Otherworldly trip through a futuristic Africa

Cheryl Isheja as a transformed Neptune in Neptune Frost (Photos courtesy of Kino Lorber)

By Richard Ades

Neptune Frost may be the most mesmerizing film of recent years. It’s also one of the most beautiful. And, frustratingly, one of the most puzzling.

Set in a futuristic version of Rwanda, the sci-fi musical introduces us to Neptune (Elvis Nagabo), who cryptically announces through a narrator, “I was born in my 23rd year.” Then, while we’re still pondering that bit of information, the film switches its attention to Matalusa (Bertrand “Kaya Free” Ninteretse), who works in the local coltan mine. (Coltan is a mineral used in high-tech products, a fact whose significance soon becomes clear.)

After each of their lives is waylaid by an act of violence, Neptune and Matalusa separately take to the road and begin wandering through a countryside damaged by war and oppressed by authoritarianism. Eventually, they cross paths in an enclave of technologically minded rebels, but not before Neptune undergoes a transformation that leaves the masculine-looking individual looking decidedly more feminine (and played by a different actor, Cheryl Isheja).

The script by Saul Williams, who also composed the beautiful score, is obscure and sometimes blatantly symbolic. Characters with names such as “Memory” and “Psychology” discuss mysterious topics such as “binary crime theory” and make statements along the lines of “The motherboard is bleeding.” Furthermore, the standard greeting is “Unanimous goldmine,” and the standard answer to the everyday question “How are you?” is “Shining!”

All of this creates an eccentric world that might have been a chore for viewers to navigate if co-directors Williams and Anisia Uzeyman hadn’t filled the screen with hauntingly surreal and dreamlike images—and if composer Williams hadn’t punctuated the action with music that ranges from infectious rhythmic chants to ethereal ballads. Imaginative makeup, costumes and sets add to the otherworldly atmosphere.

Despite the ambiguities, it eventually becomes clear that the film has two overarching themes: It opposes the colonial-type exploitation that continues to plague Africa now that natural resources such as coltan have made it indispensable to modern technology. And it supports the freedom of every individual—including unconventional individuals such as the intersexual Neptune—to live the life they were meant to lead.

These themes add up to a moral structure that helps to ground the flick despite the fact that it doesn’t fit into any recognizable pattern.

As intriguing as it is, Neptune Frost is almost the definition of a film that’s not for everyone. For some, its refusal to explain itself makes it a frustrating challenge. But for those who are content to lose themselves in its unfamiliar world of images and sounds, it’s a fascinating journey.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Neptune Frost opens June 3 in New York and expands to other selected theaters June 10.

Musical remembers the day air travel came to a halt

Air passengers grounded by 9/11 discover Canadian hospitality in Come From Away. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

By Richard Ades

Sometimes you need a reminder that human beings are capable of kindness. Come From Away—a touring production of which is now playing Columbus’s Ohio Theatre—is just such a reminder.

The Irene Sankoff/David Hein musical is a breezy and heartwarming account of what happened in Gander, Newfoundland, following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

When commercial airlines were ordered to land their planes out of fear that more could be commandeered and turned into flying bombs, the small Canadian community was forced to accept 38 or them. That nearly doubled its population and presented it with the sudden need to feed and house 7,000 strangers, many of whom didn’t even speak English.

As the musical reveals, the Newfoundlanders responded with ingenuity and generosity, providing food, shelter, clothes and other necessities. Even more importantly, they made the waylaid passengers feel safe and welcome in a world that suddenly seemed more dangerous than ever.

Director Christopher Ashley, who won the musical’s sole Tony Award after it opened on Broadway in 2017, stages five days’ worth of events in a fast-paced production that seldom even stops for applause. It’s a marvel of efficiency thanks partly to Beowulf Boritt’s set and Howell Binkley’s lighting, both of which are versatile enough to allow locations and moods to be changed in the blink of an eye.

Adding to the efficiency are 12 busy cast members who portray a multitude of both locals and visitors with the help of costume tweaks and an array of accents. While this is essentially an ensemble piece, several characters and the actors who play them are given a chance to stand out. Among them:

• Janice (Julia Knitel), a newbie TV reporter who’s overwhelmed by what undoubtedly will be the biggest story of her career.

• Nick and Diane (Chamblee Ferguson and Christine Toy Johnson), an Englishman and Texan who turn to each other for friendship and perhaps more.

• Kevin T. and Kevin J. (Jeremy Woodard and Nick Duckart), a gay couple who stress over how open to be about their relationship in this isolated community.

