The Musical of Musicals: The Musical! (Cyclodrama – Columbus, OH)

There’s nothing better to me than being at a show with a friend and sharing a laugh over an in-joke reference, making eye contact knowing that you both are “in the know” about what is going on. That is the experience I had over and over with my friend and an audience of strangers at Cyclodrama’s production of The Musical of Musicals: The Musical! currently playing upstairs at Club Diversity. Columbus is full of musical performers who know their musicals and composing teams inside out, and this show is one that takes that knowledge and affection and mixes it up with good humor.

 

Photo: Matt Schmitter
 
Written by Eric Rockwell and Joanne Bogart (they both performed in the 2003 and 2005 off-Broadway runs), The Musical of Musicals: The Musical! is a ninety-minute, two-act play that presents the scenario of a woman needing to pay rent to a landlord in five different scenes, each with inspiration from a different composer or composing team. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II are represented in “Corn,” which has many references to Oklahoma!, Carousel, and The Sound of Music; “The Complex” is aptly named for Stephen Sondheim’s section with references to Into the Woods, Company, and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street; “Dear Abby” pokes fun at the silly eccentricities of Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly!, Mame, and La Cage Aux Folles; Andrew Lloyd Webber’s special brand of pretentious pop opera (with inspiration from Evita, Cats, Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Sunset Boulevard) is represented in “Aspects of Junita”; and the dingy, Prohibition-era “Speakeasy” takes its cues from John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Chicago and Cabaret. The clever finale “Done” is a parody of “One” from A Chorus Line.

 

Photo: Matt Schmitter – (left to right) Sophie Kirk, David Taylor, Greg McGoon, and Kayla Scites
 
The show is presented with just a few props, costumes, and excellent keyboard accompaniment by Tony Love. This isn’t a show where you need to look any deeper than what is on the surface, and many character names are reused and altered to fit each interpretation of the same basic story. Each song is a direct riff on a song from a musical, with “If I Loved You” becoming “I Don’t Love You” and “If He Walked into My Life” inspiring “Did I Put Out Enough?” My favorite number is “I’ve Heard That Song Before” from the Andrew Lloyd Webber section, a comment on how he reuses the same melodies ad nauseam (and even “borrows” some from Puccini); what’s scary is how catchy the tune is in that parody song! Each section opens with a montage of clips from film and stage performances that help clue people in on the references they will see and hear in each scene; think of them each as four-minute refresher courses on musical theatre. Even if you are a musical neophyte, these montages will help you recognize many of the reasons why the people around you are laughing.

 

Photo: Matt Schmitter – (left to right) Sophie Kirk, Alan Saunders, Carolyn Cutri, Kayla Scites, Drea Blau, Alicia Brown, David Taylor, Zach Arnold, and Greg McGoon
 
Each member of the cast is worthy of recognition, representing the kind of go-for-broke kind of ensemble necessary for this material to work. Alan Saunders (who is also the director) steps in whenever eye candy is required, but he has a voice and talent to offer as well; Carolyn Cutri has a thrilling voice that she isn’t afraid to punch you with as Mother Abby; Greg McGoon plays both villain and lovesick youngster with ease; Zach Arnold makes a fine scruffy Phantom clone; Alicia Brown plays Junita (think Eva “Evita” Peron) with a kind of innocence that is hilarious, even while maneuvering the chandelier that will mean her death; Sophie Kirk pouts and preens to perfection as June and Dear Abby; David Taylor’s Big Willy (yes, I know) hits notes with a volume and pitch that is surely intentionally off-putting and right in step with the mood; Kayla Scites has a delicately sweet voice as Junie Fay (think Minnie Fay in Hello, Dolly!); and Drea Blau is on hand to introduce each scene as well as join in for ensemble numbers.

 

Photo: Chuck Pennington III – Carolyn Cutri & David Taylor
 

The Musical of Musicals: The Musical! isn’t your typical show, but it is performed with verve by a game cast willing to look and act just as silly as required. The references range from those even non-musical fans will get (who doesn’t know about the nuns in The Sound of Music or the chandelier in The Phantom of the Opera?) to some deep catalog references to Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express (the cast on roller skates) and Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. In the end, the show is a celebration of the music these fine composers have gifted us over the years, and all of the jabs are good-natured. Did I mention the cabaret-style seating at little round tables and the cheap drinks you can bring in from the bar downstairs? This is a show best enjoyed with some theatre buddies after a few drinks.

The Musical of Musicals: The Musical! continues through to May 29th in Club Diversity located at 863 South High Street, and more information can be found at http://www.cyclodrama.com/

The Last Five Years (Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)

The Last Five Years is one of those rare musicals that has achieved major popularity without hitting Broadway, its status cemented by an excellent cast recording of its brief 2002 off-Broadway run. The show was revived off-Broadway in 2013 and adapted into a film in 2015, and it continues to have a healthy life in licensing across the country in regional and community theatres. Now it is time for Columbus’ own Short North Stage to present the show, replacing the previously announced The Flick in their season schedule. This production is a great example of how so many quite good elements can combine to result in something that just doesn’t quite deliver in a way one should expect from a show of this stature.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Melissa Hall (Catherine) and Jarrad Biron Green (Jamie)
 
Jason Robert Brown’s ode to a relationship between two people from their initial blush of attraction to the sputtering embers of their separation is reportedly autobiographical, borrowing major elements from his first marriage. It is a sung-through piece with the leads, Catherine and Jamie, singing alternating songs; Catherine’s story is told in reverse chronological order while Jamie’s starts at the beginning. Seating is arranged on The Garden Theatre stage on opposite sides of the action; this allows for the audience to be quite close to the performers, but it also drastically limits seating capacity. 

