If you want to enjoy Circle of Blood, be sure to read the printed synopsis beforehand. That will make it easier to navigate your way around its bizarre vision of Japan in the year 2057. It also will help you figure out an elaborate back story that’s explained only in occasional flashbacks and snatches of dialogue.
The good news is that the lack of explanation means director Julie Klein and her cast and crew are free to focus on the production’s true mission: entertaining us with scenes of menace and stylized mayhem cleverly combined with images from the graphic novel on which the tale is based.
The story, borrowed from David Mack’s Kabuki, centers on the young assassin of the same name (Amy Lay). Though she was raised by a now-broken man called the General (Tom Cardinal), her actual father is Kai (JT Walker III), a crime lord whose long-ago attack left her mother blind and impregnated. As if that weren’t bad enough, Kai returned years later, after Kabuki’s mother died giving birth to her, and disfigured his adolescent daughter on her mother’s grave.
The action begins several years after that, when Kabuki is a young woman pondering what to get Kai for Father’s Day. Just kidding! She’s now a hitwoman working for the Noh, a government body attempting to prevent criminal gangs from taking over the country. She’s also the star of a TV newscast that offers cryptic warnings to evildoers.
All that changes when Kai returns to Japan and begins threatening the order the Noh has worked so hard to establish.
Shadowbox Live’s last foray into Japanese-inspired storytelling was 2015’s The Tenshu, an elaborate production marred by a scattershot story and a leaden pace (though I’ve been told the tempo was speeded up in later performances). While not quite as elaborate, Circle of Blood is far more watchable thanks to Jimmy Mak’s spare script and a brisk pace that wraps things up in less than 90 minutes. The show is not exactly deep and it’s hardly uplifting—the body count rivals that of Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedies—but it efficiently moves us along from one set piece to the next.
All of the characters are deftly portrayed, from Lay’s methodically lethal Kabuki to Cardinal’s morose General, Walker’s evil Kai and a raft of eccentric henchmen. But the biggest attraction is the nifty interplay between the live action and images from the graphic novel, which are displayed on five large video screens. An additional boon is the accompanying music, composed and performed by Matt Hahn, Stev Guyer, Kevin Patrick Sweeney and Brandon Smith. Occasional vocals are beautifully supplied by Summit J. Starr.
Circle of Blood may favor style over substance, but the style is something to behold.
Circle of Blood runs through Nov. 5 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. most Wednesdays-Thursdays (beginning Oct. 11). Running time: about 1 hour, 25 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 students/seniors/military. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.
Halloween is the season devoted to the scary side of life. So it’s appropriate that Shadowbox Live’s Halloween-season show, The Rocking Dead, has a skit devoted to one of the scarier developments of modern life.
Killer Correctness shows what happens when two cops (Jimmy Mak and Guillermo Jemmott) try to solve a string of murders whose only witness (Katy Psenicka) lives her life according to politically correct principles. The upshot is that she would rather let a killer go free than answer the most basic questions about race, gender, height and so forth, explaining that she doesn’t want to make assumptions based on mere physical appearance.
At its best, political correctness means simply treating everyone with respect. At its worst, it’s the fear that someone, somewhere, somehow will be offended if you don’t constantly monitor and censure everything you and the rest of society say or do. Killer Correctness hilariously faces this debilitating illness head on.
Not quite as funny but even more politically minded is President Frank, featuring an Igor-like press secretary (John Boyd) who struggles to explain a monstrous commander-in-chief (Billy DePetro) who’s determined to build a “border moat” and seems to enjoy throwing women in the lake. Shadowbox seldom delves into national politics, but let’s face it: The current occupant of the White House is an irresistible target.
The rest of the skits seldom reach this level of level of originality, and some are rehashes of bits from earlier shows. Taken altogether, though, they add up to an enjoyable evening. They include:
▪ World War Spazoids: Kirby (Jimmy Mak) warns his familiar group of nerdy friends that some of their classmates are turning into zombies.
▪ Divas Do Hard Rock: Reprising a well-worn but clever bit, a pair of divas (Julie Klein and Stephanie Shull) put an operatic spin on hits by Ozzy Osbourne, AC/DC and the like.
▪ Hellchild: A harried teacher (Klein) struggles to convince a doting mom (Psenicka) that her son (DePetro) is possessed.
