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)

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Imagine Productions – Columbus, OH)

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is one of the crowned jewels of musical theatre, and is quite possibly musician and lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece (with proper credit due to the book by Hugh Wheeler, of course). Since premiering on Broadway in 1979, this show has been broadcast, revived, adapted into a hit film, and licensed for countless performances all across the country; its score has entered the lexicon of great showtunes with selections like “The Worst Pies in London”, “Pretty Women”, “Not While I’m Around”, and “Johanna” being particularly haunting, often recorded, and used in many an audition. Columbus’s Imagine Productions is now tackling this piece after their sterling production of Thoroughly Modern Millie a few months ago, a production better than the show probably deserved. Alas, the situation is quite the opposite this time around.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is about a barber previously known as Benjamin Barker who has just been released after fifteen years in prison on a trumped up charge, returning to London with revenge on his mind. Judge Turpin is the man who took away Todd’s daughter, Johanna, and caused the apparent death of his wife, Lucy. Todd returns to his former lodgings above Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop and starts up his barber business again, though wielding his beloved straight razors with deadly results. Across his path come Anthony, who rescued Sweeney at sea and falls in love with his daughter; Pirelli, a scheming charlatan and his assistant, Tobias; a beggar woman, always lurking about; and Beadle Bamford, Judge Turpin’s valet.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
Something odd is going on with Keith Robinson as Sweeney Todd, a part for which he has the voice and stature. He lacks menace and bite in the part, coming across as friendly instead of fiendish. Why does he smile so much? Surely his exaggerated makeup and odd costume don’t help, as he appears to be Bea Arthur dressed up as Frankenstein’s monster for a very special episode of “Maude”. Mr. Robinson comes alive in the part only sporadically, talented as he is, and I hate to say I found the same to be true (though to a lesser extent) with Jesika Lehner as Mrs. Lovett. Ms. Lehner brings a sexiness to the part that is not unwelcome (I’m not sure there is anything Ms. Lehner can do to avoid that other than to wear a burlap sack), but key moments during her first meeting with Sweeney Todd and the finale are missing beats in which the audience gets a peek into the devious machinations going on in her mind. It’s almost as if both Mr. Robinson and Ms. Lehner are afraid to be truly devilish and repugnant, and it’s a shame to see their obvious talents not focused properly on these roles, one of many things I blame on the director.

The orchestra sounds particularly divine as conducted by Tyler Rogols with musical direction by Ashley Woodard (Imagine consistently has one of the best – if not THE best – group of musicians to play at their shows in Columbus), but the sound of the music almost always drowns out the singing! What’s worse is that some of the performers don’t appear to be properly mic’d or amplified, particularly Tobias (Johnny Robison) whose entire performance is almost completely inaudible; Jesika Lehner’s mic cuts in and out throughout “God, That’s Good” depending on what direction she is facing, deeply impairing her performance as Mrs. Lovett through no fault of her own. I’m not sure exactly what is going on with the sound design, but someone needs to reevaluate things – adjust EQ, replace some microphones, or steer the vocals to a separate set of speakers; so many lines and lyrics are lost because of the varying sound issues.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
The two standout performances from this production come from the unlikeliest of places (at least to me) – Elizabeth Zimmerman as Johanna and Kent Stuckey as Judge Turpin. Ms. Zimmerman has an incredibly strong and high singing voice and isn’t hampered by the sound issues, and Mr. Stuckey has a deep gruffness to his voice that is powerful and disturbingly sexy; one almost wouldn’t blame Johanna for picking this Judge Turpin over the squeaky-clean and rather wimpy Anthony (Justin King, who sings beautifully but needs to lose the blue neck kerchief). Honorable mention goes to Brian Horne as quite a fancy and foppish Pirelli, though his performance is also compromised by the poor sound in the scene leading up to his murder; it’s another scene where it isn’t clear what exactly he said to bring about his demise. Ryan Kopycinsky is also a fine Beadle Bamford, particularly funny in the scene where he sings parlor songs when Mrs. Lovett is trying to get rid of him.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
Director Ryan Scarlata doesn’t appear to have a firm grasp on how best to handle a show of this size and scale as many sequences (“Poor Thing”, the contest scene with Pirelli, the scenes leading up to and into “A Little Priest” and “God, That’s Good”, and the finale) are difficult to decipher unless one already knows the story (the abduction and rape of Lucy is particularly obscure). I can’t pinpoint exactly where the problem lies in each instance in which the plot isn’t coming across, but surely the minimalist set (just some scaffolding and a few props here and there, though Mrs. Lovett does hang a sign once her shop has been revitalized – and leaves it up even when scenes play out that take place elsewhere) and the lighting cues which change abruptly don’t help the situation, nor does the sound. Some members of the ensemble are also overacting terribly, sticking out like they escaped from an asylum with no one there to reign them in.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
A major misstep is having what appears to be the specter of Lucy (Candice Kight, appearing quite ethereal) appear onstage whenever Sweeney commits a murder. Ms. Kight leans in and blows red confetti in place of blood when someone’s throat is slashed (which is a neat idea), but her presence makes absolutely no sense as Lucy is found to be alive later in the show! “Who’s that girl?” I heard people question around me, and I wondered myself until I realized what was going on. When it is revealed that the beggar woman (Michelle Weiser, who projects too much health to be a homeless beggar to me) is Lucy, it doesn’t come across properly because of the presence of Ms. Kight throughout the play. It’s another example of how this production has moments that are only clear to people that know the show intimately while alienating that very same audience at the same time! I don’t even want to go into how the “dead” people simply walk off stage and behind a curtain, making it difficult to suspend disbelief that anyone is in any real danger, something necessary for this show to work.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a brilliant show, but this production fails to do it justice. The woman next to me kept checking her program, presumably to see how many songs were left until intermission and then how many until the show was over, and that should not be the case with such an superlative piece. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing so many members of this cast in other shows, and it breaks my heart to see so much talent on the stage go to waste. This isn’t a disaster of a production, just a dishearteningly droll and undistinguished one, the first time I can say I’ve been so disappointed in a show by Imagine Productions.

