2015 Theatre Year in Review – My Picks for the Best in and Around Columbus

I’ve been asked by a few people to compile my picks for the best central Ohio theatre in and around Columbus in 2015, and so that’s just what I’ve done. I didn’t start writing about and trying to see as much local theatre as possible until June, so there are some reportedly very good productions that I unfortunately didn’t get to see. This list is based on what I saw for the second half of 2015 with one exception – Short North Stage’s Psycho Beach Party from January 2015. I didn’t write a review for it, but the fun I had at that production is still vivid in my mind year later.

For a thorough rundown of my thoughts on each show, I have linked my reviews to open by clicking on the title of each play.


BEST MUSICAL

Yank! The Musical (Evolution Theatre Company)

Honorable Mentions: Into the Woods (Dare to Defy), Thoroughly Modern Millie (Imagine), and Krampus, A Yuletide Tale (Short North Stage)


BEST PLAY (COMEDY)

The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? (Red Herring)

Honorable Mention: Psycho Beach Party (Short North Stage) & Skillet Tag (MadLab)


BEST PLAY (DRAMA)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Standing Room Only)

Honorable Mention: An Enemy of the People (The Ohio State University Department of Theatre)


BEST ACTOR

Dave Morgan, The Outgoing Tide (Curtain Players)

Honorable Mention: Tim Browning, The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? (Red Herring)


BEST ACTRESS

Lori Cannon, Sordid Lives (Evolution)

Honorable Mention: Jesika Siler Lehner, Yank! The Musical (Evolution)


BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

James Harper, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Standing Room Only)

Honorable Mentions: Mark Mineart and Andrew Protopapas, Peter and the Starcatcher (CATCO)


BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Susan Gellman, Brighton Beach Memoirs (Gallery Players)

Honorable Mentions: Melissa Bair, Skillet Tag (MadLab) & Vicky Welsh Bragg, Sordid Lives (Evolution)

The Great American Trailer Park Musical (Dare to Defy Productions – Dayton, OH)

Trailer parks get a bad rap. I’m not saying a lot of the stereotypes aren’t true (there’s often a kernel of truth in such preconceived notions, though often warped), but I’m sure that there are plenty of kind, sane, and peaceful people that live in double wides. Fortunately, none of those people are in Dare to Defy Productions’ The Great American Trailer Park Musical, a rollicking indictment against the inhabitants of a trailer park where life is a soap opera but with bigger hair and more makeup.

The Great American Trailer Park Musical, with music and lyrics by David Nehls and a book by Betsy Kelso, ran for a few months off-Broadway in the fall of 2005; since then it’s become a favorite of regional and non-professional groups across the country looking for a musical more contemporary than the usual stalwarts of West Side Story and Annie. Set in Armadillo Acres, a trailer park in Starke, Florida, the story focuses on Norbert, a toll collector, and his agoraphobic wife, Jeanne, and how their lives are turned upside down when bad girl stripper Pippi becomes one of their neighbors; little does everyone know that Pippi is on the run from a crazy ex-boyfriend who is hot on her trail. Did I mention that some of the other residents are named Linoleum and Pickles? 

 

Photo: Matthew Smith
 
There isn’t a bad performance in the show, with special recognition earned by Tia Seay, Lisa Glover, and Angie Thacker. Ms. Seay really whoops it up as Betty, the queen bee and manager of the trailer park, her strong and bold voice a pleasure to enjoy as she comments on the action of the residents. Lisa Glover is similarly fearless as Pippi, the stripper without a heart of gold; she and Ms. Seay hit the fiercest notes and wear the tackiest clothing without fear. Ms. Thacker’s Jeannie is the only character with any deep pathos in the play, so it’s only natural that she doesn’t come off as comical as everyone around her; what’s unnatural is the unexpected sweetness of her singing voice, clear and with vulnerability that is disarming.

Rob Willoughby (who also plays the befuddled Norbert with prickly grit) has outdone himself in designing the set for Armadillo Acres in such a small space. The trailer facades are colorful and functional, especially the way the large picture window of Norbert and Jeannie’s trailer allows us to see directly into their home and glimpse the funny photos on display and odd furniture. A sign in the rear rotates when the location changes to “The Litter Box Show Palace,” the strip club where Pippi (Lisa Glover) works, and Jason Vogel’s lighting changes accordingly to perfectly fit the shift.

 

Photo: Matthew Smith
 
Director Matthew Smith stages and moves the actors quite specifically so that they don’t feel like they are on top of each other or in each other’s way, a definite problem that has been sidestepped in working in what could be seen as quite a cramped space. The only time when the presentation falters is when action is blocked by the first few rows of the audience when activity takes place too far downstage to the right, namely during Ms. Glover’s dance routine in which she motorboats Ms. Seay and walks away with lipstick marks around her décolleté. It’s a bold moment where Ms. Glover really goes for it, but I wonder if it was obscured for a lot of the audience (it was partially hidden where I was sitting) because it wasn’t being performed on some sort of raised platform.

The Great American Trailer Park Musical is intended to be performed in two acts, but this production is presented with no break for around an hour and forty minutes. The limited stadium seating and the closeness of the set and actors to the audience makes this a wise decision as any stragglers would have to walk through the action to get to their seat, a difficult interruption of the all-important fourth wall. This approach also helps the play keep up a certain momentum that would be less effective with a break. So remember – get your potty break in before the show, and know that there will be no late seating! 