• Hannah (Danielle K. Thomas), a passenger who’s desperate to learn whether her son, a New York firefighter, is safe.

• Bonnie (Sharone Sayegh), director of the area SPCA, who takes it on herself to seek out and care for the cats, dogs and other animals trapped in the cargo areas of the grounded planes.

Members of the band cut loose during one of the musical’s more raucous moments. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

Note: Bonnie’s real-life counterpart, Bonnie Harris, appeared at a local preview event late last year to help publicize Gander’s connection to Central Ohio. Namely, two of the endangered great apes known as bonobos (referred to in the play as “bonobo chimpanzees”) were among the animals, and one of them was a female destined for the Columbus Zoo. The audience greeted this bit of information with applause on opening night, accidentally covering up the additional announcement that the zoo named her first son “Gander” in honor of the town that had served as her temporary refuge.

Despite the musical’s strengths, it must be said that one point near the beginning seems briefly off. When Gander officials and residents learn of the Sept. 11 attacks, they instantly begin planning how to deal with the diverted flights. Considering what a shocking event 9/11 was for America and the world, didn’t anyone stop long enough to say, “Terrorists did what?” Overall, though, Come From Away does an admirable job of condensing five days’ worth of individual trauma and communal kindness into an inspiring and uplifting 100 minutes.  

And it does it with a collection of tunes that are nicely sung by the actors and energetically accompanied by the offstage band. Though the songs mainly serve the plot and characters and rarely stand out, they become more and more infectious as the evening goes on. Best of all is the Irish-flavored “Finale” that accompanies the final bows and continues long after the actors have left the stage.

In other words, don’t plan on making a quick exit.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Come From Away through Feb. 13 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes (no intermission). Tickets start at $39 and can be purchased at the CBUSArts Ticket Office (39 E. State St.), online at capa.com or by phone at 614-469-0939.

Maria soars, Moreno returns, Spielberg triumphs

Anita (Ariana DeBose), Bernardo (David Alvarez) and a host of others take to the street in a colorful dance number from West Side Story.

By Richard Ades

After a preview screening, critics usually clear the room as soon as the end credits start to roll. But after a recent screening of Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, several critics (including this one) remained in their seats. Either they were too mesmerized to move or they couldn’t resist the opportunity to hear a few more minutes’ worth of those iconic tunes.

First presented as a stage musical in 1957, West Side Story transposes Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to a New York neighborhood divided between two rival gangs: the Puerto Rican Sharks and the non-Latino Jets. Trouble brews and inevitably leads to tragedy when a former Jet named Tony falls in love with Maria, sister of the head Shark, Bernardo.

With a book by Arthur Laurents, a glorious score by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the musical caught fire and inspired a classic, multiple-Oscar-winning 1961 movie directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins.

Full disclosure: As a fan of the stage play and particularly of the original flick, I approached this new Spielberg remake with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Would it deviate from the Wise-Robbins version, thus marring perfection? Or, conversely, would it offer a slavish clone, thus raising the question “Why did they bother?”

Maria (Rachel Zegler) catches her first sight of Tony across the dance floor.

The welcome answer is that the new movie, with a script by the great Tony Kushner (Angels in America), stays true to the spirit of the original. When it deviates, it does so in ways that are tasteful and often necessary to bring the story up to date with modern mores even though the action remains in the 1950s.

On the surface, the most obvious change is that Maria and the rest of the Puerto Rican characters are now played by Latino/Latina actors rather than Gringos in tan makeup. In a more subtle innovation, it’s announced from the beginning that the neighborhood shared by both gangs is marked for demolition to make way for ritzier dwellings. The underlying message is that the Sharks and Jets are fighting each other in a battle that ultimately will be decided by forces beyond their control. (Its relevance to modern-day America is hard to miss.)

Still, at its core, this remains the story of the dangerous romance between Maria and Tony. And it’s still told by way of the most beautiful music ever written for a stage musical, and punctuated by deliriously spirited dance steps (adapted by Justin Peck from Robbins’s original choreography).

My only serious disappointment with the new film is that one of the leading actors seems miscast. Ansel Elgort was fine the title character in 2017’s Baby Driver, but he often makes an inexpressive Tony, and he sings with a voice that’s good but not great. In compensation, Rachel Zegler’s Maria has a vulnerable face and the voice of an angel, hitting those high notes with ease. It’s largely thanks to her that their duets, such as “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart,” are among the film’s many highlights.

Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) share their first dance.

