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
 

Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (Curtain Players – Galena, OH)

 

“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood,” wrote Thomas Wolfe; that’s the thought that filled my mind while seeing the Curtain Players production of Ed Graczyk’s Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, a play about a reunion of James Dean fans flocking back to their Texas hometown twenty years after the actor’s death. Of course, some of the women never left, some left and came back, and still others are returning for the first time; and then there is one who can never come back as they are no longer the same person.

 

Photo: Brooke Justiniano – (left to right) Kathylynn St. Pierre (Mona), Kasey Meininger (Sissy), and Erin Dilly (Joanne)
 

Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was first performed in Columbus forty years ago, eventually making its way to Broadway and then to film in 1982. Set in a 5 & Dime store in McCarthy, Texas, the play shifts time periods from 1975 to 1955 to tell the story of a group of friends from high school reuniting to catch up on their lives and commemorate the life of their teen heart throb, James Dean. There is Mona (Kathylynn St. Pierre), who stayed behind and raised her son Jimmy Dean, whom she says was the result of a one-night stand with James Dean while he was on location in nearby Marfa filming Giant; Sissy (Kasey Meininger), the buxom wild girl who left town but returned five years earlier after a divorce; Stella May (Adriana Pust), the pushy, loud and proud Texan; Edna Louise (Sara Priest), eternally naive and pregnant; and then there is Joe (Patrick Petrilla), who has returned as Joanne (Erin Daily), shocking the group with his transition but also prepared to reveal the truths so many of them have hidden. 

 

Photo: Brooke Justiniano – Kathylynn St. Pierre (Mona)
 
Standouts in the cast are Kathylynn St. Pierre as a willowy Mona, both fragile and stubborn at the same time, trying so desperately to hold up a useless facade; Erin Daily is often inscrutable as Joanne, making her revelations about the women all the more surprising and powerful; Kasey Meininger plays Sissy quite a bit like Cher did in the film while still bringing a vitality all her own; Adriana Pust is a strong and domineering Stella May; and Patrick Petrilla is a sensitive and forelorn Joe, a tricky part as it requires him to come off as closeted while also genuinely infatuated with the young Mona.

 

Photo: Brooke Justiniano – (left to right) Erin Daily (Joanne) and Kathylynn St. Pierre (Mona)
 
Director Mark Blessing expertly navigates telling parallel stories and switching time periods using the same location and most of the same actors (the exceptions being Carly Young playing Mona and Caitlin Brosnahan playing Sissy as teenagers). This switch proved to be confusing in Robert Altman’s film version, but the subtle shifts in lighting as well as costume Mr. Blessing employs here do the trick perfectly. The director and his wife, Deborah, are also responsible for the meticulous set decor of the Five & Dime, with the set designed with a real eye for the time period and requirements of the story by Drew Washburn. There is even a vintage menu with movable letters and prices for the food items for sale at the counter; it truly looks like a shop open for business!

 

Photo: Brooke Justiniano – (left to right) Caitlin Brosnahan (Sissy as a teen), Carly Young (Mona as a teen), and Patrick Petrilla (Joe)
 
Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was certainly ahead of its time by bringing up the subject of being transgendered forty years ago, though I wouldn’t call this a gay show by any means. In fact, the story comes off like Joe transitioned because he found it more acceptable to become a woman rather than being gay, not because he was fulfilling a dream of being his “authentic self” like is the accepted narrative of today; this stereotype that gay people actually want to be the opposite sex has surely been debunked by now. Still, I get the impression that Joe reappeared as Joanne in the play as a device to show how people can make a complete 180, and how our memory of people may be frozen in time and bear no relation to the reality of the moment. Joanne holds a mirror up to Mona, Sissy, and Juanita (Kate Charlesworth-Miller, the proprietor of the 5 & Dime shop) to reveal truths about their past that they would prefer remain hidden, all the while coming from someone who is familiar to them as Joe while still being a stranger as Joanne. The discussion of being transgendered or transitioning is fairly superficial in this piece, but the fact that it was a plot point at all was certainly revolutionary for the time even if in retrospect it represents a rather archaic view of the topic.

