiday Hoopla continues through Dec. 30 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. select Mondays-Thursdays, 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. select Fridays-Saturdays. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Terrified prisoner seeks help from cinematic heroine

kiss-of-the-spider-woman-molina-and-valentin-argue

Molina (Scott Hunt, left) has an uneasy relationship with cellmate Valentin (Joe Joseph), a leftist revolutionary, in Short North Stage’s production of Kiss of the Spider Woman (photo by Jason Allen)

By Richard Ades

Molina prefers fantasy to reality. Small wonder: As a gay man living in a South American dictatorship in the 1970s, he’s too shy and scared to act on his romantic desires.

One of his fantasies involves his fevered friendship with Gabriel, a straight man who can’t give him the love he craves. Mostly, though, his fantasies revolve around Aurora, a movie star who embodies the feminine grace and beauty he tries to re-create in his job as a department-store window dresser.

Then Molina is thrown into prison on the trumped-up charge of making advances on an underage male. It soon becomes evident he’s being pressured by the warden to glean information out of Valentin, the leftist revolutionary who shares his cell. After avoiding reality all his life, Molina suddenly finds himself in a horrifying dilemma that not even fantasies of his beloved Aurora can block out.

Kiss of the Spider Woman is based on a novel by Manuel Puig that previously inspired a 1983 stage play and a 1985 movie starring William Hurt and Raul Julia. The stage musical—with book by Terrence McNally, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb—opened on Broadway in 1993 and won that year’s Tony for best musical.

After seeing the film, the play and the musical, I still find the film the most moving interpretation of the story. But Short North Stage’s production of the musical, directed by Michael Licata (who also helmed 2015’s wonderful A Little Night Music), is impressive on several levels.

Scott Hunt gives a relatable portrayal of the in-over-his-head Molina and backs it up with a beautiful singing voice. Joe Joseph is macho but vulnerable as Valentin and also displays strong pipes, especially in an Act 1 lament about Marta, the woman he loves.

As Aurora, the movie star who dominates Molina’s fantasies, Eli Brickey often is required to sing while swinging (upside down, even) from a suspended sash. Though she aces this dizzying task, at other times her breathy voice seems stretched by the role’s vocal demands. She also projects less glamour than one would expect from such a fantasy figure, though she has no trouble projecting a satirical take on glamour, as she does during a Betty Boop-style number in Act 2.

Movie queen Aurora (Eli Brickey) performs with dancers (from left) Edgar Lopez, James Schoppe, Kevin Ferguson and Patrick Carmichael. (photo by Jason Allen)
Movie queen Aurora (Eli Brickey) performs with dancers (from left) Edgar Lopez, James Schoppe, Kevin Ferguson and Patrick Carmichael. (photo by Jason Allen)

Key supporting roles are nicely handled by Todd Covert as the manipulative warden; Alex Armesto and Amari Ingram as the abusive prison guards; James Schoppe as Molina’s friend, Gabriel; Danielle Grays as the sexy but unreliable Marta; and Linda Kinnison Roth as Molina’s loving mother.

Visually, the production boasts a weathered-looking two-story set designed by Jason Bolen. Though not lit as dramatically as it might be by Adam Zeek, it allows the action to skip effortlessly between terrifying reality and the musical fantasy sequences that represent the inner workings of Molina’s troubled mind.

Speaking of those fantasy sequences, they benefit from Edward Carignan’s playful and sometimes kitschy choreography and are ably accompanied by musical director Philip Brown Dupont and his mighty backstage band.

As a final bonus, every word of dialogue and lyrics comes through clearly, not the easiest feat in the Garden Theater’s acoustically challenging auditorium.

Add all this to the fact that this is the area premiere of Kander and Ebb’s award-winning work, and the show becomes a top priority for fans of musical theater.

Short North Stage will present Kiss of the Spider Woman through Nov. 20 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$42. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

Tending a plant that won’t take ‘no’ for an answer

Seymour (Lukas Tomasacci) hopes his newly discovered plant will help him win over his beloved Audrey (Edelyn Parker). (Shadowbox Live photo)
Seymour (Lukas Tomasacci) hopes his newly discovered plant will help him win over his beloved Audrey (Edelyn Parker). (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

Skid Row isn’t the best location for a flower shop. That’s the conclusion store owner Mr. Mushnik (Tom Cardinal) reaches following a sales-less day in Little Shop of Horrors.