▪ Important Stuff News: A pair of juvenile journalists (Mak and Michelle Daniels) anchor a newscast that looks at Halloween from a kid’s viewpoint.
▪ Who’s Your Daddy?: A Maury Povich-like TV host (Boyd) talks to a woman (Psenicka) who believes her daughter was fathered by a werewolf (Brandon Anderson).
▪ Hang in There: In perhaps the weakest skit, an incipient zombie attack sets off a generational conflict between an office worker (Mak) and a millennial intern (Boyd).
If the comedic bits include both hills and valleys, the musical portions of the show exist on a consistently high plateau. Setting the proper tone from the outset, Ashley Pearce sings Single File’s Zombies Ate My Neighbors while a group of vigilantes erect a barricade to fight off an expected attack. A little later, DePetro does a lively David Byrne tribute with Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer.
If I had to pick my favorite vocalization of the night, it would have to be band member Brent Lambert’s gruff-voiced interpretation of Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun, augmented with a tasty riff from fellow guitarist Aaron Joseph. But it would be a close call, given the classy vocal work from Brandon Anderson (Bullet With Butterfly Wings), Noelle Anderson (Born Under a Bad Sign), Klein (Ghost in My Machine) and others.
Additional cover songs that deserve mention: Concrete Blonde’s Bloodletting, sung by Eryn Reynolds in a way that manages to be both creepy and sexy; and Muse’s Psycho, sung by Jemmott. The latter number seems to go on forever, but it’s so much fun that even non-headbangers won’t mind at all.
The Rocking Dead continues through Nov. 11 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Fridays and 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Saturdays. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. A one-hour “Nightcap” version will be presented at 10:30 p.m. select Fridays; tickets are $20-$25. 614-416-7625 or www.shadowboxlive.org.
Jukebox musicals are a pretty silly invention, and Rock of Ages is sillier than most. Faced with the task of building a plot around popular rock tunes from the 1980s, book writer Chris D’Arienzo came up with a doozy:
A father-and-son team of German developers (Tom Cardinal and Billy DePetro) want to bulldoze Hollywood’s Sunset Strip and evict the rock fans who live and work there. Why? Presumably, to make money with a redevelopment scheme, but we all know the real reason is to give the cast an excuse to sing Starship’s We Built This City (on rock ’n’ roll) and a host of other ’80s classics.
The plot is so ridiculous that the musical doesn’t even pretend to be anything but what it is: a musical. In the first few minutes, narrator and “sound god” Lonny (Guillermo Jemmott) admits he’s adding a romance to the proceedings simply because musicals have to have a romance.
We then meet would-be rock star Drew (John Boyd), who quickly falls in love with would-be movie star Sherrie (Amy Lay), just arrived from Kansas. Following the usual pattern, their relationship undergoes a series of hiccups and misunderstandings that keeps them apart until—well, until a host of other ’80s songs have been sung and danced to.
When I first saw Rock of Ages in 2010, I was able to embrace its silliness thanks to the touring show’s sweetly sincere portrayal of Drew and to outrageous costume designs that were like an oversexed version of what folks really wore during the Reagan decade. Shadowbox’s production, directed by Julie Klein, is only slightly more restrained on the style side, and Boyd is appealingly sincere as Drew. He also sings very well.
Most of the other cast members are equally in tune, musically and otherwise. Besides those already mentioned, they include Brandon Anderson as club owner Dennis Dupree, Jamie Barrow as sleazy rock star Stacee Jaxx, Ashley Pearce as protest leader Regina, Eryn Reynolds as talent agent Ja’Keith, Nikki Davis as the corrupt mayor and Noelle Anderson (alternating with Stacie Boord) as gentlemen’s club owner Justice.
Speaking of the gentlemen’s club, Lay’s Sherrie is amusingly inept when she takes a job there and tries her hand at pole dancing. Overall, though, I wish she came across as less of a shallow hick, which makes it even harder than it otherwise would be to care about whether she and Drew hook up.
To pick another nit, I wish DePetro’s Franz were a bit less, um, swishy. I realize the portrayal is meant to set up a joke about effeminate German mannerisms (presumably the kind Craig Ferguson used to spoof to excess on The Late Late Show), but DePetro overshoots the mark. (German mark? Get it? Never mind.)
