Sweet music, jarring language and a timeless morality tale

Big River

By Richard Ades

Standing Room Only nearly lived up to its name Friday, as its evening performance of Big River filled most of the seats in CPAC’s Van Fleet Theatre. Hopefully, that means there’s a market for the ambitious programming the troupe has been tackling of late.

Or maybe it simply means people have an undying love for the tale whose source material is often considered the Great American Novel: Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Adapted by William Hauptman (book) and Roger Miller (music and lyrics), the Tony-winning musical again sends its scruffy title character and a runaway slave named Jim down the Mississippi on their respective quests for adventure and freedom.

One of the gutsiest things about SRO’s production is also the reason parents might want to prepare their youngest children for the experience. Like Twain’s novel, but unlike an expurgated version I saw many years ago, it allows characters to spout the most racist term in the American vocabulary. The word can sound jarring to modern ears, but it’s probably necessary. That’s because the story depends on a frank portrait of 19th century attitudes to underscore its central lesson.

Huck begins the tale as a rebellious lad who nonetheless accepts the morality of his pre-Civil War era when it comes to the subjugation of black Americans. Indeed, he’s so convinced slavery is a holy institution that he worries he’ll go to hell if he helps Jim escape. Both the novel and the musical are most moving when they show the boy reassessing his position after getting to know Jim as a human being.

Miller’s songs are sometimes stirring but mostly laid-back and pleasant, especially when accompanied by SRO’s old-timey quintet. Performing under music director Chipper Snow, it’s dominated by Ted Reich’s wistful harmonica and Jordan Shear’s lively fiddle.

As for the vocals, there are a few pitchy moments, but most cast members are up to the challenge. That’s especially true of the two male leads. Caleb Baker (as Huck) and Brandon Buchanan (as Jim) harmonize beautifully on duets such as Muddy Water and Worlds Apart.

Acting-wise, their styles are a bit less harmonious. Though Buchanan’s Jim reflects the tension and fears of a man determined to float his way to freedom, Baker’s Huck is unrelentingly calm. He seems unruffled whether he’s fighting off a knife attack or trying to avoid being tarred and feathered by angry townsfolk.

Baker’s physical appearance—he’s taller and huskier than most of the “adults” around him—also undercuts his portrayal of the youth. But that would be less of a problem if he acted more like a frightened teen rather than a laconic good ol’ boy.

Several of the supporting players make indelible impressions under Dee Shepherd’s easy-going direction.

John Feather is dignified and decent as Judge Thatcher, then abandons both dignity and decency to play the self-described King, a con artist who hitches a ride on Huck and Jim’s raft. Greg Zunkewicz is equally conniving as the King’s companion, the Duke, but he sometimes needed to project more at the performance I attended.

Funniest of all is Thor Collard as Huck’s drunken Pap, especially when he’s railing musically against the Gov’ment. Sweetest of all is Ashton Brammer as Mary Jane, who wins Huck’s heart when she becomes the victim of a scheme hatched by the King and the Duke.

As Huck’s friend Tom Sawyer, Anthony Guerrini gets across the lad’s addiction to romantic adventures. It’s not his fault that Tom becomes a distraction late in the story. His 11th-hour reappearance is the only instance in which Twain’s Great American Novel becomes a little less than great.

Even more than SRO’s recently staged Sweeney Todd, Big River is presented in a bare-bones manner. Designed by Angela Barch, some of the costumes are only vaguely 1840-ish, while the “scenery” consists mainly of a footlocker and a large box.

But none of that matters when the production is at its best, doling out sweet music along with a morality tale that retains its power 131 years after it first pricked the conscience of America.

Standing Room Only Theatre will present Big River through May 7 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $21, $18 seniors (55-plus), $16 members, $12 students. 614-258-9495 or srotheatre.org.

Singing and dancing overshadow emotion in latest ‘Fiddler’

Appearing in Otterbein University Theatre’s production of Fiddler on the Roof are (front) Lauren Kent (Tzeitel), (rear, from left) Aubree Tally (Golde), Natalie Szczerba (Hodel), John Stefano (Tevye) and Abigail Isom (Chava) (photo by Evan Moore-Coll)
Appearing in Otterbein University Theatre’s production of Fiddler on the Roof are (front) Lauren Kent (Tzeitel), (rear, from left) Aubree Tally (Golde), Natalie Szczerba (Hodel), John Stefano (Tevye) and Abigail Isom (Chava) (photo by Evan Moore-Coll)

By Richard Ades

Otterbein University Theatre apparently is giving Fiddler on the Roof to John Stefano as a going-away present. The professor, who’s retiring after 24 years in the theater and dance department, had long dreamed of playing the iconic dairyman, Tevye.