Luckily, store clerk Seymour (Lukas Tomasacci) discovers a mysterious plant that soon has customers flocking to their door. Well, maybe “luckily” isn’t the right word, since Seymour quickly learns that the plant thrives only when it gets a steady supply of its favorite food: human blood.

Based on a low-budget 1960 film, the stage musical opened off-off-Broadway in 1982 but was soon transplanted to Broadway, where it bloomed into a five-year hit. Its success is mostly due to the sparking collection of rock, pop and blues songs written by lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, the team behind Disney’s The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.

Though obviously darker than those family-friendly flicks, the musical shares a seed of humanity and a sense of fun that prevent it from becoming too macabre.

At Shadowbox, it’s hardly surprising that director Stev Guyer and his cast have no trouble with the musical numbers. The vocals are both strong and expressive, never allowing the characters’ personalities to get lost in the melodic underbrush. Accompanying them is a four-piece band that has a feel for the music, which often sounds like a holdover from rock’s innocent early years.

Between songs, the production mostly hits the right dramatic and comic notes.

Tomasacci wins our sympathy as Seymour, an orphan who was taken in by Mr. Mushnik as a child. As a result of his gratefulness and low self-esteem, Seymour feels unworthy of demanding better treatment from the employer who underpays and overworks him. And he feels even less worthy of the woman he secretly worships, fellow clerk Audrey (Edelyn Parker).

For her part, Audrey has even lower self-esteem, to the extent that she puts up with constant abuse from her sadistic dentist/boyfriend, Orin (Jamie Barrow). Parker plays Audrey as a stereotypical bimbo but with an undercurrent of longing that becomes palpable in the wistful ballad Somewhere That’s Green. Unfortunately, Parker adds a veneer of stagy melodrama by striking poses straight out of the silent-film era. It’s a puzzling choice that undercuts an otherwise sympathetic portrayal.

As Orin, the nitrous oxide-addicted dentist who’s never happy unless he’s making Audrey or his patients miserable, Barrow is like a less-scary version of Dennis Hopper’s maniac in Blue Velvet. He’s amusing, but a bit more menace would make him a better villain.

Then again, when it comes to menace and villainy, it would be hard to beat the bloodthirsty plant that Seymour names Audrey II. Depicted by puppets of ever-increasing sizes, it’s voiced by Billy DePetro in raucous tones that suggest an evil radio deejay.

Helping to establish the neighborhood’s rundown character are a mostly silent wino (Brandon Anderson) and three spunky “urchins” (Noelle Grandison, Nikki Fagin and Ashley Pearce). The latter serve as a streetwise Greek chorus, commenting from the sidelines and occasionally breaking into song.

Watching a scene in which Seymour contemplates committing murder to feed the insatiable Audrey II, some may be reminded of a similar scene from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, which a couple of local troupes revived in the spring. Though otherwise completely different, both musicals sport bloody plots driven by love: love lost in Sweeney Todd and love desired in Little Shop of Horrors.

That fertile bit of humanity, along with the hummable tunes, keeps Ashman and Menken’s cult hit from withering away on its farcical vine.

Little Shop of Horrors will be presented through Nov. 27 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 2 and 7 p.m. select Sundays (no shows Nov. 6 or 20), plus 2 p.m. Dec. 3, 10 and 17. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 students/seniors. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Tony-winning portrait of a flawed man

Troy Maxson (Mujahid Abdul-Rashid, right) shares a conversation with co-worker Bono (Victor Little) and wife Rose (Rita Gregory) in an early scene from Fences. (photos by Jason Allen)
Troy Maxson (Mujahid Abdul-Rashid, right) shares a conversation with co-worker Bono (Victor Little) and wife Rose (Rita Gregory) in an early scene from Fences. (photos by Jason Allen)

By Richard Ades

Troy Maxson, a black man who collects trash for the city of Pittsburgh in the 1950s, is a combustible mixture of pride and anger. In many ways, that’s good.

At work, it allows him to question the assumption that only white guys get the relatively cushy job of driving the truck. But at home, it sometimes complicates his relationship with his wife and sons.

Troy is a complex man, and it will be interesting to see what Denzel Washington does with the role (which he’s already played on Broadway) when a film version of August Wilson’s Fences comes out in December. Meanwhile, we get to see what Mujahid Abdul-Rashid does with the part at Short North Stage.

Directed by Mark Clayton Southers—the main force behind the troupe’s yearlong August Wilson Festival—this is a handsomely mounted production. Edward Carignan’s scenic design is a realistic depiction of the Maxsons’ yard, complete with a two-story brick house and massive tree. Mark Whitehead’s sonic design adds realistic ambient sounds.