 

Photo: Brooke Justiniano – (left to right) Erin Daily (Joanne), Kathylynn St. Pierre (Mona), Kasey Meininger (Sissy), and Adriana Pust (Stella May)
 
Curtain Players’ Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is nostalgic in the best way, a play about memories, the past, and the challenges of friendship. Sometimes it takes a very dear friend to tell you the truth about yourself in a way that you can understand and accept, and this message of the play is quite clear in this handsome production. This is one of those plays that works all on its own but can also instigate a lively discussion afterwards.

*** out of ****

Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean continues through to February 21st 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/2015-2016/4_five_and_dime.php

The Outgoing Tide (Curtain Players – Galena, OH)

“Wouldn’t it be great if every time you really screwed up in life, every time you lost your temper, every time you did something really stupid, they’d let you do it over?” That’s the question one character asks in the Gallery Players production of The Outgoing Tide, a winning play concerning the decisions we make, our inevitable future, and how we can attempt to make up for past transgressions in the face of a bleak future. Did I mention that it’s also a comedy? Well, perhaps “dramedy” would be the right term, but by any categorization this is a play that needs to be seen.

The Outgoing Tide by Bruce Graham is about Gunner, an irascible old man suffering from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. He still has his wits about him much of the time, but his lapses in memory and judgement are growing worse every day, putting a strain on his marriage to Peg. Their only child Jack comes to visit and finds himself having to choose between two very different ideas of how to handle the future; Peg wants to move them into an assisted living facility, and Gunner… Well, he has another solution in mind. As depressing as all of this sounds, it is actually quite a funny comedy, full of laugh-out-loud foibles, misunderstandings, and a generally upbeat examination of such dire subject matter.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Sean Brinker (Jack), Dave Morgan (Gunner), and Eve Nordyke (Peg)
 
Dave Morgan is a gift from the community theatre Gods as Gunner; he’s grouchy, funny, spry – so natural and likable in a tricky part. Mr. Morgan is the key ingredient that makes this production work; no matter how strong the writing, a performance of his caliber is needed to make us laugh and care as much as we do. Mr. Morgan is delicately subtle when showing the effects of Alzheimer’s, superior even to Julianne Moore who won an Academy Award for it in Still Alice (2014). His bio states that he is returning to Curtain Players after a thirty-three-year hiatus; welcome back, Dave, and please don’t stop performing!

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Dave Morgan (Gunner) and Eve Nordyke (Peg)
 
Eve Nordyke is a good match as Gunner’s wife, Peg. Ms. Nordyke is at her best in the scenes in which she and Mr. Morgan act out moments from their youth, raising her pitch slightly and shrinking into a youthful bashfulness that is adorable and just right next to Mr. Morgan’s bravado. She reacts to what is being said to and around her extremely well, always appearing poised to pounce with little provocation.

Sean Brinker as their son, Jack, certainly knows his lines well; he sometimes speaks them in a way that spells out the punctuation, which is unfortunate. Mr. Brinker rarely appears comfortable on stage, and it’s a real shame as he gets to share it with such good cast mates but doesn’t seem capable of enjoying it. It’s not that he’s awful or wrecks the production; he is merely serviceable – a weaker link in an otherwise strong chain. 

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Sean Brinker (Jack) and Dave Morgan (Gunner)
 
Director James F. Petsche is to be commended for keeping the tone in check throughout. This isn’t a play that belabors the issues at hand, and Mr. Petsche doesn’t allow any moment to linger too long. Sound designer Eric Ewing also deserves recognition for his ambient sound effects, the volume of the music cues, and for how transparent everything sounds; every line can be heard clearly, and the sound of the motorboat chugging around the rear of the theatre is well handled.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Eve Nordyke (Peg) and Dave Morgan (Gunner)
 

The Outgoing Tide takes a topic that could be full of maudlin tears and sloppy kisses and brings humor to it. It’s disarmingly funny and joyful, and that’s why it works so well. If one were to simply read the synopsis and see the key advertising art, it would seem like this is a cousin to On Golden Pond, but it really isn’t; it’s much better, actually. So much of life is funny in its absurdity, even death and illness, and plays like The Outgoing Tide help give us permission to find the humor in the situation to carry us through.

