Once on This Island JR. (Columbus Children’s Theatre – Columbus, OH)


What’s it about?

Once on This Island JR. is an abridged version of the acclaimed Broadway musical Once on This Island, which premiered in 1990 and ran for over a year. Based on Rosa Guy’s novel My Love, My Love, and with music by Stephen Flaherty and music and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, the musical tells the story of Ti Moune, an orphaned peasant girl on a small island in the French Antilles, who rescues Daniel, a rich planter’s son from the other side of the island, when he wrecks his car during a storm. Ti Moune falls in love with Daniel, even promising her soul to Papa Ge, a Demon of Death, if Daniel’s doesn’t die. Daniel’s life is spared, and Ti Moune works to nurse him back to health. Daniel’s family soon appears to take him back to their side of the island and to a life of privilege and wealth the complete opposite of Ti Moune’s home. Against the advice of her adoptive parents, Ti Moune sets out to return to Daniel, certain that her love for him will be returned in kind; little does she know that Papa Ge, to whom she has promised her soul, and Erzulie, the Goddess of Love, have a wager going with Ti Moune’s life to determine which is stronger: the power of love or the power of death.

Photo: David Heasley

Is it worth seeing?
Absolutely! Granted, this is a version of the show with a few songs cut and altered, but the basic story and the best, most lively songs are still intact. This production runs about an hour in length and is appropriate for ages six and up, but by no means is this a show that only children can appreciate.

I must say that, as a big fan of the original show, I went into this altered “JR.” version more than a bit concerned. The color element, an intrinsic part of the original story (the poor side of the island has dark-skinned peasants while the affluent part has light-skinned rich folks), has been surgically removed from this edition, opening up the musical to be performed by all races and ethnicities; the classism is still there, but this time around skin color isn’t a factor. The result isn’t blasphemous like say an all-white production of A Raisin in the Sun or The Color Purple might be, but important songs that serve to explain more of the plot (“The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes,” “Some Say,” and “Some Girls”) have been cut. The big love song “Forever Yours” has also been trimmed down to almost nothing; still, this adaptation (approved by the creative team) is successful in turning a show with some mature themes and concepts into one palatable for children and adults alike. This is one musical for which every track on the original cast recording is worthy; in fact, it might appeal to adults more than kids.

Director Ryan Scarlata guides his Summer Youth Performance Conservatory cast of teens and pre-teens deftly, always keeping the action moving. The cast is energetic with talent and spirit to spare, and their ensemble singing is notable for the clarity in their diction. So often ensemble numbers can sound unfocused with moments being unintelligible, but that is not the case here; in fact, the overall sound design is spot on, with the pre-recorded orchestra track at an appropriate level to allow the vocal performances to dominate. Jeffrey Gress’s multi-level set looks a bit reminiscent of Mamma Mia with its beachy coloring and bold blue sky, but it suits this story very well, as do the saturated colors and patterns of the costumes (save for those worn by the affluent side of the island, a wise choice to visually show the difference between the social classes).

Photo: David Heasley

Standouts in the cast include Sara Tuohy as Ti Moune, her voice possessing a purity that is thrilling; Amirah Joy Lomax as Asaka, Goddess of the Earth, whose performance of “Mama Will Provide” is engaging enough to inspire spontaneous dancing from the audience (they didn’t do it at the performance I attended, but I would not be surprised to learn if it happened); Kyle Channell as Tonton Julian and Megan Masciola as Mama Euralie are caring foster parents to Ms. Tuohy’s Ti Moune, their voices full of genuine affection and heart when they warn her of seeking out Daniel; Katie Wagner as Erzulie, Goddess of Love, whose rendition of “The Human Heart” is instilled with wisdom beyond her years; and Maria Dalanno as Andrea, Daniel’s betrothed (Sorry! Spoiler alert!), brings nuance to a character that can be played as just a snotty mean girl; Ms. Dalanno appears too clever to play just that one note, as here she ranges from skeptical to annoyed to concerned and finally empathetic to Ti Moune’s feelings.

The source novel derives inspiration from Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid with its sad conclusion intact, and yet the ending of Once on This Island JR. is filled with hope for the future. The message of parents needing to allow their children to explore the world and make their own mistakes is quite clear, as is the point that sometimes it takes just one person to go against the grain to change the future, no matter how many naysayers are on the sidelines.

Once on This Island JR. is not as sterling a show as in its original version, but this children’s adaptation comes awfully close. Only those familiar with the original show will sense the changes, and judged on its own merits this is one production that I can highly recommend.

My rating: *** 1/2 out of ****

Photo: David Heasley

Where can I see it?

Once on This Island JR. continues through to August 7th in Columbus Children’s Theatre’s Park Street Theatre located at 512 Park Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.columbuschildrenstheatre.org/once-on-this-island-jr.html

Photo: David Heasley

West Side Story (Columbus Children’s Theatre – Columbus, OH)


How lucky am I to be able to see full productions of the two biggest Broadway hits of the 1957-1958 season all in the same week? One night I get to see The Music Man at Weathervane Playhouse in Newark, and the next night I’m enjoying Columbus Children’s Theatre’s West Side Story! Both are now revered as classics, were made into very popular and faithfully adapted films, and for well over fifty years have been performed thousands of times a year all over the country from high schools to regional theatres. One can’t really be considered a fan of musicals without becoming acquainted with these evergreens; their songs pop up all the time in popular culture, and chances are you’ve heard some of them even if you didn’t know from where they originated.