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Jarrad Biron Green (Jamie) and Melissa Hall (Catherine)
 
There is no fault to be found in the singing abilities of Melissa Hall as Catherine or Jarrad Biron Green as Jamie; these two sound terrific, especially in their one duet, “The Next Ten Minutes,” which closes the first act. Music director Andrew Willis summons clean and full-sounding instrumentals from his small ensemble, and Edward Carignan’s set helps create a certain kind of mood necessary for this piece; a rotating platform maneuvered by the cast becomes a bridge as well as many other things with a pool of standing water and some plants in the rear, and a park bench is opposite it framed by long drapes. Sophia Gersing’s animated art for “The Schmuel Song” brings to mind a similar use of animation in the film version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch; the use of limited animation was a delightful part of that film just as it is a welcome addition here. The sound design is a bit off in this environment as the voices of the actors always come from the far left or right depending on which side of the stage you are seated; this is quite disconcerting whenever the performers sing downstage as their voices are amplified coming from the opposite direction. Still, the orchestra sounds quite crisp and full, only occasionally drowning out Mr. Green’s singing. The lighting, while often quite beautiful, also appears a bit off as Mr. Green is illuminated in one scene from just his chest down; another scene shows Ms. Hall with a hard light bisecting her forehead, leaving her hair and the top of her head in darkness. 

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Jarrad Biron Green (Jamie) – Art by Sophia Gersing
 
The main issue I have with this production is that it is acted without the arc written into the material. With the structure of the show being what it is and being sung through, it could seem easy to pull off with limited means when in fact it probably puts more stress on the performers to act more in their singing. We should see Catherine go from being a broken woman (“Still Hurting”) to incredibly optimistic (“Goodbye Until Tomorrow”) as well as seeing Jamie transform from an ambitious author who just met Catherine and is excited (“Shiksa Goddess”) to a philandering husband who leaves her (“I Could Never Rescue You”). In lieu of this, director Nick Lingnofski gives us a Catherine who always looks like someone just stole her puppy and a Jamie who remains a narcissistic jerk throughout (he sneers out some of “Moving Too Fast,” making some of the words unintelligible). It’s difficult to hit any real emotional depth when neither character seems like they are playing with a full deck, making their one duet sound great but feel empty. It is difficult to believe that this Catherine would ever have found anything to like in this Jamie, who from his entrance appears like he wants to flip off the audience. 

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Melissa Hall (Catherine)
 

The Last Five Years is alternately depressing as well as hopeful, and its score is full of gems that are relatable to most anyone who has ever been in a relationship on rocky ground. While this production didn’t get to me in my gut like other productions I’ve seen of this work, it is far from being terrible. Hearing this score live bests listening to a recording of it any day, and being seated so close to the performers only adds to the experience. While I had hoped for a deeper emotional connection this time around, Short North Stage’s The Last Five Years is pleasant enough even if it misses the bull’s-eye.

**/ out of ****

The Last Five Years continues through to May 22nd in The Garden Theatre located at 1187 North High Street in Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.shortnorthstage.org/calendar/v/535

A View from the Bridge (Gallery Players – Columbus, OH)

 

Leave it to Arthur Miller to tackle the kind of deep topics that would’ve been impossible to discuss openly in the repressive 1950s. First performed with another one-act play in 1955 on Broadway that closed after only a few months, Miller’s A View from the Bridge was revised and expanded to two acts, eventually finding success in productions staged in England as well as in the form of several Broadway revivals; now this important piece about immigration and the perils of too much love is being presented by Gallery Players with a talented cast in a production that is largely successful.

 

Photo: Jared Saltman – (left to right) Sonda Staley (Beatrice), Eliya Smith (Catherine), Mike Writtenberry (Rodolpho), Brian A. Palmer (Marco), and Richard Napoli (Eddie)
 

A View from the Bridge takes place in the 1950s within the Brooklyn apartment of the Carbones, an Italian family made up of Eddie, a longshoreman; his wife, Beatrice; and their orphaned niece, Catherine, a teenager. Eddie has specific ideas about the kind of life he wants for his niece, his affection for her causing alienation between him and his wife. The situation only grows more complicated when cousins of his wife, the brothers Marco and Rodolpho, arrive to stay with them as illegal immigrants. As Rodolpho and Catherine’s friendship grows, Eddie’s concern for his niece’s well-being only grows, generating a series of outbursts that affect not only the lives of those in his household but the whole community.

