Reviews

Restless teen has a ticket to ride

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

By Richard Ades

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

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

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

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

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect cast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simon’s homage to TV pioneers

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

By Richard Ades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shadowbox has a new theme; Red Herring has a new life

Nikki Fagin belts out a song in Taboo (photo courtesy of Shadowbox Live)
Nikki Fagin belts out a song in Taboo (photo courtesy of Shadowbox Live)

By Richard Ades

Appropriately titled Taboo, Shadowbox Live’s latest theme show is designed to raise people’s hackles. So it’s not surprising that one of its skits raised mine.

In Waiting for Paradise, Stacie Boord plays a Presbyterian who runs into a Catholic (Tom Cardinal) in heaven’s “waiting room” and insinuates that she’s more deserving of salvation because she’s a “true” Christian. Having been raised as a Presbyterian, I can tell you that’s very unlikely to happen. Presbyterians subscribe to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, which means they can take little credit for anything that happens to them. So how can they feel qualified to lord it over anyone?

But what really irks me is that Boord’s character is mislabeled to begin with. The Catholic insults her by charging that the only things Presbyterians need for baptism are a swimming pool and a pocket Bible. Wrong! You show me a Presbyterian who was baptized in a pool, and I’ll show you a Baptist.

Obviously, Shadowbox is confusing Presbyterians with another brand of Protestants who are all too often known for their “my way or the hell way” attitude.

This denominational error notwithstanding, Waiting for Paradise does make a valid point about religious intolerance. It just makes it a little too bluntly to be really funny. But that’s OK, because there are other skits here that are really funny.

One of the wittiest is Good Driver Discount, in which an attempt to diversify a commercial for car insurance keeps running into cultural stereotypes. Show a black guy eating at the wheel? Fine, but can we find him something to eat besides a bucket of fried chicken? And let’s not, by any means, suggest that Asian women are prone to accidents.

Also hilarious is Face to Facebook, though I hesitate to say why for fear of offending my Facebook friends. Suffice it to say that its targets include anti-Obama ranters, PC-minded carpers and parents who think every image of their newborn is deserving of Web-wide attention.

Several other skits are at least worthy of an appreciate chuckle. An example is Coming Out & Going Home, about a college student (Jimmy Mak) who has a potentially shocking announcement to make to his backwoods parents (Robbie Nance and Boord). The bit builds to a clever twist before petering off in a formulaic way.

The scattered video segments are similarly edgy, including Too Taboo, in which JT Walker III unwittingly reveals his encyclopedic knowledge of kinky sexual practices.

As for the songs, they’re both complementary and fun. Highlights include Don’t Stand So Close to Me (sung by Stephanie Shull), Face Down in the Dirt (sung by Boord) and Let’s Go Get Stoned (delivered by a soulful and bluesy Walker).

Starting it all off in an amusingly outrageous manner—if you’re lucky enough to attend one of the performances where he appears—is a standup routine by comedian Justin Golak. His act reaches its envelope-pushing zenith with a joke about Hitler, Beethoven and the Right to Life movement.

Many Shadowbox shows seem to be variations on each other. Taboo takes off in a whole new direction and makes the most of the virgin territory.

Taboo continues through June 8 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $30, $20 for students and seniors. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Watch out for that banana peel!

If you paid attention to the Columbus theater scene in the 1990s, you were familiar with Red Herring. Michael Herring’s troupe was responsible for some of the decade’s more offbeat offerings.

The company closed down soon after the turn of the millennium, and Herring left town in 2003. But now the actor/director appears ready to bring Red Herring back with the help of former collaborator John Dranschak.

The first glimpse of its rebirth is Krapp’s Last Tape, a semi-autobiographical one-man play by Samuel Beckett. Dranschak directs and Herring stars, appearing onstage for the first time since the early aughts.

His performance won’t surprise the average Red Herring alum. Playing a 69-year-old writer who revisits his youth with the help of boxes full of reel-to-reel audiotapes, Herring is physically precise and dramatically understated.

Long moments are spent shuffling back and forth between the tape recorder and the closet where Krapp stores his tapes—and his alcohol. An early gag involving a banana peel unfolds so slowly that you anticipate the payoff minutes before it actually happens.

Herring’s performance is impressive in its self-control, but some will find it too deliberate and repressed to be dramatically stimulating. Longtime theater fans will find it exciting in another way, though. Given what Herring and his troupe once meant to Columbus, seeing him onstage in 2013 is like watching a piece of history come back to life.