Photo: David Heasley

Meredith Willson’s The Music Man was the big Tony Award winner in 1958 and the longer-running hit, but West Side Story, with a searing Leonard Bernstein score, lyrics by the up-and-coming Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents, and choreography courtesy of the legendary Jerome Robbins, has emerged as the more serious classic. Inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the action has been transplanted to the Upper West Side of New York City in the 1950s as rival gangs, the Jets (who are white) and the Sharks (who are Puerto Rican), fight for dominance. Caught in the crosshairs are Tony, a sometime member of the Jets, and Maria, the sister of the leader of the Sharks, Bernardo. Tony and Maria meet at a school dance, fall in love, and try to stop the gangs from fighting to discover things will only get worse before they begin to get better. With nearly every now song an established classic (“Maria,” “Tonight,” “Somewhere,” “I Feel Pretty,” and “America” to name but a few), West Side Story continues to capture the heart of each new generation, thanks to the 1961 film and the play’s continued popularity. This current production, featuring Columbus Children’s Theatre’s Summer Pre-Professional Company of performers ages sixteen to twenty-two, is about as engaging and rousing a production as one is likely to find, “pre-professional” or not.

Photo: David Heasley

These Jets and Sharks dance, fight, and spit with equal intensity (stage combat aided by William Goldsmith), and each performer appears fully cocked and ready to attack anyone who gets in their way. I remember some snickering from my classmates when we watched the movie in high school during the opening dance sequence; no one would dare to scoff at these Jets and Sharks, especially once they see them believably kick and punch each other to the ground! It’s interesting to note that all but two of the Jets and Sharks are wearing identical black Converse Chuck Taylor All Star shoes, a nice visual reminder that they have so much more in common than they seem to realize.

Photo: David Heasley

As sweet and innocent as Tony (Andy Simmons) and Maria (Elizabeth Blanquera) are in this production, they can’t help but appear less exciting when stacked next to the excellent supporting cast: Austin Ryan Backus as Riff exudes confidence and swagger; Matthew J. Mayer II makes an intense Bernardo; Odette Gutierrez del Arroyo is a firecracker as Anita but also heartbreaking; Will Thompson plays Doc like a wise, concerned older brother, making an impact in a part usually ignored; and Charlotte Brown should be watched closely in the small role of Rosalia, especially for her hilarious facial expressions during the dance at the gym.

Photo: David Heasley

The only serious flaw in this production occurs during the ballet (which is not in the film). This ballet leads into “Somewhere” and begins strongly with Riff and Bernardo reappearing after the violent end of the first act; then, inexplicably, a little boy climbs out of Maria’s bedroom window, down over the fence, sings “Somewhere” at Tony and Maria (now dressed in just a slip), and then scampers back up to from where he came. Though staged a bit differently, this addition of the character “Kiddo” and reassignment of the song was made by original book writer Arthur Laurents for the 2009 Broadway revival he directed; it was widely criticized then, and it’s inclusion in this production is a glaring sore spot. It has nothing to do with the ability of the kid playing Kiddo; the moment comes off as schmaltzy and like a lecture to the characters, bringing to mind this verse in Isaiah: “And a little child shall lead them.” I began to wonder why a little kid was squatting in Maria’s bedroom and if someone should let her know.

Photo: David Heasley

Luckily everything gets back on track when some of the Jets sing “Gee, Officer Krumpke,” far funnier with lyrics and gestures that were greatly toned down for the film. This is one of several scenes in which Jordan Feliciano as Baby John is a riot, donning a mop on his head and squeaky voice. As humorous as this sequence is, Ms. Gutierrez del Arroyo’s “A Boy Like That” that follows it is conversely serious and impassioned. Songs were moved around for the film to provide a more consistent tone for that medium, but the flow of the original play works marvelously on the stage.

Photo: David Heasley

Director David Bahgat incorporates many design elements from the film (unavoidable with its popularity) and expands upon them, the Jets costumed in blue and yellow and the Sharks in purple and red; the lighting is also used in this color motif effectively without being too obvious. Mr. Bahgat keeps everything moving at a brisk pace (save for the aforementioned break in the ballet), and he guides his cast into making each line sound like it is theirs and theirs alone. I’ve seen several productions were the actors copy each line reading as it was done in the film; that isn’t the case here at all, and many times so much more humor and character comes across because of it. He keeps his actors moving all around the audience, maintaining an immediacy that a lesser director wouldn’t bother trying to create. The marvelous set designed by Jeffrey Gress represents all of the different locations needed for the story, elements of which extend out around the audience, making this what I would consider an environmental staging; a low chain link fence separates the audience from the cast on the left and right sides, Doc’s storefront is between the center and right seating areas, actors often enter the center rows of the audience and sit alongside them, and (depending on where one is sitting) Chino (Frank Ruiz) can be seen stealthily sneaking down the alley between the center and left section of seats leading up to the intense climax.

Photo: David Heasley

The four-piece band led by Zac DelMonte kicks into high gear during the “Tonight” quintet and rumble, though the limited orchestration takes a little time to get used to at the start of the show. Nicolette Montana does a fine job of recreating iconic moments from Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, adding and changing bits here and there to suit the space and production demands; aside from a moment during the prologue when the Jets shout “Ha!” and jut their hands out into the audience, Ms. Montana’s work is commendable and adds so much to this overall splendid production.