The supporting cast is uniformly strong, starting with Ariana DeBose as Bernardo’s mind-of-her-own girlfriend, Anita. Though DeBose doesn’t create quite as many waves as Rita Moreno did in her Oscar-winning 1961 performance, she’s a powerful presence and dances up a hurricane in colorful numbers such as “America.” In other key roles, David Alvarez is mercurial but dignified as Shark leader Bernardo, while Mike Faist projects pride mixed with desperation as Jets leader Riff.

Best of all, Moreno herself (who turns 90 on Dec. 11) plays Valentina, a Puerto Rican shopkeeper who has helped Tony get his life back together after a brief stint in prison. In a surprising twist, she’s given the honor of singing “Somewhere,” the wistful lament sung by Tony and Maria in 1961. It turns out to be one of the new film’s most touching moments.  

Though I originally worried about what Spielberg might change, one of my minor quibbles has to do with something he didn’t change: The Jets’ comic number “Gee, Officer Krupke” now seems dated, a blast from the past that’s turned into a dud amid the new film’s heightened sense of reality.

But that and other qualms fade away as the story heads into its final half-hour and the gears begin to turn toward its inescapable outcome. The feelings run as high as ever, and Bernstein’s music is as tender and majestic as always.

Thankfully, West Side Story endures.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

West Side Story (PG-13) opens Dec. 10 at theaters nationwide.

Living, rapping and dancing on the streets of L.A.

Yelp reviewer Tyris (Tyris Winter) celebrates a culinary find in Summertime. (Photos courtesy of Good Deed Entertainment)

By Richard Ades

I’ve been trying to find something to compare Summertime to, but it’s not easy. I thought of calling it a street-smart, spoken-word version of La La Land, but that falls hopelessly short.

Besides being set in Los Angeles, the musicals have just two things in common: energy and heart.

Rather than beginning with a massive traffic jam, Summertime starts with the simple scene of a guitarist (Olympia Miccio) singing, strumming and skating her way along a sidewalk. Then she collides with a fellow Angelino and subsequently disappears, as our attention shifts to someone else who just happens to be nearby.

That sets the pattern for the film, which director Carlos Lopez Estrada (Blindspotting) has designed as a stream-of-consciousness portrait of a day in the life of L.A., and in particular its Venice and Hollywood neighborhoods. We wander through their funky streets meeting one young and talented individual after another, all of them poetically sharing their dreams, fears, struggles and desires.

Some characters pay brief visits, while others reappear periodically. An early standout is Tyris (Tyris Winter), an Afro-coifed gay man who wanders from one restaurant to another writing Yelp reviews and searching for an elusive cheeseburger. He’s feisty and mercurial, but as the day progresses, we realize that underneath he’s nursing a pain whose cause is only suggested.

Paolina (Paolina Acuna-Gonzalez) rebels against her tradition-minded mother with the help of a bevy of spirited dancers.

Also dealing with personal challenges are Paolina (Paolina Acuna-Gonzalez), a Latina chafing under her tradition-minded mother’s rules, and Marquesha (Marquesha Baber), who’s receiving therapy for trauma related to body-image issues. Paolina faces her frustrations by imagining a rebellious dance featuring women in flowing red dresses, while Marquesha faces hers by tracking down and confronting her abusive ex.

Tying the film together is the comical tale of Rah and Anewbyss (Austin Antoine and Brice Banks), sidewalk rappers who struggle to find an audience until they catch the ear of a big-time producer. Then their careers take off at breakneck speed, especially after they ditch the rhymes about “Lambos” and start paying homage to their devoted moms.

The diverse cast includes Blacks and Whites, Latinas and Korean Americans, gays and straights. Each performer wrote his or her own story and poetic dialogue, resulting in a variety of moods and viewpoints. The miracle is that Estrada—with masterful help from cinematographer John Schmidt, editor John Melin and composer John S. Snyder—turns it all into a joyful and cohesive whole.

Summertime may have no plot, but it does leave us with a message of sorts: Live your life, face your demons, find your happiness—and respect other people’s right to do the same.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Summertime (rated R) opens July 16 at select theaters, including Columbus’s Gateway Film Center and Cleveland’s Cedar Lee.

Soulful performances elevate cartoon-based musical

Jake Levy (Dmitry) and Lila Coogan (Anya) in National Tour of ANASTASIA. Photo by Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade
Dmitry (Jake Levy) tutors amnesiac Anya (Lila Coogan) in the national tour of Anastasia. (Photo by Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade)

By Richard Ades

An orphan’s attempt to reclaim her royal identity leads to many glorious moments in Anastasia. True, there are other moments that are less than glorious, but the touring version of the Broadway musical makes up for them with fine performances and eye-catching scenery.