Back to the good stuff: Accompanied by a boisterous five-piece band, the cast rocks out on vintage classics like Any Way You Want It, Don’t Stop Believin’, The Final Countdown, Hit Me With Your Best Shot, Just Like Paradise and many others. Even though the plot is reasonably entertaining, especially during Act 2, cover songs like these are the real reason for buying a ticket.
In a jukebox musical, that’s as it should be.
Rock of Ages continues through Aug. 27 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times: 2 and 7 p.m. select Sundays. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets: $20-$25. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.
Guilty Pleasures, Shadowbox Live’s latest theme show, allows me to enjoy one of my own: insult comedy. It’s the reason I look forward to every return visit by Maureen and Buffy, the soused and acid-tongued society matrons played by Julie Klein and Katy Psenicka.
The two pals are as mean-spirited as ever in their latest escapade, The Fundraising Ball, which has them attending a political function and surreptitiously throwing barbed comments at their fellow guests. Example: Noticing a passing woman’s extensive surgical enhancement, one muses, “If those tits get any higher, they’d be shoulders.”
Both characters are as memorable as their one-liners, but for different reasons: Psenicka’s Buffy for her cackling laugh and Klein’s Maureen for the palpable air of gloom that surrounds her and helps to explain her addiction to wine and all-around nastiness.
Though the theme show lives up to its name at times like this, it could just as easily be called Embarrassing Situations. The first skit, Dream Catcher, sets the tone when Harold (Jimmy Mak) brings girlfriend Louise (Leah Haviland) back to his place and reluctantly introduces her to Aquaman and other fantastical beings who’ve taken up residence there. Louise, who majored in dream interpretation at Antioch University, quickly recognizes them as symbols of Harold’s scarred psyche. The skit is as funny as it is clever.
Other embarrassment-riddled skits (listed in descending order of effectiveness):
▪ Bad Siri: Jim (Mak) is chagrined when the titular virtual assistant picks an inopportune moment to reveal his love of sappy movies and his unexpressed desire for a female acquaintance.
▪ Browser History: Friends Gina and Keri (Klein and Psenicka) find evidence that Gina’s roommate (Tom Cardinal) has a creepy fixation on a certain fictional pony. You’ll see the punchline galloping toward you from a mile away.
▪ Guilty Pleasures: The show’s final skit has a roomful of people admitting their secret vices, most of which are too mild to be really embarrassing, much less funny.
Additional skits include the TV spoof Perspectives, which is amusing thanks to David Whitehouse’s robust impersonation of Dr. Phil. Maybe it’s a matter of taste, but I got fewer laughs out of either the vaudeville routine Houdini Escapes Death or the vaudeville-like Loving Life, though the latter does have a nifty punchline.
As befits the show’s theme, the musical numbers include Haviland’s sexy rendition of the All-American Rejects’ Dirty Little Secret. Starting things off on the right foot, Stephanie Shull expertly sings and raps her way through Mercy, while Nikki Fagin ends things on an unrepentant note with Pink’s So What.
In between are a slew of highlights. They include the novelty number Coin-Operated Boy, the joyful Hollywood Nights and the entertaining Canned Heat, sung by Ashley Pearce, Klein and Lay, respectively.
Guilty Pleasures continues through June 3 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Running time: 1 hours, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.
Shadowbox Live has created a new art form of sorts with its musical tribute shows. Past efforts and the musicians they celebrated include Mad Dog and Englishman (Joe Cocker), Which One’s Pink? (Pink Floyd) and Bigger Than Jesus (the Beatles).
The current Evolutionaries differs from its predecessors by celebrating two artists, Prince and David Bowie, both of whom were lost prematurely in 2016. Otherwise, it follows the established pattern by offering great music accompanied by dancing, vintage video footage and enlightening tidbits of information.
With two groundbreaking careers to cover, Evolutionaries could well have run much longer than its two hours and 15 minutes. One way that director Julie Klein and head writer Jimmy Mak keep it to a comfortable length is by limiting the biographical material to short statements delivered by narrator Michelle Daniels. Through these we learn, for instance, that Prince suffered from epileptic fits as a child and that young Bowie dreamed of becoming the British Elvis.
More generally, Daniels points out that Prince and Bowie shared a fluid attitude toward gender and sexuality. In Bowie’s case, his whole identity seemed to be in a continual state of flux, as reflected by Ziggy Stardust and other alter egos who emerged onstage over the years.