With any luck, that piece of history will morph into a harbinger of theater yet to come.

Red Herring Productions will present Krapp’s Last Tape at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday (April 4-6) at MadLab Theatre, 227 N. Third St. Running time: 50 minutes. Tickets: $20 in advance, pay what you want at the door. 614-723-1996 or redherring.info.

‘Dream play’ reflects a boomer’s worst nightmare

Simon (Nick Baldasare, right) tells his troubles to his therapist (Jeff Horst) in The Promised Land (Red Generation Photography)
Simon (Nick Baldasare, right) tells his troubles to his therapist (Jeff Horst) in The Promised Land (Red Generation Photography)

By Richard Ades

Simon can’t quite bring himself to go to work. He just can’t shake the premonition that something bad is about to happen.

As it turns out, his premonition is correct. His boss is getting ready to “restructure” him out of the job to which he’s devoted more than 20 years of his life.

Thus begins The Promised Land, a comedy about a baby boomer’s worst nightmare.

The one-act is the latest work from local playwright Bill Cook. Like Cook’s 2012 offering Love in an Age of Clamor, this is the story of a middle-aged man facing a sudden loss. At age 55—too early to retire but too late to be attractive to many employers—the financial analyst finds himself back on the job market.

Also like Clamor, The Promised Land is devised as a “dream play,” meaning it’s a fast-moving chain of events that don’t always resemble reality. There’s a subtle difference, though. Clamor was more or less surreal throughout, but The Promised Land has isolated moments of surrealism that are explained away as dreams or even hallucinations. The rest of the time, it’s more like a hyperactive version of real life.

Personally, I found the earlier approach more entertaining, but that’s partly because I’m a fan of surrealists such as 20th century Spanish director Luis Buñuel. Viewers who are more down-to-earth may feel otherwise.

In any case, both of Cook’s works share a playful approach that incorporates a slew of lively supporting roles. In the current production, Jeff Horst portrays all of them and makes the most of the opportunity. For instance, he incorporates witty bits of business as a potential employer who appears in two very different states of being—as a shot-downing bar patron and as his morning-after counterpart, who gulps down coffee like it’s crucial to his survival.

Director Joe Bishara also encourages Josie Merkle to stretch her acting muscles as Simon’s wife, especially during a (possibly) hallucinogenic scene in which she takes a job as a cocktail waitress.

As Simon, Nick Baldasare projects the appropriate amounts of confusion, terror and determination. He makes the job seeker a fairly sympathetic figure even though Simon doesn’t always behave in ways that will be relatable to many viewers. In particular, he exhibits an outdated patriarchal attitude toward Grace, as when she seeks to boost the household income by taking a job.

Add an ending that doesn’t quite wrap things up, and you have a play that fails to reach its full potential as a parable of contemporary paranoia. Fortunately, none of this prevents the comedy from scoring as a showcase for its talented cast.

A&B Theatricals will present The Promised Land at 8 p.m. today and Saturday (March 29-30) at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave. in Downtown Columbus. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. Tickets are $12, $8 for students. For reservations, visit brownpapertickets.com. For more information, visit ab-theatical.com.

DIY playwright returns with new ‘dream play’

Nick Baldasare (lying down), Jeff Horst and Josie Merkle in The Promised Land (Red Generation Photography)
Nick Baldasare (lying down), Jeff Horst and Josie Merkle in The Promised Land (Red Generation Photography)

By Richard Ades

More and more, creative types are refusing to let rejection hold them back.

Authors who can’t find a publisher are publishing their own books. Critics whose publications get shut out from under them are starting their own blogs. (Yes, that’s a situation I know well.)

Then there’s Bill Cook, Columbus State professor and fledgling playwright. When he was ready to stage an original comedy called Love in an Age of Clamor last year, he figured he might as well produce it—i.e., make the necessary arrangements and put up the money—himself. His reasoning was that it would be difficult to find a theater troupe that wanted to take a chance on a new work by an unknown playwright.

“If you do a work that’s already been done—you know, already has press, people know of it—it’s less risky to do,” he said.

So, rather than look around for a troupe that was willing to try something untried, he formed his own theater company and booked space at the Columbus Performing Arts Center. He even planned to direct the play himself, but then he ran into a snag: He couldn’t find a cast.

“I didn’t know any actors, and nobody showed up to the audition,” Cook said.