Opening on Broadway in 2017, Anastasia is based on the 1997 animated film, which itself was based on the popular legend that one young member of the Russian royal family—Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna—escaped being executed during the 1917 revolution.

The stage show keeps the film’s half-dozen Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty songs and adds several more. With a book by playwright Terrence McNally, it also replaces the flick’s supernatural villain, Rasputin, with Gleb, a Bolshevik army officer assigned to make sure the missing Anastasia never reappears.

Otherwise, the story remains the same: The grown-up orphan, now known as Anya and suffering from amnesia, is taken under the wings of two rapscallions determined to pawn her off as the real Anastasia in order to collect a reward from her aging “nana” in Paris. What they don’t know, of course, is that she actually is the real Anastasia.

The spark that brings this fanciful story to life is provided by its leads, who find relatable depth under the direction of Darko Tresnjak.

Lila Coogan is an endearing combination of stoicism, desperation and pluck as Anya, while Jake Levy is calculating yet decent as Dmitry, whose tutelage of the street sweeper eventually awakens feelings he tries to ignore. Both actors also sing beautifully, making the most of catchy tunes like “Journey to the Past” (Anya’s Act 1 closer) and even songs that are far less memorable.

Rounding out the top three leads, Edward Staudenmayer is engagingly outgoing as Vlad, who once masqueraded as royalty and now is Dmitry’s partner in the scheme to defraud a royal. Speaking of whom, Joy Franz brings dignity, warmth and a sweetly wavering voice to the role of the Dowager Empress, who is desperate to learn whether the rumors of her granddaughter’s survival are true.

The only prominent character who never quite gels is army officer Gleb, but it’s not entirely actor Jason Michael Evans’s fault. The Bolshevik is given the Javert-like task of chasing after Anya and even killing her if she turns out to be the real Anastasia, but he’s also saddled with so many mixed motivations that it’s hard to see him as a bona fide threat.

5 - Lila Coogan (Anya) in the National Tour of ANASTASIA. Photo by Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade.
Anya (Lila Coogan) celebrates her arrival in the City of Light. (Photo by Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade)

Some of the musical’s most visually impressive moments benefit from Donald Holder’s lighting design, Alexander Dodge’s scenic design and Aaron Rhyne’s projection design. (The latter won the original production’s only major awards.) Together, they create beautiful stage pictures depicting everything from a royal ball to a cross-country train trip.

Some of the less impressive elements may remind viewers of earlier works that were more effective. Besides the Javert-lite Gleb, there’s the Act 1 hymn to Russia, “Stay, I Pray You,” which calls up powerful moments from Fiddler on the Roof and Miss Saigon. Then there’s the comedy number “The Countess and the Common Man,” in which Vlad and former fling Lily (Alison Ewing) rekindle their romance with moves so reminiscent of old Carol Burnett-Harvey Korman skits that the show probably should pay royalties. (Full disclosure: Tuesday’s opening night audience ate it up.)

Being based on a less-than-great animated film, it’s not really surprising that Anastasia is a less-than-great musical. What is surprising is how often its cast and technical wizards turn it into a mesmerizing theatrical experience.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Anastasia through Feb. 2 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $31.50-$124+ (regular or verified resale). 614-469-0939 (CAPA), 1-800-745-3000 (Ticketmaster), columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Iconic musical’s power emerges despite shadowy challenges

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The cast of Les Miserables asks for “One Day More.” (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

By Richard Ades

It’s when the latest incarnation of Les Misérables nears the halfway point that it begins hitting its stride. It’s then that we’re introduced to a group of young revolutionaries whose faith in their cause adds new layers of tragedy and nobility to the tale. The production builds from there to a climax that is just as glorious and moving as it was meant to be.

In the early scenes, however, this telling of fugitive Jean Valjean’s struggles has quirks that limit its effectiveness. Based on a 2014 Broadway revival and directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, the touring production incorporates scenery based on paintings by the tale’s original author, Victor Hugo. But it also employs a lighting design (by Paule Constable) so dark that it’s hard enough to see the actors, let alone the scenery behind them.

This is not so much a problem for those of us who’ve seen the musical multiple times, but it might discourage first-time viewers. Particularly during the fast-paced first act, they could well struggle to keep up as the story races from one dramatic development to the next.

For those who aren’t familiar with the tale, Les Miz takes place in 19th-century France and centers on Jean Valjean, who was imprisoned for 19 years simply because he stole a loaf of bread. Released on parole as the show opens, he struggles against his own bitterness—as well as the suspicion that greets a former convict—until a clergyman’s generosity allows him to reinvent himself. He then pledges himself to a life of helping others, but he’s forever dogged by a police official named Javert who’s determined to bring him to justice for breaking parole.