 

Photo: Matthew Smith
 
My friend and I enjoyed Dare to Defy’s The Great American Trailer Park Musical, but our laughter was no match for all the giggles heard all around us. The show isn’t deep, keeping its comedy very much on the surface, and that’s just the way it is played here. I’ve seen the show before, and yet somehow a few of the plot twists still threw me this time around! Some of the language and situations push this into PG-13 terrain, but I’d still consider it a fun show for families with teens. In fact, it’s irreverent shows like The Great American Trailer Park Musical that may connect with younger audiences wanting to look beyond the typically “safe” plays performed at their schools. If having a restaurant named “Grits and Tits” offends you, stay home; if, like me, you find it funny, get a ticket before they’re all gone.

*** out of ****

The Great American Trailer Park Musical continues through to January 16th in the Mathile Theatre at the Benjamin and Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center located on West 2nd Street in downtown Dayton (about an hour outside of Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.d2defy.com/

  

Footloose (Dare to Defy Productions – Dayton, OH)

There’s nothing better than seeing a show filled with familiar music that strikes a chord. It’s even better when it is so joyously performed by a large cast in a grand performance space like the Victoria Theatre. Dare to Defy Productions presentation of Footloose is such a show, a surprisingly innocent and family friendly experience playing a limited run of just one weekend in downtown Dayton.

Footloose is based on the 1984 film starring Kevin Bacon about a teenager from a broken home moving from Chicago to the tiny town of Bomont where dancing (and any fun) are illegal; it has been adapted by screenwriter Dean Pitchford and Walter Bobbie for the stage, opening on Broadway in 1998 where it ran for a year and a half. Footloose is often classified as a movie musical because of the hit soundtrack (like Flashdance), but no characters actually sing in it; the music underscores montages or is source music in scenes. In transplanting the film to the stage, several songs with music by other writers (Jim Steinman, Sammy Hagar, Kenny Loggins, and Eric Carmen) have been retained with additional songs written by Mr. Pitchford and Tom Snow. You’ll still hear all the big songs from the film (including “Footloose”, “Let’s Hear It for the Boy”, “Almost Paradise”, and “Holding Out for a Hero”), but now they are assigned to characters to sing. Amazingly enough, it works quite well, with only a few of the new songs being unnecessary and poor in comparison.

 

Photo: Sydney Fleming – Eric Thompson (Ren McCormack)
 
Eric Thompson plays Ren McCormack, the Kevin Bacon role in the movie, and he is a bit of inspired casting. Mr. Thompson sings beautifully but retains the “rough around the edges” quality perfect for the character. So much of the show rides on his shoulders as the boy who “can’t stand still” (one of the better new songs written for the play), and he comes off as likable and quickly present in a way that elevates every scene of which he is a part.

 

Photo: Sydney Fleming – Abby Cress (Ariel Moore)
 
Abby Cress is Ariel Moore, the rebellious preacher’s daughter who sets her sights on Ren. Ms. Cress seems to be miscast until she sings “Holding Out for a Hero”; with her sweetly strong singing voice taking on such a challenging pop anthem with no visible effort, she emerges as probably one of the few actresses in the area that can do the part justice and not just play the wildcat. Ms. Cress and Mr. Thompson have chemistry as well, which enhances the storytelling and helps it come off as less corny.

 

Photo: Sydney Fleming – Eric Thompson (Ren McCormack) & Abby Cress (Ariel Moore)
 
Other standouts in the cast are David Shough as Reverend Moore, Skyler McNeely as Willard (Ren’s best buddy), and Esther Hyland as Ethel McCormack (Ren’s mother). Mr. Shough plays Ariel’s father and the town leader as more than just an overbearing killjoy; he genuinely believes he is doing what is righteous and best, and Mr. Shough gently brings that out in scenes where he reflects on the passing of his son. Mr. McNeely is spot-on in his comic timing as Willard, always ready with an expression to punctuate a moment and elicit laughter. Ms. Hyland in all likelihood is probably too young to play Ren’s mother, but she makes the most of her underwritten part and reveals her melodious singing voice in “Learning to Be Silent”; she makes an impression in a part that doesn’t give her a lot to do.

Director Craig Smith and choreographer Jessica Tate work well at creating and sustaining so much energy on the stage with quite a large ensemble. The large dance sequences are especially impressive and invigorating, and the cast seems to be having such a good time; their joy is infectious. Though I doubt many of the players were even born in the 1980s, their costumes are humorously accurate to the period, complete with cuffed acid wash jeans, Izod lizards, and popped collars. The cast is credited with the costumes along with Amy Elder Dakin, Olivia Dakin, and Mackensie King, a collaborative effort that surely involved many an excavated closet and trips to thrift stores. Appropriate credit is also due to the people behind the teased hair and glossy makeup as it also helps evoke prime 1984.

 

Photo: Sydney Fleming – Eric Thompson (Ren McCormack)
 

Footloose isn’t a great show, but it doesn’t have to be in order to be entertaining. Aside from having a few new songs assigned to characters that should have remained non-singing parts, Footloose is nostalgic in the best possible way. Dare to Defy’s production is solid and a lot of fun; the perfect cherry on the top of this Thanksgiving holiday.

*** out of ****

Footloose continues through to November 28th in the Victoria Theatre at 138 North Main Street in Dayton (a little over an hour outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.d2defy.com/