 

Photo: Jared Saltman – (left to right) Brian A. Palmer (Marco) and Richard Napoli (Eddie)
 
Standouts in the cast are Richard Napoli as the hard-working but troubled Eddie; Mike Writtenberry as Rodolpho, the immigrant from Italy; Brian A. Palmer as Marco, Rodolpho’s imposing brother; Eliya Smith as Catherine, the innocent teen; and, last but not least, Sonda Staley as Beatrice, Eddie’s ignored wife. Mr. Napoli, sounding a bit like Stallone in Rocky, is excellent at making his point known using the script as written with its veiled allusions to homosexuality; this type of writing demands someone with the proper swagger and demeanor to pull it off with a modern audience used to far more explicit and direct works, and Mr. Napoli fits that bill. Mr. Writtenberry holds firm to his accent and expressive mannerisms as Rodolpho, perfectly demonstrating the kind of behavior that riles Eddie; their “boxing match” (choreographed by Ryan Metzger) is intense and squirm-inducing. Mr. Palmer doesn’t have a lot to say as Marco, but that’s because there is no need; his imposing stature and use of silence and a stare says more than enough. Ms. Smith as first seems too naive to be a girl on the cusp of adulthood, but that is precisely the point; her youthful energy grows into a woman’s resolve through this performance, even though her slip is still showing along her hemline throughout. Ms. Staley has a matter-of-factness as Beatrice that makes her performance all the more touching in the scene with Ms. Smith where she gently lets her know that it is time for her to grow up; when she asks her husband, “When am I gonna be your wife again?” one can feel her loneliness. Ms. Staley can only be faulted for her lackluster sweeping skills, an ability that surely would be second nature to a housewife of this era.

 

Photo: Jared Saltman – Richard Napoli (Eddie) and Sonda Staley (Beatrice)
 
Director Nancy Williams guides this production with a firm understanding of the material and at a pace that ensures no moment out stays its welcome. Ms. Williams missteps with her choice of underscoring music for two pivotal scenes in the second act; the music during the raid sounds like a scene out of The Maltese Falcon, and the violent attack at the end sounds like the rumble in West Side Story. The rest of the music in this production is well-placed and appropriate, so why have these two scenes play out with such obvious cues that dissolve the tension in their respective scenes? It’s almost as if the director doesn’t trust her talented cast to carry these moments on their own. Another unfortunate decision is casting Nick Baldasare as Alfieri, the lawyer and narrator of the story. Mr. Baldasare cuts a handsome frame, but his vocal modulation and speed make quite a bit of what he says unintelligible even though he is quite loud.

 

Photo: Jared Saltman – Eliya Smith (Catherine) and Richard Napoli (Eddie)
 

A View from the Bridge is absorbing theatre, and even with some notable flaws this production is worthwhile. There is a kind of palpable charm that comes through in the material and time period that is inviting and even a bit dangerous. This is the kind of play that can speak to empty nesters as well as anyone who has ties to family that can prove to be harmful if not properly nurtured and checked.

*** out of ****

A View from the Bridge continues through to May 22nd in the Roth-Resler Theater at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus located at 1125 College Avenue, and more information can be found at http://columbusjcc.org/cultural-arts/gallery-players/

Cats (Columbus Children’s Theatre & Columbus Moving Company – Columbus, OH)

 


Cats, one of the longest-running and most popular stage musicals worldwide, has always been a bit of a puzzlement to many a theatre fan, myself included. The show doesn’t follow the usual structure of a musical or stick to any of its conventions, yet it has proven to be incredibly popular and successful. Adapted from T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats with music supplied by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cats was one of the British mega musicals that took over Broadway during the 1980s. In all the show ran for eighteen years on Broadway and has toured the country since the mid ’80s, a favorite for families long before Disney’s The Lion King appeared on the horizon in 1997.

 

Photo: David Heasley – (left to right) Grace Johnson (Jemima) and Devin Judge (Munkustrap)
 

Cats is an assemblage of various character numbers with only the barest semblance of a plot; its main assets are a catchy score, character design, and dancing. It isn’t a real musical in the traditional sense, but it has surely drawn many people to the theatre over the last thirty-five years who may now owe their initial curiosity about live theatre to this show; in that way, Cats is a force musical theatre scholars can’t deny, one that has helped to foster generations of theatregoers who perhaps moved on to more serious and deeper pastures musically. The show’s flagship song “Memory” is now a standard, one that even the staunch theatre cognoscenti (those that count Cats along with other British juggernauts like Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon as somehow inferior works) can’t discount entirely. 

  

Photo: David Heasley – William Macke (Skimbleshanks)
 


Cats has now arrived via Columbus Children’s Theatre and Columbus Moving Company at the historic Lincoln Theatre in a production that is elaborate with energy to spare. Here the cats frolic and scamp about, sometimes even through the aisles around the audience. This production replicates so many of the costumes and bits of stage business quite familiar to fans of the show while making some notable and welcome changes that aid in making it the kind of local event that commands attention. Even if you’ve seen Cats many times before, this production is still very much worth your time and attention.

 

Photo: David Heasley – (left to right) Rumpleteazer (Sara Tuohy) and Mungojerrie (Kyle Swearingen)
 
Highlights of this production include seeing Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer (Kyle Swearingen and Sara Tuohy respectively) perform their number with added acrobatic feats; William Macke shimmy his way around the stage as Skimbleshanks, The Railway Cat; Ryan Stem’s solemn and solid portrayal of Old Deuteronomy; Stewart R. Bender performing double duty as jolly Bustopher Jones and the heartbreakingly infirm Gus, The Theatre Cat; and last but far from least, Kendra Lucas as Grizabella, The Glamour Cat, eloquently delivering “Memory” as if the words are occurring to her for the first time, more than matching the best interpretations of that famous song.