Photo: David Heasley

Except for a few missteps (mostly minor), Columbus Children’s Theatre’s West Side Story is nearly impossibly good. With action occurring from all sides of the theatre and an energetic cast that knows this show like seasoned pros, this West Side Story is one to see no matter how many times you’ve seen the play or movie before. Most of the performers appear to be exactly in the right age range of the characters they are playing, from late teens to early twenties, but this is the exception rather than the rule when compared to the film or Broadway productions of this show. The “us verses them” struggle between the Jets and the Sharks is still relevant today; one need only to watch the daily news to see how fear of the “other” continues to incite violence and be used politically to pit people against one another. 

*** 3/4 out of ****

West Side Story continues through to July 17th at Columbus Children’s Theatre located at 512 Park Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.columbuschildrenstheatre.org/west-side-story.html

The Countess of Monte Cristo (Actors’ Theatre of Columbus – Columbus, OH)


“Evil deeds cost the doers in the end,” says the bitter and jealous Fernanda Mondego just before she finalizes plans to basically destroy the life of Amelie Dantes. Little does Fernanda know how prophetic her words would be, as the wronged Amelie Dantes will one day return with power and vengeance on her mind as The Countess of Monte Cristo, the Actors’ Theatre of Columbus production currently being performed in Schiller Park. Based on the Alexander Dumas classic The Count of Monte Cristo, this adaptation by artistic director Philip J. Hickman and co-director Jennifer Feather Youngblood reimagines the story with a woman as the lead, shifting the locus of power within the story from male to female, presenting a different portrait of what female revenge can look like to those of us familiar with it only from Stephen King’s Carrie.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Amelie Dantes has her world turned upside down when she is imprisoned for a crime she didn’t commit through the efforts of Danglars, an envious captain; the aforementioned Fernanda Mondego, a bartender with her eyes set on nabbing Merced Herrera, Amelie’s fiancée; and Villefort, a Magistrate with family secrets to hide. Each has something to gain by getting Amelie out of the picture, but they don’t count on her meeting and being tutored by Abbess Faria in prison, escaping her life sentence after fourteen years, or claiming a hidden fortune; this enables her to return with the wealth and influence necessary to exact veiled revenge on each of them.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

I was completely unfamiliar with the plot of The Count of Monte Cristo before seeing this production, which was both a blessing and a curse. The story was new and fresh to me as a result, but it was also quite difficult to follow at points. The summary I’ve presented here doesn’t go into the pirates, kidnapping, the involvement of the daughters of the Countess’s enemies, the cargo ship business, and several incriminating letters that fall into the wrong hands. The intricacies of the story may not be completely clear (I thought of the business with the letters as simply a MacGuffin, a trigger for the plot), but the overall theme of female empowerment and growth is very much in evidence. It is clear that Amelie’s enemies don’t recognize her upon her return, and it is indeed interesting to see how the Countess infiltrates their lives to bring about their ruin.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

It must be a special kind of challenge to perform outdoors with unpredictable weather and technical aberrations (one performance I attended was plagued with intermittent static) and still find a way to tell the story. This talented cast manages to perform grandly to reach an audience spread out over the park on lawn chairs and blankets without appearing to be yelling or overacting, no small feat considering this material or venue. Standouts in the cast are McLane Nagy as Amelie Dantes, the Countess of Monte Cristo; Kasey Leah Meininger as the conniving Fernanda Mondego; James Harper as Merced Herrera, Amelie’s handsome but doomed former fiancée; Derek Faraji as Ali, Amelie’s faithful companion; and Catherine Cryan as both the nurturing Abbess Faria and the caustic Madame Villefort (wife of one of Amelie’s enemies).

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Ms. Nagy is sweet and unassuming as Amelie, plaintively stating, “I am a woman. I wouldn’t presume to concern myself with matters of state,” during her interrogation; her metamorphoses into the formidable Countess is complete when she wails, “I die, and all forgiveness with me!” Ms. Nagy brings an athletic agility necessary for us to believe in her journey, and yet her heart isn’t frozen; “I would never wish to instill vengeance in your heart,” she says to a daughter of one of her enemies, her delivery making clear the burden that kind of anger can have on a person.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Ms. Meininger’s Fernanda is boldly conniving, forcing Amelie out of the picture to claim Merced for herself. The way that she embraces Merced from behind as she coos to manipulate him into framing his fiancée demonstrates that she will stop at nothing to get what she wants, making her ultimate comeuppance all the more enjoyable to witness. Ms. Meininger has a bigger than life performance style uniquely suited to playing such a heartless villain the audience loves to hate.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Mr. Harper’s Merced is powerless to resist Fernanda, but his internal agony at having played a part in Amelie’s imprisonment shows in his posture and movement when he returns to the story. Mr. Harper can play conquered without appearing weak or simple, turning his anguish inward at himself; as such, he comes off as the only one of Amelie’s enemies with any kind of conscience. His breakdown when the Countess reveals herself to be Amelie is devastatingly intense, his actions those of a tortured soul.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Mr. Faraji as Ali submits to the Countess’s wishes and yet is not a subservient person; he chooses to do her bidding instead of coming off as obligated. It’s clear from Mr. Faraji’s gaze this his character’s respect for his mistress blossoms into love as he assists in her quest. Ali emerges as the kind of ally we should all be so lucky to have, his interactions with the Countess revealing a genuine affection for her and her plight; he was also wronged in his past when he was sold by Merced, so helping her enact revenge supports his motive as well.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Ms. Cryan makes the most out of playing Abbess Faria, the knowledgable tutor who becomes a surrogate mother to Amelie in prison. She is able to convey a maternal warmth that is welcoming while still being a force to reckon with; she teaches Amelie how to fence and quizzes her on Latin because these are the only gifts she has to give while they are both imprisoned. Ms. Cryan and Ms. Nagy are able to share moments together on stage that feel intimate and quite personal even across an audience spread about on the grass. Ms. Cryan’s touching performance as Abbess Faria is nearly matched when she reappears as Madame Villefort, a woman so morally bankrupt that the idea of poisoning her family in the pursuit of wealth and power seems like a good idea. Her Madame Villefort sinks to depths that are startling in their disregard for human life, and the audience reacts with glee when her husband Gerard Villefort (played menacingly by her real-life husband, Ken Erney) turns on her in the end.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