Another way the show avoids overstaying its welcome is by restricting itself to the songs that are considered indispensable. No doubt some fans will complain that this or that favorite was left out, but those that were included add up to an entertaining synopsis of two revolutionary careers. Among the many highlights:
▪ When Doves Cry (Prince), sung by Stacie Boord and featuring one of several screaming guitar solos by Matthew Hahn.
▪ Changes (Bowie), featuring honey-sweet vocals by Boord and one of several glorious saxophone solos delivered at alternate performances by Jonathan Weisbrot and Kevin O’Neill.
▪ Ziggy Stardust (Bowie), sung by Gabriel Guyer in the guise of the strutting interplanetary traveler.
▪ Electric Chair (Prince), with lead vocals by Noelle Grandison, a funky guitar solo by Brent Lambert and a wild finish.
▪ Let’s Go Crazy (Prince), a gospel-style number sung by Boord and featuring orgasmic “organ” riffs pounded out by keyboardist Kevin Patrick Sweeney.
Dance moves choreographed by Katy Psenicka provide the perfect visual accompaniment to many numbers. During Bowie’s Let’s Dance, Nikki Davis and Nick Wilson sample vintage dance styles ranging from the Charleston to disco. Later, a blindfolded Guyer sings Bowie’s Lazarus while wandering through a group of graceful but equally blindfolded dancers.
In the funniest number, four preening “models” (Davis, Wilson, Guillermo Jemmott and Eryn Reynolds) vie for our approval while Guyer sings Bowie’s Fame.
Video images edited by David Whitehouse also play a prominent role. The most somber sequence assaults us with scenes from wars, riots and other acts of violence while Boord sings Prince’s Sign o’ the Times.
Timely and informative, Evolutionaries is a heartfelt gift to Bowie and Prince fans, and an opportunity for everybody else to appreciate what we’ve lost.
Evolutionaries: The Stories and Music of Prince and David Bowie continues through May 25 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. select Wednesdays and Thursdays. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (including intermission). Tickets: $25, $20 students/seniors/military. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.
Are sex and romance the best antidotes for the post-holiday blahs? Shadowbox Live seems to think so, as it always starts out the new year with the theatrical equivalent of a roll in the hay. Accordingly, the new Body Heat theme show holds forth with nearly two hours’ worth of heavy-breathing skits and songs.
Is the show sponge-worthy, as Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes might ask? Yes, thanks to three laudable attributes: (1) Some of the skits are pretty clever. (2) Some of the songs are dynamite. And (3) Funk Daddy Love is back!
For me, the last attribute may be the most important. The singer, played with satirical relish by Brandon Anderson, specializes in songs that attempt to stimulate listeners’ libidos with the help of lyrics that are to subtlety what Donald Trump is to diplomacy.
In Funk Daddy’s current skit, Funk Your Brains Out, the singer promotes such sexually explicit hits as Blew Velvet. “Velvet is the name of my penis,” he helpfully explains. Obviously, you have to have a taste for raunchy humor to appreciate this sort of thing, and apparently I do. Funk Daddy Love cracks me up.
You know what else cracks me up? Skits that are funny right up until the ultimate punchline. If you’ve been to many Shadowbox theme shows, you know the troupe doesn’t always pull that particular rabbit out of the hat, but this time it usually succeeds.
A few skits even have final twists that are as surprising as they are amusing. One of the best is Win Her Back, in which a teacher (Nikki Fagin) wraps up a “Romance 101” course by instructing her male students on how to save their relationship when they inevitably screw up. Another is Promposal, a cute piece about a high-schooler (Jimmy Mak) who’s sure he’ll never land a date to the prom unless he spends big bucks on an extravagantly creative invitation.
Also boasting a twist of sorts, but funnier for what happens before it, is Pro Pickup. It features Tom Cardinal and Amy Lay as sports-style commentators describing the interpersonal action during Ladies Night at a popular meat market. Key characters include the hapless Trent (Jamie Barrow), the out-for-a-good-time Krista (Nikki Davis) and the late-arriving Bill “The Bullet” (Guillermo Jemmott), a former player who’s returning to the singles scene after being “released from his contract.”
In between the winners, there are the usual misfires. They include Office Romance, in which recurring character Johnson (Julie Klein) tries to find out what secret admirer sent her flowers. This one has a twist, too, but it’s as so-so as the rest of the piece.