 

Photo: David Heasley – Kendra Lucas (Grizabella)
 
Director Ryan Scarlata sticks close to the feel and staging of the 1998 film version produced for television and video release, which appears to have been a valuable reference. Still, some of the best moments are when Mr. Scarlata and choreographer Jeffrey Fouch (who also adeptly performs as Quaxo and Mr. Mistoffelees) veer away from what we expect from Cats, incorporating more gymnastics and acrobatics into the presentation. Michael Brewer’s decrepit circus set fits the material far better in my mind than the traditional junkyard, as the various musical sequences feel more like circus or vaudeville acts than alley performances. Brendan Michna’s layered lighting serves to enhance each scene and support the excellent craftsmanship of the many talented people working behind the scenes to make sure the makeup, costumes, and wigs are just right.

 

Photo: David Heasley – (left to right) Krista Lively Stauffer (Jellylorum) and Stewart R. Bender (Gus)
 
The only aspect of this production that is sometimes disappointing is that of the music, which is a pretty big deal for a musical. I’m sure it’s no fault of musical director Jonathan Collura as he never missteps in his accompaniment, but only so much can come across without the proper instrumentation. Many numbers sound more like elevator Muzak than what should be playing alongside the action on stage.

 

Photo: David Heasley
 
Columbus Children’s Theatre and Columbus Moving Company have done a remarkable job mounting Cats with production values that meet or exceed what we usually see from national tours when they pass through Columbus. It really says something when I find myself enjoying a production of a show of which I’m not particularly fond, but that is exactly what happened in this case. Don’t let the 150-minute running time listed on CCT’s website scare you off; it actually runs two hours including the intermission though no songs are missing or are abridged (aside from “Growltiger’s Last Stand” and perhaps longer dance sequences that pass without notice). Cats is still a show that makes many a theatre fan roll their eyes, but I found myself humming the tunes to “The Rum Tum Tugger” and “Skimbleshanks The Railway Cat” as well as the ubiquitous “Memory” for days afterwards.

***/ out of ****

Cats continues through to May 15th in the Lincoln Theatre located at 769 East Long Street, and more information can be found at http://www.columbuschildrenstheatre.org/cats.html

Big River (Standing Room Only [SRO] – Columbus, OH)

“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. By order of the author.” – Mark Twain

That quote is inside the program for Standing Room Only’s foot-tapping production of Big River, a musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. What’s funny is the story does have a moral, plot, and a motive, but I guess Mr. Twain would prefer his audience just enjoy what happens rather than try to make sense of it; and enjoyable it is, especially in this Tony award-winning musical adaptation with songs by Roger Miller and book by William Hauptman.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Susan Loar (Widow Douglas), Caleb Baker (Huck Finn), Brandon Buchanan (Jim), and Kris Wilson (Miss Watson)

The time is 1844, and the place is the Deep South. It is before the Civil War, and slavery is still legal. Huck Finn fills us in on how he and Tom Sawyer now have money in the bank, and how he is just aching to get out on his own while living with the Widow Douglas and her sister, Miss Watson. Huck’s alcoholic and abusive father smells money and takes back custody of Huck. It isn’t long before Huck takes matters into his own hands, starting off on a series of adventures with Jim, a runaway slave, and encountering a team of con men (a “King” and a “Duke”) that get them into nothing but trouble. Through it all, Huck grows as a person and works to find a way back home while keeping Jim from being enslaved again.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Brandon Buchanan (Jim) and Caleb Baker (Huck Finn)

Caleb Baker is a curious choice as Huck Finn; he appears to be easily twice the age of the character he is playing, and he underplays his part to a large extent. In some ways, this works just fine because there are many supporting actors who more than make their mark in the berth his performance leaves open. This relaxed approach to Huck also makes Mr. Baker’s strong renditions of “Worlds Apart” and “River in the Rain” (both duets with the sublime Brandon Buchanan) feel all the more significant when his voice and manner rise to the occasion of the moment.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Caleb Baker (Huck Finn) and Thor Collard (Pap Finn)

Standouts in the supporting cast are the aforementioned Brandon Buchanan as Jim, the slave, bringing dignity and sweetness to a tricky part; Thor Collard playing a variety of slimy characters from Pap Finn to Silas with delicious aggression; Ryan Kopycinski as Ben Rogers and a part of the ensemble, comfortably as backwoods-ish as possible; Nyla Nyamweya as the daughter of a slave named Alice, performing an electrifying solo of “How Blest We Are”; and John Feather as the con man King and Judge Thatcher.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Wilma Hatton (Alice), Nyla Nyamweya (Alice’s daughter), and Akia Williams

Dee Shepherd directs this show efficiently, maintaining a steady sprint that could easily be held back by large sets and too many props. Ms. Shepherd allows her actors to spread out and tell the story largely on their own with some well-placed sound effects, some interesting lighting choices (a raft that figures largely in the play has its perimeter defined by the lighting), and a truly excellent small band lead by music director Chipper Snow. The bluegrass-themed score by Roger Miller is adeptly performed with Jordan Shear on the violin, Ted Reich on the harmonica, Robert W. Loar on percussion and bass, and Josh Dillingham on guitar; each of these talented men earn a shout out. The Van Fleet Theatre can be tricky sound wise, but this is one production where the singing can be heard perfectly (save for two performers who shall go unnamed) even with the band playing off to the right.