It’s a wonderful gesture on Otterbein’s part, but it wouldn’t have been surprising if the result had been a production that fell far short of the Tony-winning musical’s potential. After all, you can’t build a show this massive around a single actor.

Thankfully, Otterbein’s theater program is sufficiently rich in talent that its production has several stirring moments.

One of them comes shortly after Tevye introduces us to his Russian hometown, a Jewish community that, in the pre-revolutionary political climate of 1905, is finding life increasingly precarious. Gathering together with their families for the Friday night meal, Tevye and other villagers sing the beautiful Sabbath Prayer.

It’s a heartfelt scene that underscores the message of Tradition, the anthem that opens the show: These humble folks cling to their beliefs and rituals to give meaning to lives mired in poverty, pain and struggle.

Also stirring is the wedding scene in which Tevye and wife Golde (Aubree Talley) marry off the first of their five daughters. Its highlight comes when four dancers perform difficult moves while carefully balancing bottles on their flat-topped hats. Bravo!

In general, director Lenny Leibowitz’s production is at its best in large numbers involving singing and dancing. Otterbein has enough fine vocalists and dancers to carry off Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s glorious anthems and Stella Hiatt Kane’s acrobatic choreography, and rousing accompaniment is supplied by the ample-sized orchestra performing under Lori Kay Harvey’s baton.

Many of the individual actors also sing beautifully, including Lauren Kent, Natalie Szczerba and Abigail Isom as Tevye’s daughters Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava. Their early trio, Matchmaker, is an engaging exploration of their mixed feelings toward the ancient tradition of arranged marriage.

As for Stefano, he’s not the strongest vocalist who ever hauled around Tevye’s milk cart, but neither is he the weakest. Yes, his voice sometimes falters, but it does so in a way that makes the character all the more endearing.

Stefano also shines during the humorous moments in which Tevye complains to God about his sad lot in life—or to the audience about his loving but fear-inducing wife, Golde. The actor’s comic timing is spot-on.

It’s in the more dramatic moments that the Otterbein production sometimes lacks finesse and timing. One example is the aforementioned wedding scene, which peters out long before it’s interrupted by an attack that foreshadows new problems for the local Jewish community.

Another example: Connor Cook is appealing as Motel, the shy tailor who’s afraid to ask Tevye for the hand of his oldest daughter, but the moment in which he finally works up the nerve is rushed through before it has a chance to sink in.

Other problems can be traced to overacting (Dana Cullinane as the over-the-top Matchmaker) or underacting (Andre Spathelf-Sanders, who barely registers as Chava’s non-Jewish suitor). And though Tally strikes the right balance between scariness and warmth as Golde, neither she nor her makeup artist make a serious attempt to disguise the age difference between her and the actor who plays her husband. As a result, it’s hard to believe Golde and Tevye’s marriage really has endured for 25 years.

The production has many strengths beyond those I’ve already mentioned. They include supporting players Connor Allston as Perchik, the radical student who woos Hodel, and Jack Labrecque as Lazar Wolf, the lonely butcher who sets his sights on Tzeitel. Rob Johnson’s nonrealistic scenery and T.J. Gerckens’s lighting also are striking.

Overall, though, this staging of the musical tragicomedy is more effective as a musical and a comedy than it is as a tragedy. Most productions of Fiddler on the Roof are three-hankie affairs, but one should be enough this time around.

Otterbein University Theatre will present Fiddler on the Roof through April 16 at Cowan Hall, 30 S. Grove St., Westerville. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25. 614-823-1109 or www.otterbein.edu/drama.

Chekhovian angst mined for Durang-ian mirth

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and SpikeBy Richard Ades

There’s nothing quite as fun as watching Christopher Durang take on the Catholic Church, as he proved in his classic satire Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. But seeing him take on Anton Chekhov is also good for laughs.

He does so in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a 2013 Tony Award winner that borrows names and themes from the dour Russian, along with a general air of depressed malaise. That is, the characters suffer from depression; the audience is in hysterics.