It’s nice to see smaller character parts imbued with the kind of life that Elizabeth Harelick, Michael Carozza, and Cat McAlpine bring to them, demonstrating that there are no small parts, just small actors. Ms. Harelick is giddy with madness as de Bouville, the mistress of a prison; Mr. Carozza brings wide-eyed comedy to the fore as Peppino, a thickly-accented member of the Countess’s gang; and Ms. McAlpine uses her substantial height and imposing presence as both Marie and Pastrini, and then switches things up again as Louise, an unexpected romantic interest for Eugenie Danglars (Maggie Turek). 

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Directors Adam Simon and Jennifer Feather Youngblood have their work cut out for them with a plot of this complexity and size. The show is a bit rocky at first, opening with a pantomimed scene in a bar with music in the background, all of it going on far too long before we get to some substantial dialogue. Too many scenes end awkwardly, with a lull before the next scene begins. When this break is to denote a passage of time it’s understandable, but too often it just slows down the action. The three daughters of Amelie’s enemies (Mary Paige Rieffel as Alberta Herrera, Myia Eren as Valentine Villefort, and Maggie Turek as Eugenie Danglars) are also presented in a manner conducive to generating confusion, each with brown hair styled up and similar costume coloring. This isn’t so much a problem up close, but much of the audience is spread far out from the stage where the similarities between their appearance is amplified. The personalities of the characters are all quite different, but more care should be taken to help them stand apart as it just adds confusion to an already densely plotted story.
Photo: Jerri Shafer

I find it odd that as Amelie gains power and wealth that she becomes more masculine in appearance. She begins as a pretty young bride on her wedding day, is reduced to rags while in prison, reappears as the Countess in an Arabian-inspired hooded cloak covering what looks like lounging pajamas, and at last has her hair pinned back and is dressing in a suit like a man. This conceit reminds me of a moment in the film Tootsie where Dustin Hoffman as Dorothy Michaels first appears to audition for a strong female role in a soap opera and is rebuffed as being “too soft and genteel” by the director. “You want some gross caricature of a woman to prove some idiotic point that power makes women masculine or masculine women are ugly,” Mr. Hoffman says as Ms. Michaels, wagging a finger with, “Well shame on the woman who lets you do that or any woman that lets you do that!” It’s this stereotype that I feel is being perpetuated in the visual transformation of Amelie’s character in this piece. Why couldn’t she have grown more glamorous and beautifully stylish as each bit of retribution is delivered, showing how power and strength can also still be incredibly feminine and alluring? Images of dangerous but strong women from old ’40s noir films come to mind when I think of the ways Amelie as the Countess is able to manipulate events in her favor once she returns to her old stomping ground, except she doesn’t rely on sex to do it (another stereotype). The costumes that Ms. Nagy wears as the Countess are often quite ornate and attractive; I just don’t agree with the way femininity is drained from her appearance as her strength increases.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Despite some storytelling and design shortcomings, The Countess of Monte Cristo is a lively production that only improves as it continues to play out. Some familiarity with the plot of the original story might help those who might otherwise stumble to connect all of the plot threads (I saw it twice and still didn’t catch everything); still, there is enough action, drama, and raw emotion on display to keep a crowd of hundreds focused on the stage. This is the kind of show that is worth seeing for its cast, a veritable “who’s who” of some of the best actors in Columbus. These performers work together to create an experience that is more than the sum of its parts, and Actors’ Theatre of Columbus is to be commended on tackling such a complicated tale with this fresh reworking that emerges as a real crowd pleaser.

*** out of ****

The Countess of Monte Cristo continues through to July 17th in Schiller Park at 1069 Jaeger Street, and more information can be found at http://theactorstheatre.org/2016-season/the-countess-of-monte-cristo/

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical (Weathervane Playhouse – Newark, OH)


“The only thing constant is change,” Dr. Henry Jekyll says to the board of governors early on in Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical; although he was referring to medical science in the show, he could just as easily be referring to the play itself. This is a work that has been workshopped, recorded, revised, augmented, and re-recorded so much since its world premiere in 1990 and subsequent original Broadway production in 1997 that one can never be quite sure what revisions will be a part of any licensed production. Such is the fate typical of composer Frank Wildhorn’s musicals, as The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Civil War are two other problematic shows with which he continues to tinker. Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical (the most current licensed version anyway) opens the Weathervane Playhouse season in a production that offers quite a fresh take on the material and features the best two lead musical performances I’ve seen locally this year.

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com)

Based on the Robert Louis Stevenson classic novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical features music by the aforementioned Mr. Wildhorn with book and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse; the original 1997 Broadway production ran for just under four years, itself a product of two previous developmental recordings, and yielded several subsequent tours as well as a flop 2013 Broadway revival. No matter the incarnation, the show is about how Dr. Henry Jekyll’s search for a way to separate the good in all mankind from the bad in an effort to obliterate the latter. His experiments bring about Mr. Hyde, an alternate personality comprised of only the worst qualities of himself. As the two forces struggle for control over the same body, Emma, Jekyll’s fiancée, and Lucy, Hyde’s whore, are caught in the crosshairs of the struggle for dominance. The show seems like Mr. Wildhorn’s answer to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera; indeed, many musical motifs are recycled for different songs throughout, and it doesn’t take a musicologist to hear the influence of Lloyd Webber’s show on this one.