Luckily for him, the person in charge of managing the venue was Joe Bishara, associate artistic director of CATCO and an experienced thespian. Even more luckily, Bishara took an interest in the project.

“We ran into each other, and I said, ‘Hmm, nobody’s shown up,’” Cook recalled. “He said, ‘Well, let me see the script.’ And then he liked it, and so he decided to (direct) it.”

The upshot was that Love in an Age of Clamor was performed last spring, with Nick Baldasare leading a cast of three. It apparently was enough of a success that Cook and his company, A&B Theatricals, are now back with another original play called The Promised Land.

Opening tonight at CPAC, the play reunites director Bishara with leading man Baldasare. Filling out the cast are Josie Merkle as Baldasare’s wife and Jeff Horst as assorted other characters.

Another similarity to the previous work: Like Clamor, it’s a “dream play,” which means it unfolds with the not-quite-real logic of a dream.

“It’s a form that just comes naturally to me,” said Cook, 61. “(It allows me to) follow an idea rather than plotting in a conventional way.”

He added that it also allows him to move events along at a fast clip. “I like a lot of action in plays, whether they’re mine or others’,” he said.

Still another similarity to Clamor: In that play, Baldasare’s character lost his home and, possibly, his marriage. In this one, he loses his job.

Why is Cook so fascinated by the theme of loss?

“I think what I’m addressing is middle-class anxieties,” he said, mentioning fears of potential dangers such as unemployment or infidelity. “They lurk in the background of most people’s middle-class life.”

And all this adds up to a comedy? Yes, Cook said, though it’s a comedy “with a certain amount of pain in it, too.”

“I don’t think comedy precludes pain and desperation, or even the tragic,” he said. “Chekhov, right?”

And like Anton Chekhov, Cook has more than two plays in him. He’s already working on yet another dream play about yet another kind of loss.

“It’s about the ultimate middle-class nightmare, which is going to prison.”

A&B Theatricals will present The Promised Land March 22-30 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave. in Downtown Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. today and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Thursday through March 30. Tickets are $12, $8 for students. For reservations, visit brownpapertickets.com. For more information, visit ab-theatical.com.

Punk rock comes to the Palace

By Richard Ades

American Idiot begins with its title song, which tries to explain the alienation of the trio of teens at the show’s center by describing the mindset of post-9/11 America.

Johnny (Alex Nee, left) and the drug-pushing St. Jimmy (Trent Saunders) perform a number from American Idiot (photo by John Daughtry)
Johnny (Alex Nee, left) and the drug-pushing St. Jimmy (Trent Saunders) perform a number from American Idiot (photo by John Daughtry)

Unless you’re familiar with the Green Day concept album that inspired the show, however, you’ll probably miss the song’s point. It’s blasted out at a volume that renders most of the lyrics indecipherable.

But don’t worry. The time and setting aren’t all that important anyway. Johnny, Will and Tunny feel alienated for reasons that have more to do with youthful angst than with politics. If they’d lived in the 1950s, they would have been just as mad, though they probably would have expressed that anger with rockabilly rather than punk rock.

Another reason not to worry is that the bombastic opening eventually gives way to calmer songs that are easier to understand and relate to. Many of them are both catchy and beautiful, making them the show’s chief draw.

They’re certainly more rewarding than the plot, which sees the teens living up to the show’s title by making a series of moves that are as ill-conceived as they are generic.

Johnny (Alex Nee) moves to the big city and falls for the lusty Whatsername (Alyssa DiPalma), then undermines the relationship by becoming addicted to hard drugs under the tutelage of the charismatic St. Jimmy (Trent Saunders). Tunny (Thomas Hettrick) accompanies Johnny to the city but—apparently because he thinks women can’t resist a man in uniform—joins the Army just in time to get sent to Iraq.

Will wants to join his friends in the city, but he’s forced to stay behind after girlfriend Heather (Kennedy Caughell) announces she’s pregnant. Rather than embrace his new family, he tries to drown his disappointment in drink and drugs.

Nee, DiPalma and Saunders are particularly impressive, but all of the performers are committed and sport fine singing voices. The latter is important because this is a sung-through musical other than a few words of narration that Johnny delivers in the form of letters to his mother.

Michael Mayer directs the show, whose book he co-wrote with Green Bay’s Billie Joe Armstrong. Mayer also directed the 2010-11 Broadway version, which was up for the Tony for Best Musical but won only for scenic design and lighting.