Photo: Jerri Shafer


Big River is more enjoyable in this small production by Standing Room Only than I remember from seeing the 2003 Broadway revival. It’s still an episodic show with perhaps one vignette too many, but this Big River is also surprisingly rousing in its crowd scenes, and I found myself humming songs that had not caught my attention from seeing the show previously. Even though Mr. Twain said there was no moral in this story, I beg to differ; seeing Huck Finn’s growth from seeing Jim as just a slave to a fully rounded person with the ability to feel and care “just like a white person” is still unfortunately relevant. We’ve come a long way socially, but these stories that illustrate the way it was less than two hundred years ago in this country are still very important to tell, especially as long as a malaise of inequality still hangs over this great country of ours. Go see Standing Room Only’s Big River for the music and the fun, but leave with the message.

*** 1/4 out of ****

Big River continues through to May 7th in the Van Fleet Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://www.srotheatre.org/big-river1.html

Photo: Jerri Shafer

The Oldest Profession (Eclipse Theatre Company – Worthington, OH)

Photo: Greg Smith – (left to right) Kathy Sturm (Edna), Terry Sullivan (Lillian), Linda Browning (Mae), Tobi Gerber (Vera), and Linda Goodwin (Ursula)

Where does one begin when starting a new theatre company? Should one start with a modern classic by Tennessee Williams, something by Shaw or Ibsen, perhaps a well-known musical? Or how about opening with something off the beaten path, something interesting and fresh that the area has likely never seen before. Eclipse Theatre Company’s premiere production is of Paula Vogel’s The Oldest Profession, a quirky and entertaining show with plenty of laughter and heart, definitely a standard deviation from anything else currently being performed in or around Columbus.

 

Photo: Mel Buehl – (left to right) Linda Goodwin (Ursula), Terry Sullivan (Lillian), Tobi Gerber (Vera), Linda Browning (Mae), and Kathy Sturm (Edna)
 

The Oldest Profession is about a group of aging prostitutes struggling to remain relevant in New York, a city that is beginning to change at the dawn of the 1980s. These five women have been in “the life” for over fifty years, harkening back to the days of Prohibition in the late 1920s, which would put most of them in their seventies (or older). These women may look like quaint, blinged-out grandmas (whatever you do, don’t call them that!) with their overstuffed hair and painted faces, but they are rather refined ladies for hire with an ever dwindling clientele. These aren’t your typical streetwalkers turning tricks in alleys for drugs; these are women who want to bring joy to their gentlemen callers while supporting themselves. The changing economics of the time are reflected in how they live their lives and run their business, demonstrating how living in a city teetering on the brink of bankruptcy effects everyone. The program has a quaint glossary of terms printed on the back along with a short essay putting the story into historical context. I’m not sure anyone could misinterpret the meaning behind “dip his wick,” though some of the French euphemisms were helpful to know. Still, I don’t think “poontang” means hooker; I’m pretty sure it means any piece of female action one can get.

 

Photo: Greg Smith – (left to right) Kathy Sturm (Edna) and Linda Browning (Mae)
 
Standouts in the cast are Kathy Sturm as Edna, the big earner of the group with heels to match; Linda Goodwin as Ursula, the Republican hooker, as cold as one would expect; and Terry Sullivan as Lillian, the theatre cat, always up for a good time out among the footlights. Linda Browning as Mae, the madam, has some strong moments, particularly one in which she defends her turf against some new trade. Tobi Gerber as Vera, the somewhat dim and gullible member of the group, has one of the best lines in the piece: “I’m gonna scratch her snatch!” The actresses interact well with each other, and if there are a few pregnant pauses here and there or a few false starts with their line delivery, it all somehow works. These are elderly women the performers are playing after all, though I was surprised at how youthful they each appeared sans wig and heavy makeup after the performance.

 

Photo: Mel Buehl – (left to right) Linda Goodwin (Ursula), Terry Sullivan (Lillian), Tobi Gerber (Vera), and Kathy Sturm (Edna)
 
A nice element of the rather unconventional performance space Eclipse Theatre Company has secured is how intimate it all feels. The area is draped into a square, and there are only fifty seats located directly in front and to the left and right of the action. There isn’t a bad seat to be had, and the acoustics are perfect for allowing each word to be heard with little to no apparent amplification. Greg Smith’s set consists of a bench in front of a black iron gate bridged by stone pillars and streetlights with a mostly full trash bin off to the side and a concrete floor complete with some gum residue; what more is needed to illustrate the perimeter of a park? Mr. Smith also directs this piece, inserting an intermission about forty-five minutes into the play where it was designed to be performed in one continuous 105-minute stretch. The break occurs at a decent enough spot save for making the second act a quarter hour longer than the first, but it isn’t a problem. These ladies are worth the time.

 

Photo: Mel Buehl – (left to right) Linda Goodwin (Ursula), Terry Sullivan (Lillian), Tobi Gerber (Vera), and Linda Browning (Mae)
 

The Oldest Profession is laugh-out-loud funny as these feisty old women argue, debate, and talk business about things women a third of their age would probably be too embarrassed to discuss. It’s also terribly poignant as these women one by one pass on, the real heartbreak is discovering which will be the one who’s left behind. This is an R-rated show to be sure, but it isn’t as expletive-laden as one might expect. These are ladies, after all, the last vestiges of a bygone era that ended during the ’80s when Ronald Reagan was president and New York City began its transformation into the tourist-friendly (though arguably character-less) landmark it is today.