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com)

Director Adam Karsten has radically reimagined this Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical to present it on a mostly bare stage with a platform that opens to reveal a pool of water used quite effectively in several scenes. Translucent plastic tarps surround and cover the stage, revealing the vestiges of hanging portraits and chairs. The expert lighting design by Jennifer Sansfacon utilizes bold strokes of red and purple to establish settings, casting specific shadow designs onto the stage. Ms. Sansfacon also makes sure the pool of water glows an eerie indigo, and she seems the perfect partner for Mr. Karsten to create this new vision for the show.

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com) – Connor Allston (Jekyll/Hyde) and Myha’La Herrold (Lucy)

The problems begin almost immediately in the opening scene when Dr. Jekyll visits his father in a mental institution. In that scene it makes some sense that patients of reduced ability would perhaps be crawling and sliding around on the stage; it comes off as terribly overwrought, uncomfortable, and even laughable when the writhing around continues throughout the play and extends into the audience with planted actors. Still, Mr. Karsten should be congratulated for trying something different with the material; the use of water and light is really quite terrific, and why not add some blood and stripping cast members into the mix? I suppose the disrobing is to amp up the sex appeal, even though the sight of the youthful cast slowly disrobing, dipping their hands into buckets of stage blood, and slathering themselves with the goo – while a striking image – made me think, “What a mess… Good thing everything is covered in plastic.”

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com)

There are some really quite good songs scattered about, such as “Someone Like You,” “A New Life,” and the popular anthem, “This is the Moment.” Music director Kevin Wines presents the music effectively reducing the bombastic nature of the score to sounding understated and supportive of the talented cast’s singing. Every time I see this musical I find more and more of the book has been trimmed away, leaving a mostly sung-through show behind; it’s great to hear the near constant music be as well-managed as it is here.

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com) – Myha’La Herrold (Lucy) and Connor Allston (Jekyll/Hyde)

The reason to see this show is for the performances by Connor Allston as Dr. Henry Jekyll, Myha’La Herrold as Lucy, Natalie Szczerba as Emma, and Layne Roate as Jekyll’s lawyer and friend, John. Mr. Allston is dedicated and determined as Dr. Jekyll, and his transformations between personalities are almost entirely represented by a slight shift in tone and a change in his intention; no laughably drastic facial changes, growling voice, or stooped limp here. Mr. Allston is able to convey the change internally in a way that resonates naturally, seemingly with little effort, and his voice is quite strong and moving; his goal to help mankind feels genuine, even if his experiments are destroying his and the lives of those around him in the process. Mr. Allston has the kind of masculine stage presence and vocal prowess that, even at his incredibly young age, should make anyone dream of seeing his interpretations of classic roles in Man of La Mancha, Guys and Dolls, South Pacific… You fill in the blank.

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com) – Myha’La Herrold (Lucy)

Ms. Herrold is every bit Mr. Allston’s match as the prostitute Lucy. At first she might seem miscast physically being that she is black and bald, but nothing could be further from the truth. Ms. Herrold challenges what might be considered traditional beauty by being by far the most interesting and striking woman on stage, and this is a show full of attractive actors. She has a mournful lament to her singing as Lucy in “Someone Like You” that is as heartbreaking as her moment of hope is thrilling in “A New Life.” Her voice is sometimes too powerful for the technical director to manage as some of her stronger notes cause light, brief distortion over the speakers; nevertheless, Ms. Herrold is touching and a memorable talent to watch. The way she handles her final confrontation with Mr. Hyde is intense and requires great technical skill to pull off as the pressure of the moment is mostly on her.

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com) – Connor Allston (Jekyll/Hyde) and Myha’La Herrold (Lucy)

Ms. Szczerba has quite a bit less to work with in terms of characterization as Emma, but she does wonders with what is there. She’s appealing in a way that would make her a natural fit for Dr. Jekyll, and her singing voice is particularly striking during “In His Eyes,” her unlikely duet with Ms. Herrold’s Lucy; their voices are so different in style that they don’t compete with each other as I’ve heard other performers do with this same song, resulting in a beautiful mix of their voices that allows both to be heard. Mr. Roate has even less to work with as John, but he can be counted on to deliver his lines with weight and seriousness, effortlessly slipping into a warm singing voice. There is one brief moment where Mr. Roate invades Mr. Allston’s space in a way that comes off as so intimate that I thought the two might kiss; they don’t, but that silent moment has an incredible amount of subtext because of Mr. Roate’s actions.

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com) – Connor Allston (Jekyll/Hyde) and Natalie Szczerba (Emma)

Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical isn’t a great show, no matter which revised production or cast recording is being evaluated. This production takes risks with the material that fail as often as they succeed, and yet the sheer force and will of its four talented leads elevate this to being a show worth seeing; seriously, they are that good. This definitely isn’t the same Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical that I saw on its original Broadway tour, or the video of the closing Broadway cast (starring David Hasselhoff), or even the 2013 short-lived Broadway revival (thank goodness); this production is a different animal, but one that is consistently interesting to experience even when it misses the target.