As for the night’s final skit, Shake Your Whole, it could be described as DOA—that is, Depends on Alcohol. If you’ve had a few drinks, you’ll have a better chance of enjoying this latest confrontation between suburbanites Dick and Betsy Anderson (Mak and Katy Psenicka) and South Siders Puck Ducky and Misty Duck (David Whitehouse and Lay). Besides a few provocative variations on yoga positions, there’s not a lot going on.
Music-wise, the show gets off to an appropriate start with Do You Wanna Touch Me. It’s lustily sung by Fagin, who also handles the lead vocals on an even sexier later number, I Get Off. A sultrier kind of sexiness comes across in Strange Face of Love, sung by Klein with her usual consummate skill.
One of the biggest musical surprises—and not in a good way—is the Robert Palmer hit Addicted to Love. Lead vocalist Cardinal and the house band usually excel at cover songs, but their rendition this classic is, well, less than classic. Not helping is the decision to spoof the iconic Palmer video by having two of the robotic backup dancers played by men in drag. Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching a lot of Transparent lately, but this kind of humor is starting to seem passé.
Much funnier is Shadowbox’s take on the Lonely Island/Saturday Night Live music video I Just Had Sex. The rapped and sung lyrics are performed with nerdy awkwardness by Lay, Barrow, David Whitehouse and Joey Ahern.
Wrapping up both the first and second acts, Anderson sets aside his Funk Daddy Love character to deliver the lead vocals on Bruno Mars’s 24K Magic and James Brown’s Sex Machine. Both are great.
Body Heat continues through March 18 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.
I lucked out. When I finally had time to catch Holiday Hoopla 2016, I arrived on a night when talented Columbus State students were offering American Sign Language interpretation.
It was beautiful effort. Not content to have a single interpreter gesticulate from the side of the stage, Shadowbox Live and Columbus State had worked out something far more elaborate. During the sketches, nearly every character was represented by a separate interpreter who took on that person’s personality while signing his or her lines. During the songs, interpreters swayed gracefully with the music while signing lyrics that even hearing patrons sometimes had trouble picking out.
If you want to see what Hoopla is like with sign interpretation, the service will be offered again at 7:30 Wednesday, Dec. 14. (Hearing-impaired patrons receive a $10 discount.)
Obviously, sign interpretation is most valuable for those who rely on it to understand the action, but I enjoyed it as a variation on a show that has been sticking to the same format for most of the past quarter century. Even without the interpretation, though, this Hoopla has much to recommend it.
Yes, most of the songs have been repeated annually for years, but they’ve become such an integral part of this local tradition that leaving them out would be unthinkable. A jazzy Merry Christmas Baby (sung by Stacie Boord), a bleak Hounds of Winter (sung by Leah Haviland), a forlorn The Old Man (sung by Stev Guyer): All are as gorgeous as they are indispensable.
Most important of all are the rousing instrumental Christmas in Sarajevo and the gospel-like Children Go Where I Send Thee. My only comment on the latter is that this year’s version could be even bigger, with still more singers added as it builds to its soul-stirring finale.
Among the skits, there are the expected duds and near-duds. One of them is the first, Your Own Personal Santa, in which a neighborhood meeting turns into a gripe session on parents’ odd Christmas traditions. Better is the following skit, Ancient Aliens, in which an eccentrically coifed Jimmy Mak shares his theory that Santa Claus is capable of superhuman feats because he actually hails from another planet.
In general, the sketches get better as the show goes on, particularly after intermission.
The Firstest Christmas, in which elementary-school kids present a musical depiction of the holiday’s roots, improves on a familiar Shadowbox theme by adding a satirical edge. Because they’re students at a Montessori school that refuses to rein in children’s creativity, teacher Mrs. Boddington (Katy Psenicka) is helpless to object when the kids stray from biblical accuracy. For instance, they have Mary (Haviland) arrive at the stable riding a certain red-nosed reindeer rather than a donkey. And, oh yes, the stable is located, not in Bethlehem, but at the North Pole.
More satire is invoked in Xmas Do Not Play List, about a radio disc jockey (David Whitehouse) who’s ordered to stop playing a slew of familiar Christmas tunes for fear they’ll offend viewers with precariously thin skins.
A series of short skits is built around a fictitious line of Hallmark “Honesty” cards that replace generic greetings with messages tailored to very specific—and very unpleasant—situations. Like the show as a whole, these get better as they go along.