*** out of ****

The Oldest Profession continues through May 1st at 670 Lakeview Plaza Blvd, Suite F, Worthington (less than 30 minutes from downtown Columbus), and more information can be found at http://eclipsetheatrecompany.org/

   

   
  
 

Bright Star (Cort Theatre – NYC)

 

Sometimes I wish I could suddenly switch directors in the middle of a show. The action will be flowing along at a pretty even clip, and then BOOM something happens so awkward and misguided that members of the audience begin to laugh at what is intended to be a serious moment. That kind of moment occurs in Bright Star, the new Steve Martin-Edie Brickell musical playing at the Cort Theatre, at the end of the first act, and the show never quite recovers from it despite a glowing performance by its lead actress and an interesting story.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus – A.J. Shively (Billy)
 

Bright Star begins as the story of Billy Cane (A.J. Shively), an aspiring writer from a small town in North Carolina who travels to the big city with the hope of being published by the persnickety but well-respected literary editor, Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack). As Billy is encouraged to continue with his writing, a parallel story unfolds of Alice as a teenager with her boyfriend, Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexander Nolan). How the two stories are connected becomes pretty apparent to anyone paying any attention at all within about thirty minutes (book writer Steve Martin is no Agatha Christie), but there is a lot of joy to be found in the Bluegrass score, standouts being “If You Knew My Story,” “What Could Be Better,” and “Sun is Gonna Shine.” There are the usual requisite annoying supporting characters (someone needs to tell Jeff Blumenkrantz, who plays Alice’s junior editor, Daryl Ames, that the part of Phil Silvers has already been cast), but the real problem is not with the performers, the story, or the score – it’s with the direction by Walter Bobbie. More on that later.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus – Carmen Cusack (Alice)
 
One consistent bright light in the show is that which shines from Carmen Cusack as Alice Murphy, the girl with a past and a “story to tell” about it. Ms. Cusack is consistently engaging and exciting to watch, and she transitions effortlessly from a teenager in the 1920s to a sophisticated but guarded career woman in the 1940s, aided by beautifully crafted costumes by Jane Greenwood that have the appearance of being lightly faded with delicate hues to help evoke the period. When the truth emerges about a painful period in her character’s past, Ms. Cusack’s reaction is so bare and honest that I defy anyone not to be riveted. Hers is an award-worthy performance, a remarkable Broadway debut.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus – Paul Alexander Nolan (Jimmy Ray) and Carmen Cusack (Alice)
 
The scene that causes this production to go off the rails closes the first act and involves Michael Mulheren as Mayor Josiah Dobbs, the father of Alice’s beau, Jimmy Ray. Without giving away any spoilers, the scene contains a violent act and an important traveling bag with some precious cargo. Mayor Dobbs is on a train singing the monotonous “A Man’s Gotta Do” (which is basically the same lyric repeated ad nauseam, causing some audience members around me to groan) and then launches this very important bag into the air, at which point it rotates in slow motion across the stage. Everyone around me started laughing. There was something terribly comic about the moment that I firmly believe was unintentional as it involves a willful violent act towards an innocent (I’m trying to be vague as not to spoil the story here). How could a director of Walter Bobbie’s caliber not sense that the scene was not coming across properly and work to adjust it? The derisive chortling picked up in the second act in a poorly-written and acted scene wherein Mayor Dobbs confesses his deed to his son. Mr. Nolan as Jimmy Ray keeps asking things like, “What do you mean?” so much that I began to wonder if his character was suffering from some cognitive processing disability.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus – Stephen Lee Anderson (Daddy Murphy) and Carmen Cusack (Alice)
 
All hope for any consistent tone is lost for good in a scene in which Stephen Bogardus as Billy’s father recounts a story of when Billy was a newborn. The scene has all the subtlety and depth of a “Hee Haw” segment, and it did elicit laughter but not because it was funny; we laughed because it was ridiculous and made a mockery of the entire piece! As far as I can see, the blame lays at Mr. Bobbie’s feet for taking a work with such potential and alternately steering it directly into oncoming traffic.

 

Photo: Joan Marcus – Carmen Cusack (Alice)
 

Bright Star tells an incredible story inspired by a true event (that is how it is stated in the advertising materials), has some good music, and contains one of the most heartfelt performances I’ve seen on Broadway this year by Ms. Cusack; it also has moments that elicit laughter because of their ineptitude. It’s heartbreaking to witness such a mixed bag when it’s apparent a lot of love went into it. Imagine a delicious bag of popcorn that starts out great until you realize only half of the kernels popped; it doesn’t mean the popcorn wasn’t worth getting, it just means you aren’t going to get as much out of it as you would’ve liked. Bright Star is still worth seeing for many reasons, but I can see this work succeeding far more with someone else at the helm. Here’s hoping the show has a future in licensing as I feel it could do very well with the proper guidance.