***/ out of ****

The Outgoing Tide continues through to November 8th at 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/2015-2016/2_tide.php

Zombies from the Beyond (Curtain Players – Galena, OH)

Something doesn’t have to be good to be thought of with fondness, as fans of slipshod sci-fi films of the 1950s can attest. Sure, many of them are quite laughable and have ended up as fodder on “Mystery Science Theatre 3000,” but that doesn’t mean they aren’t enjoyable and don’t have their own fan base. It’s with an endearing affection for the past that James Valcq’s Zombies from the Beyond has been written, an intentionally campy and silly musical comedy that opens the Curtain Players season.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Joyce Patrone (Mary), Tony Ludovico (Major Malone), and Dan Hildebrand (Rick)
 

Zombies from the Beyond takes place in 1955 at the Milwaukee Space Center where a group of people discover a flying saucer is headed towards earth. Little do they know that aboard that spaceship is an alien named Zombina set to recruit studs to take back to her all-female planet. The plot is slight but serviceable, and the music engaging and catchy. The play even has a projected title sequence reminiscent of sci-fi films of the period, though the font sometimes makes things difficult to read (perhaps that was the intent though – purposefully inept). The cast is uniformly capable, though there were four standouts that deserve individual recognition.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Dan Hildebrand (Rick) and Laura Dachenbach (Zombina)
 
Laura Dachenbach as Zombina has to be seen – and heard – to be believed. Ms. Dachenbach plays the villain with fiendish glee, her voice an instrument of pleasure and torture. The part requires her to sing some harsh sustained notes, and she’s more than up to the challenge. Her costume by Tasha Naneth is a real stunner with laced-up sparkly gloves and a vest with netting and a high collar, her overall characterization vaguely reminiscent of Disney villains Maleficent and Cruella de Vil.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Dan Hildebrand (Rick)
 
Dan Hildebrand plays Rick Jones with goofy glee, using his abbreviated stature next to Sean Brinker as Trenton Corbett for full comic effect. Mr. Hildebrand has a delightfully expressive face and is quite likable, all of which is turned on its head when it is revealed that he is not exactly a good guy. It’s fun to look over at him even when he doesn’t have any lines as his expression is constantly changing in response to everyone around him.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Julie Russell (Charlie)
 
Julie Russell plays the man hungry secretary Charlie Osmanski with a twinkle in her eye and a skip in her step. There are times when her smile brings to mind a younger Melissa McCarthy, and she brings a bubbly joyfulness to the stage that is infectious. Ms. Russell has a tendency to steal attention away from other people on the stage, but I don’t think it’s on purpose; the girl can’t help it.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Cody Schmid (Billy Krutzik)
 
It’s also difficult to take one’s eyes off of Cody Schmid as Billy Krutzik as he tap dances around (literally and figuratively) Ms. Russell to win her affections. Mr. Schmid has energy to spare and cuts a striking frame, though at times his eyes appear open so wide that I worry they might just pop out. He certainly has a handle on the heightened reality of the piece, that’s for sure.

The set by Neil Aring at first appears deceptively plain only to open up to reveal a control center of sorts with lights and levers. Additional panels open up for other locations, and corridors are built into the set to aid characters and stagehands to come and go with ease. Highly functional but also creative, the set works marvelously well in maintaining the light mood. The various practical effects are done in an openly slipshod manner with wires and poles, all so funny and engaging.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 

Zombies from the Beyond is engagingly light entertainment, and I’m glad that it’s my first Curtain Players show. The theatre has a cozy intimacy rare in and around Columbus, and the lighting and sound were all well managed. It’s difficult to pull off cute without also being cloying, but director Heather Schultz has done just that with a game cast and crew.

*** out of ****

Zombies from the Beyond continues through to September 27th at 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/