CATCO’s current production benefits from a director with a flair for comedy—David Hemsley Caldwell—and two lead players who are equally adept. Jonathan Putnam and Danielle Mann are quietly masterful as Vanya and Sonia, the 50-something siblings who share a miserable existence in the home once owned by their deceased parents.

The first scene establishes their flinty relationship. Sonia brings Vanya his morning coffee, only to learn he’s already poured himself a cup. She complains that he’s deprived her of one of her few daily pleasures, leading to an argument that eventually ends in broken china.

Sonia, we learn, was adopted. We also learn that she’s attracted to Vanya despite his protestations that he marches to a “different drummer”—i.e., he’s gay. Putnam and Mann inhabit the unhappy pair so thoroughly that their personalities come through even when they’re just sitting and glumly observing the world.

Meanwhile, Chekhov is referenced in multiple ways, including Sonia’s insistence that a nearby stand of 10 or 11 trees constitutes a “cherry orchard.” But don’t worry if you’re rusty on the playwright’s works—Durang throws in enough explanations to keep everyone in the loop.

In a nod to Greek mythology, he also makes sure we know why a character named Cassandra is doomed to making dire predictions that no one believes. Shanessa Sweeney is a live wire as the housekeeper, whose ability to see the future comes in handy following the sudden appearance of Sonia and Vania’s successful sister, Masha (Lori Cannon).

The movie star barges in with her younger lover, Spike (William Darby), and begins talking about a change that will upset her siblings’ boring but stable existence. Narcissistic and overbearing, Masha proved a difficult character to enjoy at Wednesday’s preview matinee, especially since Cannon at first had trouble playing her with more than one note. Cannon fared better after intermission, when Masha’s insecurities bubbled to the surface and made her recognizably—and hilariously—human.

As Spike, Darby has some nice comic moments but is mostly limited to stripping off his clothes and showing off his physique. In a more nuanced role, Kristen Krak is lovable as Nina, an aspiring actress who quickly forms a bond with the man she insists on calling “Uncle Vanya.”

Completing the near-perfect production, Eric Barker’s painterly set is expressively lit by Jarod Wilson to suggest the passage of time as the action wends its way from morning to night and back to morning. It’s an entertaining and surprisingly warm-hearted trip, and one that’s well worth taking.

CATCO will present Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike through April 24 in Studio One, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St., Columbus. A preview will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Thursday (April 7). Regular show times are 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $17 Wednesday, $30 Thursday, $40 Friday-Saturday and $35 Sunday. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.

Annual theater celebration features awards, speeches, songs

Matt Clemens (seen sharing a scene with Laura Griffith) received a Theatre Roundtable award for his leading role in Short North Stage's production of Sunday in the Park With George (photo by Megan Leigh)
Matt Clemens (seen sharing a scene with Laura Griffith) received a Theatre Roundtable award for his leading role in Short North Stage’s production of Sunday in the Park With George (photo by Megan Leigh)

By Richard Ades

It’s all over but the Facebook posts.

The Central Ohio Theatre Roundtable held its annual awards night Sunday at the Jewish Community Center. As in the past, the fast-paced show punctuated its presentations and speeches with songs from some of the past year’s musical productions.

The treats included Matt Clemens’s emotional rendition of Finishing the Hat from Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George. The number provided proof that Clemens richly deserved the award the Roundtable gave him for his leading role in the Short North Stage production.

One of the night’s most heartwarming moments came when the Central Ohio Theatre Critics Circle—representing local print, on-air and online critics—presented a citation to Short North Stage for that same production. When troupe co-founders Rich Gore and Peter Yockel came onstage to accept the award, Yockel found himself getting a little choked up. That prompted Gore to observe that he hadn’t seen his partner tear up like that since their recent wedding day.

In a conversation prior to the show, the two recalled that they were just one of many same-sex couples who’d headed to New York and queued up to get hitched in a civil ceremony on Halloween. But they stood out from the crowd, they noted, being one of the few pairs who hadn’t turned up in Halloween costumes.

Two troupes received the Roundtable’s Harold Awards for, essentially, persevering: Columbus Children’s Theatre for turning 50 and Shadowbox Live for turning 25 (as measured from the appearance of Stev Guyer and company’s earliest “rock operas”). Accepting his Harold, Guyer explained why he and his cohorts had stuck it out in a profession that kept them working longer-than-average hours for lower-than-average pay.

“It’s a calling,” he said. “It’s what you do.”