** 1/4 out of ****

Bright Star continues in the Cort Theatre at 138 West 48th Street in midtown Manhattan, and more information can be found at http://brightstarmusical.com/

The Full Monty: The Musical (Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)

It’s always fun to attend new productions of plays that I’ve seen and enjoyed when I can bring someone new to see them for the first time. The Full Monty: The Musical is a show I’ve always found enjoyable, and I was fortunate to have attended its closing performance on Broadway on a Sunday matinee in September 2002. From its national tour a year or so later to a spring 2014 production at Otterbein and then The Human Race Theatre Company’s production in Dayton last fall, Short North Stage’s The Full Monty: The Musical is now the fifth production of this show that I’ve seen. This time I brought my friend Bianca who had no knowledge of the musical or the film from which it was based. I enticed her with the promise of male nudity, but it was the humor and heart of the piece that kept her interested.

The Full Monty: The Musical is based on the 1997 surprise hit film about a group of unemployed steel mill workers putting on a strip show to raise money for their families as well as raise their spirits. Theatre legend Terrence McNally adapted the screenplay for the stage, adeptly transplanting the action from Sheffield, England, to Buffalo, New York, with music and lyrics added by the criminally underrated David Yazbek, with “You Rule My World” and “You Walk With Me” the standouts from a consistently tuneful and appropriate score. While the play may have one too many manufactured obstacles at the end, The Full Monty: The Musical is very entertaining and, dare I say it, even moving in its depiction of men down on their luck banding together to prove to their families and themselves that they can rise above their current employment statuses and work together to accomplish a goal. 

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
Director Edward Carignan deftly guides an energetic and jovial cast in this production, aided by a terrific set by Dick Block (who designed the same turntable set for The Human Race Theatre Company production in Dayton last fall and has adapted and expanded it here) and very clear and balanced sound designed by Kevin Rhodus. The sound for a musical is particularly important, and this production is the first to take advantage of Short North Stage’s new sound system; aside from a few blips here and there, voices are clear and the music (aided by music director Jeff Caldwell and conductor Jim Kucera) quite full-sounding without overpowering the vocal performances. Aside from Kieron Cindric (as the professional stripper Buddy) not being mic’d and sometimes being difficult to hear at the performance I attended, the overall aural presentation is solid, positioning Short North Stage to emerge as one of the best producers of musicals in the area.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
Standouts in the cast are David Bryant Johnson as Jerry, the dad trying to raise money for child support; Linda Kinnison Roth as crotchety rehearsal pianist Jeanette; Ian Short as the stuffy Harold; Patrick Walters as the rather dim-witted but boyishly handsome Ethan Girard; and Sean Felder as Malcolm, the suicidal mamma’s boy. Evin Hoffman is also perfectly cast as the villain Teddy, Jerry’s ex-wife’s fiancée; you can almost feel his smirk at Jerry’s activities as soon as he steps on stage. Sam Vestey deserves an honorable mention in his small role as Reg; his audition scene is so free of inhibition and honest that it emerges as one of the most touching scenes in the play, a scene usually played for comedy. 

The only criticism I have of this production is that the scene changes are often quite slow, idling the engine while the set rotates with some added business being performed on the far left and right of the stage. The show runs a good fifteen minutes longer than I’m used to, but perhaps some of this timing will be improved throughout the run. It didn’t bother Bianca when I mentioned it to her, and it certainly didn’t seem to affect anyone’s enjoyment of the show judging by the applause and chatter I heard at the conclusion.  The tender scene between Mr. Walters and Mr. Felder when they confront their budding attraction may also lack some chemistry, but Mr. Felder’s performance of “You Walk With Me” is a major highlight.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 

The Full Monty: The Musical was rather unfairly overshadowed by the monster hit The Producers during its Broadway run, so I’m pleased to see that it has found a life in regional and local theatres across the country. For a play about stripping, unemployment, and child support, The Full Monty: The Musical is diverting rather than depressing, and its message of acceptance hasn’t dated like its references to VCRs and Sony Trinitron television sets. Short North Stage’s production is to date the best musical I’ve seen produced locally this year, and it serves to make me more excited to see what comes next from this company.

***/ out of ****

The Full Monty: The Musical continues through to April 24th in The Garden Theatre located at 1187 North High Street in Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.shortnorthstage.org/calendar/v/469

Sweeney Todd (Standing Room Only [SRO] – Columbus, OH)

In lieu of a full review, I offer up this promotional video I produced for the production. Though the full title is Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Standing Room Only [SRO] is promoting it just as Sweeney Todd.

Sweeney Todd continues through to April 10th in the Van Fleet Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://www.srotheatre.org

You Can’t Take It With You (Curtain Players – Galena, OH)

Photo: Stephen Elliot Moore – Edited by Chuck Pennington III
“Life is kind of beautiful if you just let it come to you,” says Martin Vanderhof, the patriarch of the unconventional Sycamore family; he also states, “The world’s not so crazy – it’s the people in it!” There is a lot of wisdom in Mr. Vanderhof’s words, and the “crazy” he speaks of might just be his own family of misfits; they are the focus of the delightful classic comedy You Can’t Take It With You, currently enjoying a splendid run courtesy of Curtain Players in Gahanna, Ohio.