As always, the Santa Babies (Julie Klein, Stephanie Shull and Boord) finish things off with their kitschy lounge act. Highlights include a seasonally adjusted and beautifully harmonized version of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, a dry-land synchronized swimming routine and the It’s Raining Men finale.
Then there’s the inevitable moment when they drag a male customer onstage in a suggestive routine that’s been repeated with nary a variation for the last 25 years. Watching this has long since become a tedious ordeal for me, but everyone else at the performance I attended seemed to be busting a gut.
One more tradition we can expect to return in Holiday Hoopla 2017.
Holiday Hoopla continues through Dec. 30 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. select Mondays-Thursdays, 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. select Fridays-Saturdays. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.
Skid Row isn’t the best location for a flower shop. That’s the conclusion store owner Mr. Mushnik (Tom Cardinal) reaches following a sales-less day in Little Shop of Horrors.
Luckily, store clerk Seymour (Lukas Tomasacci) discovers a mysterious plant that soon has customers flocking to their door. Well, maybe “luckily” isn’t the right word, since Seymour quickly learns that the plant thrives only when it gets a steady supply of its favorite food: human blood.
Based on a low-budget 1960 film, the stage musical opened off-off-Broadway in 1982 but was soon transplanted to Broadway, where it bloomed into a five-year hit. Its success is mostly due to the sparking collection of rock, pop and blues songs written by lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, the team behind Disney’s The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.
Though obviously darker than those family-friendly flicks, the musical shares a seed of humanity and a sense of fun that prevent it from becoming too macabre.
At Shadowbox, it’s hardly surprising that director Stev Guyer and his cast have no trouble with the musical numbers. The vocals are both strong and expressive, never allowing the characters’ personalities to get lost in the melodic underbrush. Accompanying them is a four-piece band that has a feel for the music, which often sounds like a holdover from rock’s innocent early years.
Between songs, the production mostly hits the right dramatic and comic notes.
Tomasacci wins our sympathy as Seymour, an orphan who was taken in by Mr. Mushnik as a child. As a result of his gratefulness and low self-esteem, Seymour feels unworthy of demanding better treatment from the employer who underpays and overworks him. And he feels even less worthy of the woman he secretly worships, fellow clerk Audrey (Edelyn Parker).
For her part, Audrey has even lower self-esteem, to the extent that she puts up with constant abuse from her sadistic dentist/boyfriend, Orin (Jamie Barrow). Parker plays Audrey as a stereotypical bimbo but with an undercurrent of longing that becomes palpable in the wistful ballad Somewhere That’s Green. Unfortunately, Parker adds a veneer of stagy melodrama by striking poses straight out of the silent-film era. It’s a puzzling choice that undercuts an otherwise sympathetic portrayal.
As Orin, the nitrous oxide-addicted dentist who’s never happy unless he’s making Audrey or his patients miserable, Barrow is like a less-scary version of Dennis Hopper’s maniac in Blue Velvet. He’s amusing, but a bit more menace would make him a better villain.
Then again, when it comes to menace and villainy, it would be hard to beat the bloodthirsty plant that Seymour names Audrey II. Depicted by puppets of ever-increasing sizes, it’s voiced by Billy DePetro in raucous tones that suggest an evil radio deejay.
Helping to establish the neighborhood’s rundown character are a mostly silent wino (Brandon Anderson) and three spunky “urchins” (Noelle Grandison, Nikki Fagin and Ashley Pearce). The latter serve as a streetwise Greek chorus, commenting from the sidelines and occasionally breaking into song.
Watching a scene in which Seymour contemplates committing murder to feed the insatiable Audrey II, some may be reminded of a similar scene from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, which a couple of local troupes revived in the spring. Though otherwise completely different, both musicals sport bloody plots driven by love: love lost in Sweeney Todd and love desired in Little Shop of Horrors.
That fertile bit of humanity, along with the hummable tunes, keeps Ashman and Menken’s cult hit from withering away on its farcical vine.
Little Shop of Horrors will be presented through Nov. 27 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 2 and 7 p.m. select Sundays (no shows Nov. 6 or 20), plus 2 p.m. Dec. 3, 10 and 17. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 students/seniors. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.