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Nick Cartell (right) as Jean Valjean and Josh Davis as his nemesis, Javert

Drenched in pathos and death, the Alain Boublil/Claude-Michel Schonberg blockbuster is admittedly melodramatic, but it succeeds on the strength of the achingly beautiful songs penned by composer Schonberg and lyricist Herbert Kretzmer. That is, it succeeds when the cast does the songs justice.

What bothers me more than the current production’s dark lighting is that male leads Nick Cartell (Jean Valjean) and Josh Davis (Javert) sometimes make the melodies subservient to the drama—that is, they shout rather than sing the words. It’s an ill-advised technique that means we get only approximations of some of the most gorgeous songs in the musical-theater canon.

Fortunately, both actors have strong moments when they skip the shouting. Cartell displays his fine voice on the falsetto showcase “Bring Him Home” and makes Valjean an increasingly sympathetic figure as the show progresses. As for Davis, he has a limited voice that keeps him from being one of the all-time great Javerts, but he turns the Act I solo “Stars” into a near-showstopper on the force of will alone.

There are parts of the musical that are guaranteed some degree of success no matter how well they’re staged: the plight of single mom Fantine (Mary Kate Moore), say, or the comic antics of those conniving innkeepers, the Thenardiers (Allison Guinn and Jimmy Smagula). It’s when the plot hops several years into the future and introduces new characters such as the aforementioned student revolutionaries that Les Miz sometimes struggles to regain its footing.

Luckily, that’s exactly when the touring production comes into its own.

From this point, the scenery of Matt Kinley begins emerging from the shadows: a silhouetted barricade, a sewer system that appears to arise magically from the stage. The former is the setting for a legitimately horrific battle, complete with the sounds of musket fire and whistling bullets, as the young rebels take a stand against repression.

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Enjolras (Matt Shingledecker) entreats his fellow malcontents to rebel against the government.

The characters introduced at this time are all brought vividly to life by accomplished actors: Brett Stoelker (filling in for Matt Shingledecker on opening night) as rebel leader Enjolras; Phoenix Best as the Thenardiers’ lovestruck daughter, Eponine; Robbie Crandell and Jasper Davenport alternating in the role of plucky street urchin Gavroche. Among the strongest are Jillian Butler as Valjean’s orphaned ward, Cosette; and Joshua Grosso as Marius, the rebel who falls for her. Their sweet voices and sincere delivery make us believe in love at first sight.

Hope in the power of love despite overwhelming adversity: That’s the final message of Les Misérables, and it still comes through as clearly as ever.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Les Misérables Nov. 19-24 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 3 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $79-$150+ (regular or verified resale). 614-469-0939 (CAPA), 1-800-745-3000 (Ticketmaster), columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Musicalized high school comedy deserves a passing grade

Mean Girls
Cady (Danielle Wade, left) gets to know Regina (Mariah Rose Faith, second from right) and her fellow “Plastics” in the first national tour of Mean Girls. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

By Richard Ades

Tina Fey’s satirical wit comes across in everything she does, whether it’s Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock or the clever 2004 flick she wrote and co-starred in, Mean Girls. It also comes across in the musical version of the flick, now holding forth at the Ohio Theatre.

It comes across eventually, that is. The stage show is encumbered by several songs and dances that seem to be copied from the Broadway playbook, especially in the early scenes. But by the time the darkly comic plot kicks into gear, Fey’s distinctive voice is clearly heard.

Mean Girls is the story of Cady Heron (Danielle Wade), an American teen who was born and raised in Kenya but must move to the U.S. when her mother’s job is relocated. Since Cady has been homeschooled all her life, she feels doubly out of place when she stumbles into her first day at a Chicago high school.

Luckily for her, outcasts Damien and Janis (Eric Huffman and Mary Kate Morrissey) take it on themselves to lead her through the school’s minefield of a social scene. They describe each clique in detail, but they save their sternest caution for the “Plastics,” a trio of divas led by Regina (Mariah Rose Faith), an alpha female whose beauty and viciousness make her a figure of both envy and fear.

Despite their warnings, Cady lets herself be courted by the haughty group, which also includes the needy Gretchen (Megan Masako Haley) and the hilariously dense Karen (Jonalyn Saxer). She soon learns the hard way that Regina is just as evil as she’s been told. She also learns, too late, that the Plastics’ shallow, self-centered lifestyle is dangerously addictive.