Those elements are equally award-wordy in the touring production. Christine Jones’s stark scenery is highlighted by more than two dozen TV sets built into the walls. Kevin Adams’s lighting includes such dazzling special effects as cascades of ascending shadows.

Steven Hoggett’s choreography is characterized by violent head-banging. It turns graceful only when a wire-suspended Hettrick and Jenna Rubaii perform acrobatic moves several yards above the stage in Extraordinary Girl.

Though American Idiot is being presented as part of the Broadway in Columbus series, it’s hardly typical of the touring shows the group normally brings to town. Besides the loud rock and drug use, it includes an explicit sex scene. Add the generic characters and plot, and it’s easy to understand why several older patrons walked out during Tuesday’s opening-night performance.

Devotees of traditional musicals might feel as alienated as its leading characters, but those familiar with Green Day, punk rock and youthful angst will feel right at home.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present American Idiot through Sunday (March 24) at the Palace Theatre, 34 W. Broad St. Show times are 8 p.m. through Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. Tickets are $28-$78. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.

Death turns friends into DIY morticians

Sam (Michael Galusick) has to prepare deceased girlfriend Erin (Mary-Aileen St. Cyr) for burial in She’s Dead (photo by Andy Batt)
Sam (Michael Galusick) has to prepare deceased girlfriend Erin (Mary-Aileen St. Cyr) for burial in She’s Dead (photo by Andy Batt)

By Richard Ades

There are people in the world who enjoy Happy Endings. I know this because I used to work with such a person, who otherwise seemed fairly normal.

If you also like the ABC sitcom but feel it could use more (a) cussing, (b) pot smoking and (c) death, you might enjoy MadLab’s world-premiere production of She’s Dead.

Like Happy Endings, Joe Giordano’s extended one-act is about a group of friends who spend a lot of time dealing with each other’s problems. Unlike the TV show, She’s Dead particularly focuses on one problem that has no solution: Erin (Mary-Aileen St. Cyr), girlfriend of Sam (Michael Galusick), is dying.

Complicating the situation, Erin insists that her friends skip the funeral home and prepare her body for burial on their own. She also wants them to skip the cemetery, which means they have to find a place to bury her remains, hopefully without running afoul of the law in the process.

Did I mention that there’s cussing going on? Yes, there are F-bombs aplenty, but they’re really more like F-cluster bombs. (Warning: Here comes one.) When Sam is feeling justifiably sorry for himself, for instance, he holds forth with something like: “My fucking life is so fucking fucked! Fuck!”

And did I mention there’s pot smoking going on? There is. In fact, one gets the feeling that the friends are more stoned, more often, than they’re letting on. That would help to explain some of their behavior.

In a key scene set after Erin’s death, Sam attempts to follow her pre-issued instructions by stuffing cotton balls in her vagina, only to be greeted with a stream of urine. The mishap sends the entire group into a laughing jag, a reaction that’s hard to understand considering Sam has just lost his life partner and the rest have lost a dear friend.

If they’re all exceptionally high, the reaction might be slightly understandable. Even so, the scene comes off more like an old Cheech and Chong routine than like real life.

That’s the problem with She’s Dead: tone. It occasionally provides some good laughs (one thing, for me, that sets it apart from Happy Endings), but they too often come at the expense of the playwright’s attempts to insert a little heart into the proceedings.

Director Nikki Smith tries mightily to incorporate both the laughs and the heart, even stopping occasionally for a few seconds of mood music when it’s time to switch gears, but the spastically uneven script thwarts her. She does coax good performances out of the cast, however.

St. Cyr is especially impressive, making Erin an unexpectedly bubbly presence in the scenes set before her death. She’s also a believable corpse in the scenes set after her death (which alternate with the former in a flashback/flash-forward fashion).

As Sam, Galusick does a good job of carrying much of the play’s emotional baggage.

Playing Sam and Erin’s friends are Maria Ritchey as Addie; Brendan Michna as her perpetually confused husband, Brian; and Jay Hobson as their gay friend, Max—I mean, Mack. A tearful Randi Morgan also shows up occasionally as Erin’s mother.

Inserting a dollop of satire, Aran Carr and Erik Sternberger play Rose and Jack, respectively, in a bizarre revision of the movie Titanic that Sam is writing in an attempt to deal with his grief. Unfortunately, Giordano undermines that satire near the end, then tries to un-undermine it, offering further proof that She’s Dead is due for some revision before it returns to the stage.