Is it possible to sprain your hands by clapping too hard? I came close to doing that during Shadowbox Live’s new dance-centered drama, Broken Whispers.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Broken Whispers is Shadowbox’s take on The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s cautionary tale of envy and obsessive desire in the Roaring ’20s. Like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Fitzgerald’s masterpiece has come to define a troubling era. Just as Twain’s young narrator stands in for America’s conscience in slave-holding, pre-Civil War America, Gatsby narrator Nick Carraway serves as our conscience and guide in a decade marked by greed and irresponsible hedonism.
Does Shadowbox’s version match the brilliance and depth of Fitzgerald’s original? Not overall, but it reimagines the tale in a way that is brilliantly innovative.
Whispers differs from Gatsby in several ways, but the most obvious is that the title character has been changed from a man who made his fortune from bootlegging to a woman who made it from running a brothel. Despite this, it sticks remarkably close to Fitzgerald’s tragic plot.
Our guide and narrator remains Nick (Robbie Nance), a young man who’s struggling to establish a career selling bonds in New York. Though not rich himself, he’s pulled into the lives of the wealthy by his cousin, Daisy Buchannan (Miriam King), and her husband, Tom (Andy Ankrom), as well as Nick’s high-living neighbor, Gatsby (Amy Lay).
It’s through Daisy and Tom that Nick meets and starts a relationship with a woman named Jordan Baker (Nikki Fagin). And it’s through Gatsby that Nick becomes involved in a dangerous attempt to reclaim the past.
Gatsby once had a secret fling with Daisy, but it ended when Daisy married Tom. Now that Gatsby has made her fortune, she believes she can win Daisy back, especially since Tom is a serial cheater who often deserts her for his married mistress, Myrtle Wilson (Edelyn Parker).
Changing a beloved novel into a dance-centered stage piece, and changing the sex of its protagonist along the way, is a tricky endeavor. That director Stev Guyer accomplishes it so well is a tribute to the skill of his cast and many collaborators, especially choreographer Katy Psenicka, writer Jimmy Mak and music director Matt Hahn.
First of all, the cast is great, especially when it’s expressing itself through dance. Psenicka’s choreography is stellar throughout, but if I had to pick my favorite sequences, it would be the two that define the rekindled relationship of Lay’s Gatsby and King’s Daisy. At first they dance lithely and joyfully to the tune of Foo Fighters’ Everlong. Later, suggesting a more intimate encounter, they perform moves that are both athletic and sensual to the strains of Sade’s The Sweetest Taboo.
In addition to dance, the actors rely largely on facial expressions and posture to define their characters, who are given only minimal dialogue. For the most part, they succeed.
Nance easily communicates the discomfort Nick feels as he’s forced into one morally questionable situation after another. As Tom, the philanderer who sometimes puts him in those situations, Ankrom wears the personality of a man who assumes his gender and wealth allow him to walk over anyone to get what he wants.
Like her literary counterpart, Lay’s Gatsby is self-contained mystery whose main attribute is her optimism that her eternal love for Daisy will be vindicated. Meanwhile, Fagin’s Jordan—unlike her own literary counterpart, whose motivations are hard to pin down—emerges as an instigator who takes perverse pleasure in others’ misfortunes.
My main disappointment among the characterizations is that King’s Daisy doesn’t exhibit as much charm as she does in the novel, perhaps because Shadowbox’s adaptation eliminates the flirtatious dialogue with which Fitzgerald defines her. This Daisy mainly comes across as a victim of Tom’s unfaithfulness, making it easy to understand her susceptibility to Gatsby’s advances but hard to understand why Gatsby is devoted to her in the first place.
As for the music, it’s just as impressive as the choreography it accompanies. Surprisingly, Shadowbox has opted to use relatively recent cover songs rather than actual music from the 1920s, but the songs are cleverly arranged and performed in a way that makes them seem almost era-appropriate. In the first song, Muse’s Feeling Good, vocalist Stephanie Shull’s voice even seems to be amplified in a way that suggests the tinny sound equipment of the period.
Shull is just one of the many fine singers featured. Others include Julie Klein, Noelle Grandison, Stacie Boord, Lukas Tomasacci, Guyer and Kevin Sweeney, who holds forth while manning the band’s keyboard. All are impeccable, but the closest thing to a showstopper occurs when Leah Haviland accompanies a Tom-Myrtle dance duet with the gorgeous Radiohead lament Creep.
Remember when I wondered whether you can sprain your hands by clapping too hard? This is why.