What makes Cady such a perfect guide into Fey’s version of high school purgatory is that she’s a tabula rasa. Raised in a land of beast-filled savannahs and star-filled skies, she knows nothing of a society where friends and social media “likes” are touted as signs of popularity. She also knows nothing about boys or the lengths to which girls will go to capture their attention, including downplaying their own intelligence. Most of all, she knows nothing of the cutthroat competition girls sometimes wage with each other out of insecurity and jealousy.

All of this comes across in the musical just as it did on the big screen, though not quite as succinctly. Jeff Richmond’s music, Nell Benjamin’s lyrics and Casey Nicholaw’s choreography sometimes create numbers that seem to be straight out of Broadway Musical 101. The most self-conscious is “Stop,” the tap number that opens Act 2. Though entertainingly performed by Huffman’s Damien and a group of backup dancers, it seems too old-hat to belong in a modern high school.

More up to date, even though it does little to advance the plot, is the hip-hop-inspired “Whose House Is This?” And more creative is the Act 1 number “Where Do You Belong?”—which is fun despite “choreography” that largely consists of pushing tables and chairs around a lunchroom.

Best of all are the numbers that encapsulate the message of Fey’s cautionary tale. Among them are Janis and Cady’s “Apex Predator,” with its James Bond-like blares, and the uplifting finale, “I See Stars.”

Mean Girls has arrived in Columbus remarkably fast: It opened on Broadway only a year and a half ago and began its first national tour just last month. Despite the speed, the show at the Ohio is technologically polished. Director Nicholaw, scenic designer Scott Pask, lighting designer Kenneth Posner and others have joined forces to create a production that changes times and locales both colorfully and instantaneously.

More importantly, the cast is nearly perfect from both an acting and singing standpoint. Huffman is an early standout as Damian, despite playing a character that is little more than a gay stereotype. Among those making an impression in smaller roles are Adante Carter as Cady’s math-class crush and Gaelen Gilliland as her supportive teacher.

As for the leads, Wade makes us believe the huge metamorphoses Cady undergoes in the course of the show, while Faith actually leaves us feeling sorry for Regina after her fortunes change.

Well, just a little. It’s still nice to see at least one “mean girl” get a taste of her own medicine.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Mean Girls through Oct. 27 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $39-$139+. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Teenage angst, loneliness at center of ingenious musical

Stephen Christopher Anthony as 'Evan Hansen' and the Company of the First North American Tour of Dear Evan Hanse. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Stephen Christopher Anderson (center) plays the title role in the first North American tour of Dear Evan Hansen. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

By Richard Ades

The first thing you see when you arrive at the Ohio Theatre to see Dear Evan Hansen is a wall filled with scrolling images of social media. It’s a sign that the story takes place in an era—namely now—when young people do much of their communicating via the internet.

One might be tempted to speculate that this reliance on virtual communication is the reason the title character is so terrified of face-to-face interaction. That theory dissolves, however, as soon as Evan (Stephen Christopher Anthony) opens his mouth.

The high school senior clearly suffers from an awkwardness and lack of self-confidence that would be debilitating in any era. For example, he has a huge crush on a girl named Zoe Murphy (Maggie McKenna) but is afraid to even talk to her. So serious is Evan’s problem that his concerned mom, Heidi (Jane Pfitsch), has sent him to counseling and coaxes him to follow his therapist’s advice by writing a daily letter to himself in an attempt to get in touch with his feelings.

It’s one of those letters that not only gives the musical its name but drives the plot, as it falls into the wrong hands and is subsequently mistaken for a farewell note left behind by Zoe’s troubled brother, Connor (Marrick Smith). When Evan is assumed to be Connor’s best and only friend—after all, the letter is addressed to him—he initially goes along with the misunderstanding in an attempt to comfort Zoe and her parents. But he soon finds himself trapped in an elaborate fiction that perversely elevates his standing in a school that previously ignored him.

Since opening on Broadway in 2016, Dear Evan Hansen has won six Tonys (including Best Musical) and become an enduring hit. No doubt it owes much of its early success to Ben Platt’s acclaimed portrayal of Evan in the original cast, but its continued popularity reflects the universal appeal of Steven Levenson’s ingenious book and Benji Pasek and Justin Paul’s score and lyrics.

Evan’s plight can be understood by anyone who ever felt insecure and unpopular in high school (that is, pretty much all of us). And any parent who ever felt unequal to the task of parenting will relate to Heidi, as well as to Connor’s parents, Cynthia (Christiane Noll) and Larry (Aaron Lazar, but replaced by John Hemphill at Tuesday’s performance), as their son was a source of pain long before his premature departure.