Against this backdrop, the cast gives gutsy and naturalistic performances, even if they don’t always gel is the most dramatically effective way.

Abdul-Rashid is solid as Troy, who is stern toward teenage son Cory (Taylor Moses), sarcastic with perpetually broke older son Lyons (Bryant Bentley) and affectionate but dictatorial toward wife Rose (Rita Gregory). As the breadwinner, he expects his word to be law.

Troy (Mujahid Abdul-Rashid, left) has a guilt-ridden relationship with his brother, Gabriel (Lawrence Evans), who was seriously wounded fighting in World War II.
Troy (Mujahid Abdul-Rashid, left) has a guilt-ridden relationship with his brother, Gabriel (Lawrence Evans), who was seriously wounded fighting in World War II.

About the only time Troy relaxes is when he shares an after-work swig with friend and co-worker Jim Bono (Victor D. Little). And the only time he shows compassion is when he comes to the aid of addled brother Gabriel (Lawrence Evans), who hasn’t been the same since he suffered a head wound fighting in World War II. However, this compassion may stem from guilt as much as brotherly concern, as Troy was able to buy a house only because he appropriated the compensatory payment Gabriel received for his injury.

All of the cast members—including Faith Bean, who plays a late-arriving character—bring ample talent to the production. Yet at Thursday’s preview, the emotional nuances and crescendos sometimes failed to develop. And a key scene, which should have been a combination of sorrow and joy, seemed to ignore the former in favor of the latter.

Lengthy scene changes also weakened the work’s dramatic arc, especially when the accompanying music bore little relationship to what came before.

Despite such problems—many of which likely will recede over the course of the run—the production is sturdy enough to reveal why the play won both a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize after opening on Broadway in 1987.

Corey (Taylor Moss) picks up a bat in a confrontation with his father, Troy (Mujahid Abdul-Rashid).
Corey (Taylor Moss) picks up a bat in a confrontation with his father, Troy (Mujahid Abdul-Rashid).

Part of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle of plays about African-American life in the 20th century, Fences had its first performance in 1985, only one year after Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (which was presented by Short North Stage in the late spring). As a result, there are obvious similarities between the two, but there also are key differences.

The biggest is that Fences seems less self-consciously representative of African-American struggles. Troy, for example, complains that Major League Baseball’s old segregated ways kept him from pursuing a professional career in the sport, but it’s suggested that he was hampered by his age as much as his skin color, having spent 15 of his young-adult years in prison.

Fences is filled with social consciousness, but it’s primarily the tragic story of one flawed but very human man. By the end, we’ve gained enough understanding of the forces that shaped him that we can’t help mourning—not the man he’s become but the man he could have been.

Short North Stage will present Fences through Sept. 25 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$42. 614-725-4042 or shornorthstage.org.

In a world where men hide and women preside…

Shana Kramer, Cat McAlpine and Kyle Jepson (from left) in MadLab’s world premiere of Scritch Scritch by Christopher Lockheardt (photo by Michelle DiCeglio)

Shana Kramer, Cat McAlpine and Kyle Jepson (from left) in MadLab’s world premiere of Scritch Scritch by Christopher Lockheardt. (photo by Michelle DiCeglio)

By Richard Ades

Scritch Scritch is pretty enjoyable, if a bit puzzling.

Christopher Lockheardt’s world-premiere comedy begins as Rebecca (Kyle Jepson) is observing her 32nd birthday. While she and her mom (Mary Sink) celebrate, Rebecca mentions that she’d like to get married and have children, but she has no idea where to find a husband. Oddly, though most mothers with grownup children are eager to become grandmothers, Rebecca’s mom urges her to remain single.

Another puzzling development arises before the little party breaks up: Rebecca begs for stories about her long-lost father, but her mom refuses to talk about him.

The mystery deepens when Rebecca’s friend Daley (Shana Kramer) drops by, and the two hear the scratching sounds that give the show its title. Deciding Rebecca’s home has attracted a mouse, they call in an exterminator (Cat McAlpine), who quickly determines they have a much bigger problem: “You have a man in the house.”

In this world, it seems, men are considered pests who don’t fit in with society because of their dirty, noisy and annoying ways. Therefore, they must be trapped using lures such as beer and remote controls and “poisoned” with multivitamins, nutrition being lethal to their male constitutions.