Guyer also praised Columbus theatergoers who were willing to take a chance on unknown productions—such as most of those presented by Shadowbox.

For a list of other Theatre Roundtable nominees and winners, visit www.theatre-roundtable.org/trnominations/. For a list of the Central Ohio Theatre Critics Circle’s 20th annual round of citations, which were presented at Sunday’s event, see below:

▪ To CATCO and the Columbus Museum of Art, for educating Central Ohio about the power of art and the creative challenges of artists by jointly scheduling CATCO’s area premiere of Red, John Logan’s 2010 Tony winner for best play about Rothko at a pivotal point in his career, and “Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade,” the museum’s first major exhibit of works by the abstract master.

▪ To Short North Stage, for raising the standard in locally produced musicals with an ambitious 2013 season that culminated in the long-awaited Central Ohio premiere of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park With George, a challenging 1985 Pulitzer Prize winner that was brought to vivid life by blending local talents with such New York experts as sound designer Leon Rothenberg, a 2013 Tony Award winner, and director Sarna Lapine, niece of James Lapine.

▪ A Roy Bowen Lifetime Achievement Award to William Goldsmith for nurturing the talents and imaginations of tens of thousands of children and for writing and directing many popular stage adaptations of classic tales as youth theater director at Players Theatre Columbus in the 1970s and ’80s and, for 25 years since 1989, as artistic director of Columbus Children’s Theatre, a troupe that celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2013.

Tale of New Jersey songsters improves with age

Brandon Andrus, Nick Cosgrove, Jason Kappus and Nicolas Dromard (from left) play the Four Seasons in Jersey Boys (photo by Jeremy Daniel)
Brandon Andrus, Nick Cosgrove, Jason Kappus and Nicolas Dromard (from left) play the Four Seasons in Jersey Boys (photo by Jeremy Daniel)

By Richard Ades

Why is Jersey Boys so much more fun the second time around?

Part of it may be due to lowered expectations. Prior to the touring show’s Columbus debut in 2011, the press attended a preview during which we were told to expect a spectacle that would put every other musical to shame. We also were informed that male viewers, in particular, would be reduced to manly tears by this trip down the Four Seasons’ Memory Lane.

Well, it didn’t happen. Not to me, at least. The show’s historically correct harmonizing was great, but the dramatic portions left my eyes dry.

Fast forward to earlier this week, when the latest version of the touring show returned to the Ohio Theatre. I went, expecting little, and got a lot. In fact, I had a ball.

But the difference can’t be attributed entirely to my new lack of optimism. I think the production is noticeably better this time around.

That’s particularly true in regards to the key role of lead singer Frankie Valli. Two years ago, the featured actor hit the falsetto notes with aplomb, but he couldn’t carry off some of the tale’s most touching moments. Now, though, Nick Cosgrove does it all without a hitch—singing, acting and even a few athletic dance moves.

Actors playing the rest of the New Jersey-bred quartet are equally fine: Nicolas Dromard as the out-for-himself Tommy DeVito, Jason Kappus as songwriter Bob Gaudio and a comically laconic Brandon Andrus as Nick Massi.

With a book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, this 2006 Tony Award winner relates the history of the Four Seasons by allowing each member of the 1960s rock group to tell his side of the tale in turn. It’s a clever tack and probably a necessary one, given that three of the four original members are still alive and don’t necessarily agree on the details.

A bevy of talented supporting cast members play the many people who wander in and out of the musicians’ lives. Key actors include Barry Anderson as record producer Bob Crewe, Marlana Dunn as Mary Delgado and Thomas Fiscella as sentimental gangster Gyp DeCarlo.

Under Des McAnuff’s direction, the cast and crew work as a unit while the action flows fluidly from one scene to the next, sometimes even in the midst of song. Meanwhile, Klara Zieglerova’s set design and Howell Binkley’s lighting design fill the stage with images that are subtly handsome and perfectly complementary. As a piece of stagecraft, Jersey Boys is a wonder.

But the show’s real highlight is the music—the just-right re-creations of hits such as Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like a Man and Can’t Take My Eyes Off You. And that’s due not only to the actors’ vocal prowess but to conductor Ben Hartman and his onstage band. Special kudos to Mark Papazian, without whose emphatic drumming the night would be far less joyful.

Were my eyes still dry when I left the show this time around? Yes, but I didn’t care. The rest of my face was smiling.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Jersey Boys through Sept. 29 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $28-$128. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.