*** out of ****

Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical continues through to June 11th in the Weathervane Playhouse at 100 Price Road in Newark, OH (around 45 minutes outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://weathervaneplayhouse.org/jekyll-hyde/

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/

   

   
  
 

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

The Shadow Box (Adrenaline Theatre Group – Columbus, OH)

An ex of mine once detailed his mother’s slow death from cancer, noting how her final month was spent indoors with family around trying to keep her as comfortable as possible. “I’m sure it was awful for her,” he said, “but for us it was a kind of blessing. We had time to say all of the things that needed to be said before she was gone. People who die unexpectedly in an accident don’t have that privilege.” It’s that privilege that is the core of Adrenaline Theatre Group’s production of Michael Cristofer’s The Shadow Box, a play first produced forty years ago about three families dealing with loved ones suffering from terminal illnesses.

 

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio
 

The Shadow Box takes on the grounds of a hospital where three patients are residing in cabins awaiting their imminent deaths. There is Joe, a big, tough-looking guy, with a wife and son; Brian, an older gay man being cared for by his much younger boyfriend; and Felicity, an angry woman hiding within thick sunglasses and a turban, cared for by one of her daughters. One by one these patients consent to interviews by an unseen psychologist (Travis Horseman, who sounds like he is reading and has no bedside manner). During these sessions, I had the same feeling I had when seeing A Chorus Line; it was as if Joe, Brian, and Felicity were dancers auditioning not for a part in a Broadway show but for death itself. It’s an odd conceit in this production directed by Chad Hewitt, but not a bad one. The set design by Brendan Michna includes large empty frames, a rather heavy-handed reference to the title of the play. Shadow boxes are used to store and display mementos or photos to remind one of a particular time or event; the relevance here is that these three patients have limited time remaining in which to create any memories, their cabins being their final homes before they pass on – the cabins themselves serving as metaphors for shadow boxes (that’s how I interpreted it anyway).

 

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) Jennifer Feather Youngblood (Beverly), Audrey Rush (Maggie), Jim Azelvandre (Brian), John Conner (Mark), and Julie Azelvandre (Felicity)
 
It’s the performances of three women that make this production worth seeing: Jennifer Feather Youngblood as Beverly, Audrey Rush as Maggie, and Julie Azelvandre as Felicity. Ms. Youngblood plays tipsy and giggly extremely well, and she brings much needed energy into her scenes with ex-husband Brian (Jim Azelvandre, who is trying way too hard) and Brian’s lover and caretaker, Mark (John Connor, as darkly handsome as he is stoic). Ms. Youngblood doesn’t just say lines – she feels and recites them rather adroitly, seeming to be in on a private joke for which everyone else is oblivious.

Ms. Rush is a doting and smart-mouthed, Jersey-sounding housewife, quick to change the subject when it turns to her husband Joe (Scott Douglas Wilson, epitomizing the look of every forty-year-old’s dad in the 1970s) and his illness. Ms. Rush has a speed and immediacy that builds tension, coming to a head in a moment of violence that is shocking because it is so out-of-character but real for the moment. In fact, each of the three interwoven stories have a similar explosion of emotion that is sharp and focused, so intense that I looked away and closed my eyes each time because they seemed so raw and naked.
 

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) John Conner (Mark), Cat McAlpine (Agnes), and Jennifer Feather Youngblood (Beverly)
 
Ms. Azelvandre is the wheelchair-bound Felicity, hanging on to life for a daughter who will never visit while ignoring Agnes (Cat McAlpine, also quite good as her exhausted caretaker), the daughter who stayed behind. I did a double take when I saw Ms. Azelvandre’s photo in the program as she is unrecognizable in her role, disappearing into a web of bitter contrariness and sickness, looking somewhat like a defeated Anne Bancroft. Her performance is the closest to what we all fear having to experience with our parents, one of a slow winding down into a kind of dreamworld in which we don’t play a part.

 

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) Evan Farrenkopf (Stephen), Jim Azelvandre (Brian), and Scott Douglas Wilson (Joe)
 

The Shadow Box is the kind of play that is sure to affect people in different ways; it’s a work that allows for interpretation while also being accessible purely on what is on the surface. This production has some really terrific performances, and it’s far funnier than one might surmise based on the subject matter. What’s notable is that the best parts and performances on display here are for and by women, something unfortunately rare in theatre and worthy of celebrating.

*** out of ****

The Shadow Box continues through to March 5th in the MadLab Theatre located at 227 North Third Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://adrenalinetheatre.squarespace.com/

Mothers and Sons (CATCO – Columbus, OH)

I remember Oprah quoting a guest on one of her shows dealing with forgiveness. “Forgiveness,” she said, “is letting go of the hope that the past could have been any different.” It was this quote that came to my mind after experiencing CATCO’s production of Terrance McNally’s Mothers and Sons, a touching portrait of a woman stuck in the anger phase of grief and a man who forged ahead after sifting through the ashes.

After premiering regionally in 2013, Mothers and Sons enjoyed a brief spring run in 2014 on Broadway starring Tyne Daly. McNally wrote the piece as a follow up to his 1990 television play Andre’s Mother, which was about a woman attending her son’s memorial service after he succumbed to AIDS. Katharine Gerard is Andre’s mother, and she is unable to commiserate with her son’s boyfriend Cal over the loss. Flash forward twenty years and Katharine is back in Manhattan after her husband’s death, visiting Cal unexpectedly to return Andre’s diary to him. She finds Cal living a happy family life with his husband and son. Throughout her visit she and Cal rehash the past, conjecture on what might have been, and work to find some peace with the way things are.