Heidi and Cynthia are given a chance to express their worry in the show’s first musical number, “Anybody Have a Map?” It and the hopeful “You Will Be Found”—performed under a sparkling kaleidoscope of lighting and scenic images—serve as strong bookends to the engrossing first act.

I must admit that my interest waned slightly during the second act and that neither I nor my companion found it as emotionally compelling as those who could be heard sniffling around us. This may be partly due to some of the acting choices made under the direction of Michael Greif.

In particular, while Jared Goldsmith and Phoebe Koyabe properly emphasize the humorous side of their respective teenage characters, Jared and Alana, it would be nice if they threw in a little vulnerability to help us understand why Evan’s deception is so eagerly accepted by his classmates.

Such a change might help Anthony plumb even more depth from the lead role he took over this week. Meanwhile, the actor expertly navigates Evan’s fast-talking nervousness and largely conquers the tricky tunes and frequent forays into falsetto that Pasek and Paul have given him. His rendition of one of the show’s best-known numbers, “For Forever,” is a triumph. (Sam Primack takes over the role for the Saturday matinee and Sunday evening performances.)

Speaking of the music, my only real problem with the show itself is that many of the songs are less than memorable. Those mentioned above are tuneful and moving, but several others are devoid of recognizable melodies.

The saving grace is that none of the songs seems superfluous, as the lyrics always serve to carry the plot forward. And the plot is both timely and timeless enough to make Dear Evan Hansen a musical theater classic.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Dear Evan Hansen through Sunday (Sept. 22) at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Showtimes 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, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets (standard and verified resale) are $70 and up. Enter a drawing for the chance to win $25 tickets at luckyseat.com/dearevanhansen. 614-469-0939 (CAPA), 1-800-745-3000 (Ticketmaster), columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Matchmaker seeks meal ticket in storied musical

Hello, Dolly!
Betty Buckley as Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! (Photos by Julieta Cervantes)

By Richard Ades

When comes to falling in love, timing is everything. That holds equally true when the potential object of your affection is a Broadway show.

Case in point: Decades ago, I encountered at Les Miserables at just the wrong time, when a tired and creaky touring show brought the musical back to Columbus long after its first visit. (And I mean literally creaky: The “turntable” was noisy enough to be heard over the orchestra.) The result is that I didn’t fall in love with the revolutionary tale until an incredible local production revealed its full power.

On the other hand, I encountered Miss Saigon at just the right time, via an early touring show that remains the best of the three productions I’ve seen.

All this is my way of saying it might be too late for me to fall in love with Hello, Dolly! Amazingly, I had not seen the chestnut until it toured its way into Columbus this week. The upshot: I admired the familiar Jerry Herman tunes, the spirited Warren Carlyle choreography and the giddily colorful, Santo Loquasto-designed scenery and costumes. But those attributes didn’t make up for a nearly nonexistent plot that was undercut by over-the-top comedy and spectacle.

Surprisingly, the New York Times reviewer who caught the original Broadway production back in 1964 had some of the same objections. In the end, though, the critic was won over by Carol Channing’s portrayal of Dolly Gallagher Levi, a widowed matchmaker and Jill-of-all-trades who was tired of scraping by in turn-of-the-20th-century New York.

Channing was an incandescent presence who could simultaneously project charisma and vulnerability. That combination probably helped to carry the audience along as Dolly hatched a desperate plan to court and marry Horace Vandergelder, a wealthy and miserly Yonkers storekeeper who neither loved her nor was loved by her. Her bravura performance buoyed the tale right through to its bittersweet conclusion.

Over the years, the role has been taken on by a variety of stars ranging from two who originally turned it down—Ethel Merman and Mary Martin—to the divine Miss Bette Midler. In the current touring show, the task falls to Broadway veteran Betty Buckley. Buckley has proved her theatrical chops playing iconic roles such as Cats’s Grizabella and Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond, but here she doesn’t seem to generate the necessary wattage. Though her sweetly aging voice carries the tunes well enough, we just don’t buy the power Dolly seems to hold over Lewis J. Stadlen’s grumpily reluctant Horace and everyone else in sight.

Hello, Dolly!

Directed by Jerry Zaks, the touring show accompanies Dolly’s efforts with the same combination of silly humor and glorious spectacle that won the original Broadway production a mixed Times review and a bevy of Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The silly humor includes Morgan Kirner’s honking portrayal of Horace’s niece Ermengarde, whose desire to wed artist Ambrose (Colin LeMoine) becomes Dolly’s cause du jour and is subsequently forgotten for most of the play.