 

Photo: Stephen Elliot Moore – Edited by Chuck Pennington III
 

You Can’t Take It With You premiered on Broadway in 1936, ran for two years, and was adapted (and extensively rewritten) into a 1938 Academy Award-winning film by Frank Capra starring James Stewart. Written by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, the play revolves around the Sycamore family, a rather unconventional group of people that explore their hobbies with gusto but are traditionally unemployed; that is, except for Alice Sycamore (Madison Garvin Lee), the only household member with a regular job. When Alice gets serious with the boss’s son, Tony Kirby (Jack Miller), it becomes time for her family to meet her beau and his family; after all, a man doesn’t just marry a woman – he marries her family too. Think of it as a less vulgar version of Meet the Parents, the 2000 comedy film starring Ben Stiller, which owes a lot to this play. The requisite mayhem ensues as the Sycamore clan clashes with the Kirby society folk (or is it the other way around?), but the real joy is seeing how everything will play out. Martin Vanderhof, Alice’s grandfather and the wise patriarch of the household, justifies his family’s pursuit of their passions by stating, “You can’t take it with you,” referring to money (the preoccupation of the Kirby family) as well as time. His daughter writes plays, his son-in-law creates fireworks in the basement, one granddaughter is a budding (but uncoordinated) ballerina, his grandson-in-law enjoys playing with his printing press – everyone has a hobby that means something to them even though it may seem strange to outsiders.

 

Photo: Stephen Elliot Moore – Edited by Chuck Pennington III
 
The aforementioned Martin Vanderhof is played by Larry Cole as gentle, loving, understanding – essentially every quality one would want in a grandfather, but perhaps without the snakes he collects. He is matched on the other end of the spectrum by Doug Browell as Tony’s blustery father, Mr. Kirby, who says more with a scowl and glance than many performers could get across in a full page of dialogue. Mr. Cole and Mr. Browell are the two stage veterans that anchor this production, and they hold their own alongside some of the best character actors in the area in the many supporting parts of this piece.

 

Photo: Stephen Elliot Moore – Edited by Chuck Pennington III
 
Standouts in the supporting cast are Julie Emmert-Silvius as Penelope Sycamore, the playwriting matriarch of the household; Kirsten Peninger as Essie, her would-be ballerina daughter; Jeff Kemeter as Ed, Essie’s doting printer/xylophonist husband; Sean Coffman as Boris Kolenkhov, Essie’s Soviet ballet instructor; and Linda Goodwin as Mrs. Kirby, the disapproving mother of the potential groom. Each of these supporting cast members threaten to upstage each other at any moment and yet don’t; there are more than enough wacky and uncomfortable moments to go around, and these supporting players are particularly gifted at playing it all honestly without mugging, which only makes it funnier. I don’t mean light giggle funny; I’m talking laugh-out-loud funny, especially the moments when Ms. Peninger suggestively stretches and arches, blissfully unaware of how inappropriate she looks doing so.
 
Photo: Stephen Elliot Moore – Edited by Chuck Pennington III
 
Director Kate Tull has her hands full with this cast of sixteen but makes it all work. Even though the characters are often saying and doing odd things, they play it quite seriously, free of the mugging and sly glances that show that they are in on the joke, a consistent problem I find with stage comedies. Being blissfully unaware of how their eccentricities look to those around them helps every comedic moment come across to maximum effect. Another observation I had was that if the play were to be set in the present time surely most of the Sycamore family would be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome; it seems everything that diverges from the norm nowadays needs to be labeled.

Having seen the 1938 film and a production of the play in college, I had no idea how funny the play is because it wasn’t until now that I have witnessed it being performed properly. Minor quibbles are the extended scene changes with music that sounds too dramatic for this material as well as the sound effects of the firecrackers and explosions being quite timid in impact and volume (I have heard that this has since been corrected).

 

Photo: Chuck Pennington III – Set Design: Booth Muller – Set Decoration: Kate Tull
 
Booth Muller’s set is award-worthy, with furniture and decoration extending out to the far corners of the stage (set decoration by an uncredited Ms. Tull and the cast). Somehow it never looks cramped, even when sixteen different characters are on stage all at once. It really looks like a living room of the period, though with humorous touches I don’t want to spoil by detailing here. Try to count all of the clocks on the stage, each set to a different time, a visual metaphor if ever I saw one. So much thought and care has gone into representing the interests of each of the characters in this set that it only serves to reinforce the reality of the situation; the set and its decoration is an unflinchingly honest as the characters who live there.

 

Photo: Chuck Pennington III – Set Design: Booth Muller – Set Decoration: Kate Tull
 

You Can’t Take It With You is a real gem of a play, dated only by its reference to there being forty-eight states, the presence of a rotary dial phone, and the now politically-incorrect use of the term “colored.” It makes sense that for many years this was the most-produced play in American high schools. There is a kind of optimism in the Vanderhof household free of the tinge of cynicism that seems to taint all of our entertainment nowadays. Even if you’ve seen the Oscar-winning Frank Capra film, you owe it to yourself to see the original play. The innocently naughty humor and unabashed honesty of the material is brilliantly presented in Curtain Players’ production; this isn’t one to miss.

*** 3/4 out of **** (yes, that’s 3.75 out of 4)

You Can’t Take It With You continues through to April 3rd in the Curtain Players Theatre located at 5691 Harlem Road in Galena (a little over half an hour outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.curtainplayers.org/season/2015-2016/5_cant_take.php
 

Photo: Chuck Pennington III – Set Design: Booth Muller – Set Decoration: Kate Tull