 

Photo: Ben Sostrom – Jacqueline Bates (Katharine)
 
Jacqueline Bates embodies Katharine Gerard as rather brittle, asking questions for which she doesn’t really want to know the answers. Ms. Bates plays her as guarded but trying to venture outside of her comfort zone, grappling with the loss of her identity as a mother and a wife. Her Katharine isn’t one generous with smiles, but she isn’t a heartless harpy either; she believes things are either black and white, right or wrong, but that’s her generation. She’s firm in her conviction that someone else is to blame for her son Andre being gay and then dying, neglecting to see the part she played in turning cold to him and being absent in his final days. Ms. Bates approaches the part without judgement, and so her evolution throughout the piece feels natural and rings true; she doesn’t mean to come off the way she does – she just doesn’t know of any other way.

 

Photo: Ben Sostrom – (left to right) Joe Dallacqua (Will), David Vargo (Cal), and Jacqueline Bates (Katharine)
 
David Vargo is Cal Porter, attempting to placate his deceased partner’s mother while also staying true to the life he has now as a married man with a child. Mr. Vargo is noticeably uncomfortable with Ms. Bates’ bouts of silence, and his trying to fill the void is quite endearing and accurate to life. The part requires Mr. Vargo to walk a fine line between appreciating his past with Andre without undermining the present, something he balances beautifully. He is able to drudge up genuine pain and heartache when talking about the AIDS crises he lived through in the 1980s, and he is able to swing back at anything callous Ms. Bates throws at him. It’s unfortunate that some of the most touching moments between Cal and Katharine have underscoring piped in over the sound system, making those sequences feel more like excerpts from a Lifetime movie; Mr. Vargo and Ms. Bates are talented enough not to need any instrumental accompaniment to get the point of their emotions across.

 

Photo: Ben Sostrom – (left to right) Joe Dallacqua (Will) and Jacqueline Bates (Katharine)
 
Joe Dallacqua plays Will Ogden, Cal’s writer husband, and a very sweet Lucas Cloran is their son, Bud (alternating in the role with Elliot Hattemer). I’ve enjoyed Mr. Dallacqua in several other productions, but unfortunately as Will he has adopted an affectation that I find off putting. Granted, the part is written with some bite, but must it be played with such a feminine demeanor? Gay doesn’t always mean fey; it was hard to imagine Cal being attracted to – let alone marry – someone with such an attitude. Mr. Dallacqua has next to no chemistry with Mr. Vargo, and it’s really a shame; had Will been played as being a doting father and a loving husband who just happened to be gay, it may have made all the difference.

 

Set Design: Michael Brewer
 
The set for Cal and Will’s apartment looks ready to move into thanks to Michael Brewer’s design, though it looks a little too put together to be the home of a six-year-old (a carefully placed View-master on a table doesn’t quite cut it), and there appear to be no mirrors or television set anywhere. Perhaps these Manhattanites are too classy for a television in their living room, but wouldn’t they want a mirror to primp in front of before going out? Still, Darin Keesing’s lighting is effective in shifting from early evening to sunset, creating just the right shadows at the correct angle to match the picture window that serves as the forth wall through which the audience sees the action.

 

Photo: Ben Sostrom – (left to right) David Vargo (Cal), Lucas Cloran (Bud), Joe Dallacqua (Will) and Jacqueline Bates (Katharine)
 
Terrance McNally’s dialogue sounds natural even if some of his plot points strain credulity; are we really expected to believe that neither Cal or Katharine read Andre’s diary as it passed between them over the course of twenty years? Wouldn’t they have been just a bit curious and peeked? When Will flippantly opens it to read a passage, Cal and Katharine don’t offer any resistance to finally being privy to some of Andre’s secrets, even though that is what supposedly kept them from exploring it previously. The denouement, one in which Katharine realizes she must forge ahead with an identity made up of more than just being Andre’s mother or Mr. Gerard’s wife, is quite touching; that is until it dips quickly into icky sticky territory at the very end when Bud tells a sappy story at which even the most naive preschooler would scoff.

 

Photo: Ben Sostrom – (left to right) Joe Dallacqua (Will), David Vargo (Cal), Lucas Cloran (Bud), and Jacqueline Bates (Katharine)
 
Still, Mothers and Sons works because of its two leads and their chemistry, and the fact that even second-rate McNally is better than first-rate most anyone else. CATCO’s production is very professional, and it is ultimately a pleasing ninety-minute glimpse into the lives of two very different people and how they took separate paths dealing with the death of one they both held quite dear. 

*** out of ****

Mothers and Sons continues through to February 28th in Studio One at the Riffe Center on 77 South High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at, and more information can be found at http://catco.org/shows/2015-2016/mothers-and-sons

The Turn of the Screw (Little Theatre Off Broadway – Grove City, OH)

Imagine a ghost story with no mood lighting or creepy sound effects. Now add some awkward scene changes where, in place of transitional music or applause, there is just the squeaking of scenery on wheels being moved about the stage. Don’t forget to have moments where “ghosts” appear brightly lighted and moving about like zombies. Once you have all of that together, you have the core elements that make up Little Theatre Off Broadway’s The Turn of the Screw, a production so plodding and creatively bankrupt that the couple in front of me and the group of three ladies to my right all fled at intermission, probably to salvage what was left of their Friday night.