Haviland also sings the lead vocals when the band gives an inspired performance of the familiar George Michael hit Careless Whisper. Keyboardist Sweeney leads his fellow musicians through abrupt changes of tempo and rhythm as Fagin and other dancers perform the Charleston at one of Gatsby’s wild parties. Amazing!
Amazing in general is the amount of sound that comes from leader/guitarist Hahn’s four-piece band, which also includes standup bassist Buzz Crisafulli and drummer Brandon “Dreds” Smith.
Behind the scenes, Aaron Pelzak’s dark lighting sets the proper mood, while images projected on a video screen establish the proper place, allowing the production to skip over scene changes. A quartet of costume designers clothe the characters appropriately and often beautifully.
Seeing Broken Whispers is no substitute for reading The Great Gatsby. For one thing, the show only hints at the class consciousness and envy that are at the heart of the novel. But there’s no reason why you can’t do both. In fact, knocking off the novel—something that can be accomplished in an afternoon—may well add to your appreciation of one of Shadowbox’s most remarkable achievements yet.
Broken Whispers continues through Nov. 10 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, plus 7 p.m. this Sunday (Aug. 28). Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 students/seniors/military. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.
When I head to Indiana for my high school reunion in a few weeks, I can only hope it will be half as much fun as another reunion of sorts I attended recently: the annual Best of Shadowbox show.
Just as reunions give you the chance to get reacquainted with old friends, Best of Shadowbox gives you the chance to get reacquainted with skits you’ve seen over the past year. In most cases, it’s a pleasure to see them again, especially since the writers and cast members often find ways to improve them in reaction to audience response.
One skit that didn’t need much improving is The Ear Pod, featuring Tom Cardinal as a husband who hates to miss a big football game to attend a counseling session with his wife (Julie Klein). Trying to have it both ways, he secretly listens to the game via an ear pod while his wife vents about all that’s wrong with their relationship. The misunderstandings multiply hilariously as Cardinal’s enthusiastic reactions to the game are misinterpreted by his angry spouse and the diplomatic counselor (Michelle Daniels).
At least a couple of skits seem more entertaining this time around.
Sexy Nurse imagines what would happen if hospital employees really dressed the way they do in our pornographic fantasies. It centers on a patient (Robbie Nance) who’s excited when his nurse (Amy Lay) shows up in a barely there uniform. It’s still not a laugh riot, but it’s good, raunchy fun.
Also slightly improved—though it was pretty funny to begin with—is Job App. It’s about what happens when a job applicant (Nance) has a social-media history that contradicts everything he says about himself. Klein is admirably restrained as the dubious interviewer, allowing the momentum to build toward the show’s strongest punchline.
On the other hand, 50 Shades of Romeo seems less amusing on second viewing. Merging Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with E.L. James’s kinky best-seller is a clever idea, but much of the humor consists of adding “-eth” to sundry words (including F-bombs) to make them sound Elizabethan. As if to make up for the labored jokes, Lay slaps on an extra layer of ditsiness as the S&M-prone Juliet, but it doesn’t help.
Among the skits I missed the first time around, the funniest is Happy Haunting, in which two fey ghosts (Jimmy Mak and Brandon Anderson) try to protect their unaware roommate (Leah Haviland) from her boorish date (Nance). The weakest is Camping Without a Net, in which a group of millennials are terrified to learn they’ve lost their Internet connection. The skit itself seems lost, generating more than one “huh?” moment as it meanders toward an unsatisfying ending.
But there’s nothing unsatisfying about the show’s musical numbers, which mix great singing with great musicianship on the part of the house band. The highlights (and their lead singers) include Life in the Fast Lane (Klein), Walk on the Ocean (Cardinal) and Sexual Healing (Noelle Grandison and Guillermo Jemmott).
Even more fun is the number that ends Act 1, Elle King’s Ex’s and Oh’s, sung by a deliciously attired Lay, Haviland, Ashley Pearce, Chyna Cheaney and Katy Psenicka. And most fun of all is the final song, Meat Loaf’s Paradise by the Dashboard Light, featuring a back-and-forth duet by Klein and Lukas Tomasacci. Amusing interplay among the backup singers is an added bonus in a number that I wouldn’t mind getting reacquainted with a few more times.
Best of Shadowbox 2016 continues through Sept. 3 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday (no 10:30 performances July 22 or 29). Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.