Reviews

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.