  
There is plenty of atmosphere in the original novella by Henry James, and the 1961 film version titled The Innocents starring Deborah Kerr is a classic; this adaptation by Jack Neary seems to be okay, save for an incredibly silly coda at the end. The Turn of the Screw is about a governess sent to look after two orphaned siblings, Flora and Miles. Once in their company, she sees and hears what seems to be apparitions of the previous governess, Miss Jessel, and man servant, Peter Quint, both now deceased under mysterious circumstances. The new governess fears that the children are consorting with these ghosts and that their lives are at risk. The housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, isn’t sure what to think; are the children in danger, or is their new governess off her rocker?

Somehow this classic thriller has been gutted, performed as if it is a training exercise about how to walk and talk as well as enter and exit rooms. It’s about as thrilling as watching someone folding napkins. I don’t see what director Brian A. Palmer must’ve been thinking when he planned this out as all of the elements of a good ghost story are there in the script but without any of the stage accoutrements – no drippy candles, darkness, eerie sounds or music. I don’t blame the actors, none of which I feel would be fair to name here; the governess, housekeeper, and Flora have their moments (the actress playing the governess sneezed during the second act; it was the most exciting, realistic moment in the play), but the rest of the cast (especially the man playing the children’s uncle at the beginning of the piece) are merely reciting lines with no feeling or apparent understanding of what they’re saying.

  
The two actors playing the ghosts appear in makeup that makes them look more like extras on “The Addams Family” set than creepy other-worldly beings. Their costumes are draped with some brown fabric that resembles hosiery, as if these spirits are themselves haunted by a bad case of static cling with pantyhose sticking to their clothes. I heard some quickly stifled laughter from the audience when these ghosts appeared, sometimes walking through the audience to get to the stage. And again, the set is rather brightly colored and everything fully illuminated save for a few moments where the lights are dimmed slightly. Where are the murky shadows? The sound of the wind or chirping of crickets? A soft bit of foreboding score to bridge the scenes? None of that is here. Another thing that bothered me was the discussion of Peter Quint’s hair being red; when he appears as a ghost it looks pretty dark to me. That’s small potatoes, true, but it’s still an example of the lack of the requisite attention to detail one would expect to find.

This production of The Turn of the Screw is a glittering example of how important a director’s vision and guidance is to the success or failure of a production. Some of the cast isn’t without talent, but they appear to be floating free without a firm grasp on how to approach the material or sustain – or generate – any kind of mood. The material is ripe with opportunity for creativity, but what is being presented here is embarrassingly stale and static. As much as I’m a fan of live theatre, go buy the movie The Innocents instead.

* out of ****

The Turn of the Screw continues through to February 7th in the Little Theatre Off Broadway located at 3981 Broadway in downtown Grove City (around 20 minutes from Columbus), and more information can be found at http://ltob.org/

  

Quiet Peninsula (MadLab – Columbus, OH)

Imagine if, instead of being about a young boy who could see dead people, the surprise ending of The Sixth Sense was the entire point of that film. Rather than being an additional “ah ha!” moment that supplemented the plot, such a change would mean that the other hour and a half of the film would’ve just been filler that would only be clear at the very end. That’s basically what is to be had with Brandon Ferraro’s Quiet Peninsula, a play with three separate stories that share links that are only fully apparent at the conclusion, currently being presented by MadLab through to December 19th.

 

Photo: Kyle Jepson – (left to right) Chad Hewitt (David) and Michael Moore (Walter)
 
The three stories that comprise Quiet Peninsula all take place at the same time on one night in Detroit; the first is about two cops who await the fate of a citizen one of them accidentally shot; the second has a man pleading with his vegetative father to add him back to his will; the third features a basketball player being held from participating in his school’s game because of a serious allegation. At first glance there doesn’t appear to be any connection between each of the stories; when the pieces start to come together, it still doesn’t add up to all that much anyway. Director Audrey Rush stages each scene with minimal set pieces and props on a stage with circular designs everywhere. Symbolic overkill? Nah, it doesn’t feel like it, but then again the play doesn’t feel like all that much of anything. At least it is never boring and keeps a steady pace towards the denouement, if it could be called that.

 

Photo: Kyle Jepson – (left to right) Sheree Evans (Lauraine) and Kathryn Miller (Jess)
 
Two performers stand out as being particularly effective: Sheree Evans as Lauraine from the first story, and Taylor Martin Moss as Bryan from the last. Ms. Evans has a way of managing silence that makes her despair all the more real, saying so much with just a look; she switches with frightening ease from joking about being a lesbian to being distraught over accidentally shooting an unarmed teenage boy. Mr. Moss exudes energy and strength as a basketball player just aching to get back into the game; his strong presence nearly levels everyone with whom he shares the stage. There is a moment near the end of his story when he makes a candid remark so flippantly that I held my breath in anticipation of what was to come next; what did follow came off as rather silly and poorly executed, but not because of Mr. Moss. I hope to see more of both Ms. Evans and Mr. Moss in the future as they have the rare ability of making the most of whatever material they are given and helping it to appear better than it is.

 

Photo: Kyle Jepson – (left to right) Nikki Smith (Kathy), John Kuhn (Derek), and Taylor Martin Moss (Bryan)
 
I usually enjoy the rather “off the beaten path” plays I see at MadLab, with Quiet Peninsula so far being the exception. None of the three stories in the piece are developed enough to forge any investment in the characters or their situations, though a few of the performers did stand out, making the seventy-five-minute running time more palatable than it would’ve been otherwise. There were several people around me in the audience that responded very enthusiastically at the conclusion of the play and during the talkback afterwards, but I wasn’t one of them.

** out of ****

Quiet Peninsula continues through to December 19th in the MadLab Theatre located at 227 North Third Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://madlab.net/quiet-peninsula.html