She’s Dead will be presented at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through March 23 at MadLab Theatre & Gallery, 227 N. Third St. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. Tickets are $12, $10 for students and seniors, $8 for members. 614-221-5418 or madlab.net.

You probably weren’t there, but you’ll wish you were

Brandon Anderson (left) and Leah Haviland sing Mellow Yellow in a scene from Underland (photo by Mark Bealer)
Brandon Anderson (left) and Leah Haviland sing Mellow Yellow in a scene from Underland (Studio 66 photo)

By Richard Ades

I didn’t make it to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district until several years after the 1967 “Summer of Love.” By then, most of the flower children seemed to have disappeared.

What I found, instead, was dog poop. Mounds and mounds of dog poop, effectively turning the sidewalks into obstacle courses. It seemed that curbing your dog, much less picking up after it, was a foreign concept in this former capital of the counter-culture.

As a result of my tardy arrival at the Haight, I reacted to Shadowbox Live’s Underland much like I reacted to its earlier original musical, the Woodstock-based Back to the Garden. In each case, I was left with a feeling of wistful nostalgia—wistful because I hadn’t experienced either Woodstock or the Summer of Love. I only wished I had.

Written by Shadowbox’s Jimmy Mak, both musicals attempt to re-create a bygone era with the aid of a sketchy plot and memorable musical hits of the day. Both accomplish the task, but Back to the Garden did it a bit more successfully: The story was more compelling, and many of the rock songs were sung by facsimiles of the original performers, raising the fun quotient.

But Underland, directed by the always-inventive Stev Guyer, is impressive in its own right. It’s impossible not to enjoy a show that starts with If You’re Going to San Francisco, ends with A Whiter Shade of Pale and includes more than a dozen other classics in between. Music director Matt Hahn captures their original sound and spirit so effectively that suspicious patrons may think the performers are simply lip-synching to the originals. (They’re not, of course.)

Tying it all together is a plot that’s a mixture of Alice in Wonderland-inspired fantasy and wartime reality.

Albert (Robbie Nance), a vet who served as a sniper in Vietnam, arrives in the Haight in search of his missing daughter. His quest brings him into contact with local eccentrics such as Father William (JT Walker III), who doles out drugs along with spiritual guidance. More disturbingly, Albert encounters mystical characters seen only by him: the supportive Mouse (Edelyn Parker), the hyper-critical Cat (Amy Lay) and the gung-ho warrior Greenie (Tom Cardinal).

As Albert, a sincere Nance fulfills his main purpose, which is to anchor this return to a time and place that helped to define a decade. Still, his part is rather thinly written. More interesting than Albert’s search are the sights and sounds he encounters along the way.

The sights include the Diggers, a group of thespians who supplied the real-life Haight with both political satire and food. In Underland, they force Albert to take part in a skit involving a giant head representing LBJ.

But the sounds, in the form of ’60s rock hits, are the real backbone of Underland’s appeal. Oddly, the most fun of all is the laid-back Mellow Yellow, thanks to inspired performances by Brandon Anderson as an animated shopkeeper and Leah Haviland as his downer-addicted wife.

Among the most beautiful numbers is Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence, sung by Walker’s Father William and a series of strangers who wander by. Others include How Can I Be Sure, sung by Nikki Fagin with a rich voice that may remind you of Karen Carpenter.

Purists may complain about the way some classics are used. The Who’s I Can See for Miles, for example, is about an unfaithful lover, not about a struggle for battlefield survival. That said, Underland’s version, sung by Cardinal and accompanied by video images of wartime violence, does achieve a kind of surreal power.

A more serious complaint is that a couple of songs are cut off in the prime of life. It’s especially annoying that Respect ends just as vocalist Katy Psenicka and the band really start cookin’.

All will likely be forgiven by the time Julie Klein wraps up the show with a gorgeous rendition of Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale, but still. After waiting 46 years for Shadowbox’s take on the Summer of Love, we can certainly wait a few minutes more for it to come to an end.

Underland continues through May 19 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $30, $20 for students and seniors. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Dittohead with a grudge against the health-care system

By Richard Ades

Mercy Killers is a play with a message.

Playwright/actor Michael Milligan makes no attempt to hide that fact. And even if he did, the secret would be out as soon as you hit the ticket table and found it littered with handouts from a group called the Single-Payer Action Network.

The one-man play’s message is that America’s health-care system leaves people vulnerable to physical and financial ruin. And that’s true even if they have health insurance.