But wait a minute, you’re probably asking yourself if you’re anything like I was at this stage in the play. Wasn’t Rebecca just saying she wants a husband but doesn’t know where to find one? Why, then, would she want to exterminate the presumably available man who’s taken up residence in her house?

The answer to this is something I didn’t figure out until later, so skip over the rest of this paragraph if you want to remain equally in the dark. Rebecca doesn’t know that husbands are men! Not only that, but she doesn’t know fathers are men, which becomes apparent much later.

There are a few things Mom (Mary Sink, right) hasn’t told her daughter (Kyle Jepson) about the facts of life. (photo by Michelle DiCeglio)
There are a few things Mom (Mary Sink, right) hasn’t told her daughter (Kyle Jepson) about the facts of life. (photo by Michelle DiCeglio)

The play is easier to understand once you know this, so I’m not sure why playwright Lockheardt wanted to keep it a secret. Or maybe he didn’t mean to but simply failed to make it clear.

At any rate, even if you don’t totally understand the peculiarities of the play’s female-centered society, you’ll catch on that Lockheardt is poking fun at male stereotypes such as their supposed love of drinking beer, eating junk food, playing loud music and generally making a mess. There’s nothing particularly original about these observations, and they don’t completely explain why they’ve made men pariahs. After all, Rebecca’s friend Daley has some of these same tendencies, proving that gender stereotypes don’t always hold true. Still, they’re good for a few chuckles.

Helping to sell the flawed script is a cast that gives punchy performances under Jim Azelvandre’s direction (with assistance from Becky Horseman). Jepson and Sink’s portrayals are enough alike that it’s easy to believe Rebecca and her mom are related. As the eccentric exterminator, McAlpine is humorously deadpan, and Kramer adds loads of energy as the fun-loving, wise-cracking Daley.

Though the play is a comedy, it does have some somber and even touching moments, especially toward the end. These are nicely handled by the cast and augmented by Rob Philpott’s lighting. As with the comic moments, they would be easier to appreciate if the mindset behind the play’s matriarchy were a little less confusing.

So how can a work this flawed be more or less enjoyable? Maybe it has something to do with the play and the production’s laidback nature and lack of pretentiousness. Since they don’t seem to take themselves that seriously, it’s hard to take their missteps all that seriously either.

Scritch Scritch continues through Sept. 3 at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $15, $13 students/seniors, $10 members. 614-221-5418 or madlab.net.

Fitzgerald’s Gatsby reborn as a dancing lesbian

The cast of Broken Whispers includes (clockwise from front): Miriam King as Daisy, Amy Lay as Gatsby, Nikki Fagin as Jordan, Robbie Nance as Nick and Andy Ankrom as Tom. (Shadowbox Live photo)
The cast of Broken Whispers includes (clockwise from front): Miriam King as Daisy, Amy Lay as Gatsby, Nikki Fagin as Jordan, Robbie Nance as Nick and Andy Ankrom as Tom. (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

Is it possible to sprain your hands by clapping too hard? I came close to doing that during Shadowbox Live’s new dance-centered drama, Broken Whispers.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Broken Whispers is Shadowbox’s take on The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s cautionary tale of envy and obsessive desire in the Roaring ’20s. Like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Fitzgerald’s masterpiece has come to define a troubling era. Just as Twain’s young narrator stands in for America’s conscience in slave-holding, pre-Civil War America, Gatsby narrator Nick Carraway serves as our conscience and guide in a decade marked by greed and irresponsible hedonism.

Does Shadowbox’s version match the brilliance and depth of Fitzgerald’s original? Not overall, but it reimagines the tale in a way that is brilliantly innovative.

Whispers differs from Gatsby in several ways, but the most obvious is that the title character has been changed from a man who made his fortune from bootlegging to a woman who made it from running a brothel. Despite this, it sticks remarkably close to Fitzgerald’s tragic plot.

Our guide and narrator remains Nick (Robbie Nance), a young man who’s struggling to establish a career selling bonds in New York. Though not rich himself, he’s pulled into the lives of the wealthy by his cousin, Daisy Buchannan (Miriam King), and her husband, Tom (Andy Ankrom), as well as Nick’s high-living neighbor, Gatsby (Amy Lay).

It’s through Daisy and Tom that Nick meets and starts a relationship with a woman named Jordan Baker (Nikki Fagin). And it’s through Gatsby that Nick becomes involved in a dangerous attempt to reclaim the past.