Also silly is a hide-and-seek sequence involving Horace’s thrill-seeking employees Cornelius and Barnaby (Nic Rouleau and Sean Burns), hatmaker Irene (Analisa Leaming) and her assistant, Minnie (Kristen Hahn). But the four ultimately make up for it with help from Hahn’s comic expertise, Rouleau’s vocal pipes and Burns’s agile footwork.

Down in the pit, Robert Billig conducts a large orchestra bolstered by a number of local musicians, allowing tunes such as “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” “Before the Parade Passes By” and, of course, “Hello, Dolly!” to be delivered with all the richness they require.

Though I failed to fall in love with Hello, Dolly!, I do appreciate the scenic and vocal attributes that reward those who are. And who knows? Maybe one day a particularly persuasive Dolly will come along and win me over.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Hello, Dolly! through May 12 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. Tickets are $39-$119+. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Flash- and joke-filled ‘Aladdin’ sweeps romance under the carpet

Aladdin
A typically colorful scene from the touring production of Aladdin, presented by Broadway in Columbus and CAPA (Photos by Deen van Meer)

By Richard Ades

Great songs, fine singing and dancing, nifty special effects, beautiful scenery: What else could you ask from a Broadway musical?

Well, other than a story you actually care about. Aladdin falls short in that respect, especially compared to other Disney musicals like The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast. But for most folks who caught the touring show Thursday at the Ohio Theatre, the production’s other attributes were more than enough.

Based on the 1992 animated film and boasting catchy Alan Menken tunes such as “Friend Like Me” and “Whole New World,” Aladdin arrived on Broadway in 2014. There it was nominated for five Tony Awards but won only for James Monroe Iglehart’s performance in the showiest role, the Genie.

In the touring production, much of the attention also is grabbed by the Genie portrayer, Michael James Scott, who leaves no stone unturned in his quest for laughter and applause. Equally committed, if less showy, performances are turned in by other cast members.

Clinton Greenspan leaps agilely and sings sweetly as poverty-stricken thief Aladdin, while Lissa DeGuzman gives Princess Jasmine a feisty, no-nonsense personality. (Is it just me, or does she remind you of SNL’s Melissa Villasenor?) As her father’s scheming adviser, Jafar, and his henchman, Iago, Jonathan Weir and Jay Paranada excel in comic villainy.

The cast plies its trade against a backdrop that is often eye-poppingly gorgeous thanks to Bob Crowley’s scenery and Natasha Katz’s lighting. Particularly spectacular is the gold- and jewel-encrusted cave where an important plot development takes place.

Speaking of the plot, it all stems from Jasmine’s refusal to accept a marriage proposal from a suitably royal suitor despite pressure from her aging father, the Sultan (Jerald Vincent). Jafar hopes to take advantage of her reluctance and the Sultan’s resulting lack of a successor by usurping the throne himself. But his plans go astray when he accidentally connects Aladdin with the Genie, who can grant the young thief anything he desires. And what he desires most is the beautiful Jasmine.

Though other Disney fairy tales have succeeded in keeping the youngest viewers enthralled while offering enough emotional depth to satisfy their parents and older siblings, Aladdin remains stubbornly shallow. We’re supposed to care whether Jasmine ends up with the title character, but we don’t, maybe because we’re given no reason to think love won’t win out. She’s such a strong-willed individual, and the Sultan such a doting father, that we don’t seriously believe she’ll be forced to marry someone she doesn’t want.

As if to make up for the tale’s emotional flatness, director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw fills the production with colorful song-and-dance numbers marked by acrobatic moves with a vaguely Arabic flavor. On top of that, he and his cast tell the story in a relentlessly jokey manner that combines comic stereotypes with winking nods to popular culture and even to other Disney musicals. The approach reaches its zenith when the Genie and multiple dancers perform “Friend Like Me,” a huge Act 1 production number that, following a recent musical trend, is actually a parody of classic Broadway production numbers.

Needless to say, all the jokes, cultural references and parodies make it even harder to take Aladdin and Jasmine’s tale seriously. The only time the show allows us to care about their incipient romance is during the Act 2 number “A Whole New World,” which sends the pair on a breathtaking magic-carpet ride among the stars. It’s a heartfelt, if short-lived, moment.

Say this for the touring show: It spares no effort or expense in its attempt to impress and entertain. If you can get past its emotional stinginess, you’ll likely feel it succeeds.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Aladdin through Nov. 4 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $34 to $99-plus. Contacts: 614-469-0939 (CAPA), 1-800-745-3000 (Ticketmaster), columbus.broadway.com or capa.com.