Fortunately, Ohio State alum Milligan is a thespian rather than a clergyman. As a result, the play is much more than a glorified sermon.

As Joe, a car mechanic who’s a fan of Rush Limbaugh, Milligan tells a tale involving a cancer-stricken wife and an insurance company that finds an excuse to bail as soon as the medical bills start piling up. It all unfolds in the form of a rambling statement made to an unseen police officer who suspects Joe of committing a serious crime.

The nature of that crime is unspecified until the end, but Milligan throws in enough foreshadowing to give it away to all but the most optimistic viewers. Despite this, all but the most hard-hearted audience members are likely to find themselves tearing up when the moment of truth finally arrives.

Up until then, the tale is slightly hampered by its structure. The play’s setup—not to mention the title—gives us no reason to believe things will go well. So when Joe relates the ups and downs of his relationship with his wife, Jane, we know better than to hope for the best.

It’s also not hard to see the author’s politically motivated thought processes at work: Joe is portrayed as a Limbaugh dittohead in order to give more weight to his eventual indictment of the health-care system.

But two things work in the play’s favor.

First, it’s filled with details that are both plausible and relatable. And second, Milligan is a very good actor, allowing him to breathe touching reality into what could have come off as a mere propaganda piece.

Will the Affordable Care Act, once it’s fully implemented, prevent tragedies such as the one that befalls Joe and Jane? Hopefully it will make them less likely, but Milligan and the group that’s helping to coordinate the show clearly feel more change is needed. For a look at what the group is advocating, visit spanohio.org.

For a refresher course on why the health-care system is in need of change, see Mercy Killers.

On the Verge Productions will present Mercy Killers through March 9 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave. Show times are 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Friday, 7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour. Free; donations encouraged. Mercykillerstheplay.com.

Artist’s biopic is less opaque than his work

By Richard Ades

If you want to get acquainted with artist Mark Rothko before seeing his exhibition at the Columbus Museum of Art, one way is to visit the National Gallery of Art’s website (http://www.nga.gov/feature/rothko/). It has a beautifully illustrated biography of the artist’s career.

It will help you to understand where all those nonrepresentational images and subtly modulated colors come from.

If you prefer a more dramatic (if less factual) introduction to the artist, CATCO’s production of Red fills the bill. John Logan’s 2010 Tony winner imagines that Rothko hired an assistant in 1958 and spent roughly two years lecturing him on art, history and philosophy.

Does an artist really need to know Nietzsche to create paintings that basically consist of rectangular blocks of color? Yes, according to Logan’s Rothko, if he wants those blocks to impart profound meaning to those who see it.

But then the question becomes: Will viewers understand all that profundity if they fail to approach it with a similar amount of knowledge and thoughtfulness? Rothko doubts that they will, one of many worries he shares with Ken, his assistant.

From an arts-history standpoint, Logan’s journey inside the head of a successful but self-tortured artist is fascinating. From a dramatic standpoint, it’s somewhat less so, in spite of good efforts from director Jimmy Bohr and his cast of two.

Kevin McClatchy communicates Rothko’s self-impressed and self-absorbed nature without turning him into a hateful caricature. Tim Simeone provides a convincingly evolving portrayal of Ken, whose worshipful timidity eventually gives way to wry comments on his boss’s eccentricities.

Despite Ken’s growth, the two men’s relationship is essentially static because the egotistical Rothko simply doesn’t care about him. “These paintings deserve compassion,” he says as a pre-emptive strike against critics. But he has none for Ken.

The play’s lack of dramatic development leaves it feeling talky at times, but it’s talky in a historically and artistically interesting kind of way.

Michael S. Brewer’s set is a realistic depiction of Rothko’s cavernous studio. Jarod Wilson’s lighting, like the lighting Rothko prefers for his exhibition spaces, is low enough to retain an air of mystery.

You may not come out of the play feeling like you know Rothko, but you’ll at least have an inkling of how much thought—and ego—went into those huge blocks of color.

CATCO will present Red through March 3 in Studio One, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $26-$41, $11.50 for Wednesday matinees. 614-469-0939, catco.org or ticketmaster.com.

“Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade 1940-1950” will be on display through May 26 at the Columbus Museum of Art, 480 E. Broad St. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday (evening hours extended to 8:30 p.m. on Thursday). Museum admission is $12, $8 students (18-plus) and seniors (60-plus), $5 for ages 6-17, free for children 5 and younger; free for all on Sunday. 614-221-4848 or columbusmuseum.org.