Gatsby once had a secret fling with Daisy, but it ended when Daisy married Tom. Now that Gatsby has made her fortune, she believes she can win Daisy back, especially since Tom is a serial cheater who often deserts her for his married mistress, Myrtle Wilson (Edelyn Parker).

Changing a beloved novel into a dance-centered stage piece, and changing the sex of its protagonist along the way, is a tricky endeavor. That director Stev Guyer accomplishes it so well is a tribute to the skill of his cast and many collaborators, especially choreographer Katy Psenicka, writer Jimmy Mak and music director Matt Hahn.

Gatsby (Amy Lay, left) gets reacquainted with the love of her life, Daisy (Miriam King). (Shadowbox Live photo)
Gatsby (Amy Lay, left) gets reacquainted with the love of her life, Daisy (Miriam King). (Shadowbox Live photo)

First of all, the cast is great, especially when it’s expressing itself through dance. Psenicka’s choreography is stellar throughout, but if I had to pick my favorite sequences, it would be the two that define the rekindled relationship of Lay’s Gatsby and King’s Daisy. At first they dance lithely and joyfully to the tune of Foo Fighters’ Everlong. Later, suggesting a more intimate encounter, they perform moves that are both athletic and sensual to the strains of Sade’s The Sweetest Taboo.

In addition to dance, the actors rely largely on facial expressions and posture to define their characters, who are given only minimal dialogue. For the most part, they succeed.

Nance easily communicates the discomfort Nick feels as he’s forced into one morally questionable situation after another. As Tom, the philanderer who sometimes puts him in those situations, Ankrom wears the personality of a man who assumes his gender and wealth allow him to walk over anyone to get what he wants.

Like her literary counterpart, Lay’s Gatsby is self-contained mystery whose main attribute is her optimism that her eternal love for Daisy will be vindicated. Meanwhile, Fagin’s Jordan—unlike her own literary counterpart, whose motivations are hard to pin down—emerges as an instigator who takes perverse pleasure in others’ misfortunes.

My main disappointment among the characterizations is that King’s Daisy doesn’t exhibit as much charm as she does in the novel, perhaps because Shadowbox’s adaptation eliminates the flirtatious dialogue with which Fitzgerald defines her. This Daisy mainly comes across as a victim of Tom’s unfaithfulness, making it easy to understand her susceptibility to Gatsby’s advances but hard to understand why Gatsby is devoted to her in the first place.

As for the music, it’s just as impressive as the choreography it accompanies. Surprisingly, Shadowbox has opted to use relatively recent cover songs rather than actual music from the 1920s, but the songs are cleverly arranged and performed in a way that makes them seem almost era-appropriate. In the first song, Muse’s Feeling Good, vocalist Stephanie Shull’s voice even seems to be amplified in a way that suggests the tinny sound equipment of the period.

Shull is just one of the many fine singers featured. Others include Julie Klein, Noelle Grandison, Stacie Boord, Lukas Tomasacci, Guyer and Kevin Sweeney, who holds forth while manning the band’s keyboard. All are impeccable, but the closest thing to a showstopper occurs when Leah Haviland accompanies a Tom-Myrtle dance duet with the gorgeous Radiohead lament Creep.

Remember when I wondered whether you can sprain your hands by clapping too hard? This is why.

Haviland also sings the lead vocals when the band gives an inspired performance of the familiar George Michael hit Careless Whisper. Keyboardist Sweeney leads his fellow musicians through abrupt changes of tempo and rhythm as Fagin and other dancers perform the Charleston at one of Gatsby’s wild parties. Amazing!

Amazing in general is the amount of sound that comes from leader/guitarist Hahn’s four-piece band, which also includes standup bassist Buzz Crisafulli and drummer Brandon “Dreds” Smith.

Behind the scenes, Aaron Pelzak’s dark lighting sets the proper mood, while images projected on a video screen establish the proper place, allowing the production to skip over scene changes. A quartet of costume designers clothe the characters appropriately and often beautifully.

Seeing Broken Whispers is no substitute for reading The Great Gatsby. For one thing, the show only hints at the class consciousness and envy that are at the heart of the novel. But there’s no reason why you can’t do both. In fact, knocking off the novel—something that can be accomplished in an afternoon—may well add to your appreciation of one of Shadowbox’s most remarkable achievements yet.

Broken Whispers continues through Nov. 10 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, plus 7 p.m. this Sunday (Aug. 28). Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 students/seniors/military. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.