** out of ****

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street continues through to October 11th at Wall Street located at 144 North Wall Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.imaginecolumbus.org/sweeney-todd.html

Thoroughly Modern Millie (Imagine Productions – Columbus, OH)

Thoroughly Modern Millie has an interesting lineage; the musical play is based on the 1967 musical film starring Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, and Carol Channing. Only two songs from the film have been retained (the maddeningly hummable title song and Jimmy) while the rest of the score is original with music by Jeanine Tesori (she just won a long overdue Tony for Fun Home) and lyrics by Dick Scanlon, who also wrote the book along with film scribe Richard Morris. Premiering on Broadway in 2002, Thoroughly Modern Millie would run for over two years, win six Tony Awards (including Best Musical), and go on to perhaps greater success as a popular property licensed for performance by high schools and community theatres across the country.

Thoroughly Modern Millie is set in 1922 in Manhattan where country girl Millie Dillmount has arrived to find a husband, with her sights set on marrying a rich boss – as soon as she can find one. Along the way she meets naive orphan Miss Dorothy Brown, poor big kid Jimmy Smith, society matron Muzzy Van Hossmere, handsome but distant businessman Trevor Graydon, and evil whiter slaver Mrs. Meers. Will Millie learn to marry for love or money? Well, the answer is obvious, but the fun is in seeing how she comes to the conclusion.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Meredith Zahn as Millie
Meredith Zahn makes for a snappy Millie Dillmount, lively without appearing to suffer from a thyroid condition like Sutton Foster did on Broadway (yes, I know she won the Tony for it, but I think that her overzealousness was a bit tough to take in person). Meredith’s voice is pure and strong, and she blends in nicely when necessary with the other tenants of the Hotel Priscilla, all wearing their smart fashions with ease. Costume coordinator Jackie Farbeann really outdid herself in recreating the period without being too on the nose.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Kathy Taylor as Mrs. Meers

Kathy Taylor is a delicious Mrs. Meers, so abhorrently conniving that you almost want her to succeed with her current business plan to see just what she might come up with next. Her cohorts Ching Ho (Dante DiNucci) and Bun Foo (Sharon Kibe) understandably cower under her domination, and their dialogue appears in English in projections that appear to the right and left above the stage and are for the most part well timed. The portrayal of Mrs. Meers and her staff has been a problem going back to the film as they speak in broken English and appear to be Asian stereotypes. Mrs. Meers admits to being a frustrated former actress who lapses into her lisp whenever her boarders are present (she’s playing a part to them, albeit badly), but effort has been made to make her Asian helpers sympathetic. Whether this is all offensive is tough to say – it didn’t bother me or the audience, but none of us were Asian as far as I could see.

Hannah Berry is a standout as Muzzy Van Hossmere with an incredibly strong voice, beautiful teeth, and a calming demeanor. Chad Anderson as Trevor Graydon has the matinee idol looks down, even if he sometimes gets a bit tongue-tied. Ann Johnson as Miss Dorothy Brown is sweet without being saccharine, and one can see why Millie would forgive her for most anything. Jared Joseph does double duty performing as Jimmy Smith with plenty of charm while also being musical director for the show; I’m sure he has more than a little something to do with how great the orchestra sounds.

The main set piece is a rotating platform that has interchangeable panels to transform from the lobby of the Hotel Priscilla to Trevor Graydon’s office to the estate of wealthy Muzzy Van Hossmere. The settings are suggested by designs and signs in place of elaborate sets, and it is the perfect way to use this space. There are even doors on the platform that swing off to the side to represent the rooms within the hotel! Scenic designers Alex McDougal-Webber and Riley Hutchinson deserve some special prize for pulling this one off.

As I mentioned previously, the orchestra sounds really terrific with nary a stray note to be heard, well conducted by Abby Zeszotek above and to the left of the stage. The placement of the orchestra obviously requires some amplification, and this is one of the few areas for improvement – it’s just too loud. When the singers and the orchestra are going full force, the volume level is too high to keep everything intelligible. Less is more, especially in such a small venue. 

Still, director and choreographer Rose Babington has breathed fresh life into this production, packing so much onto a comparatively small stage. Even the flaws in the book (is it just me or does everything get resolved rather quickly and easily at the end?) are easy to overlook when there is such energy and life to glide past them. I can honestly say I’ve never enjoyed the play so much, either on Broadway or on tour, and I urge everyone looking to enjoy a lively, funny musical to book a stool at Wall Street to catch this one before it’s gone.

***/ out of ****

Thoroughly Modern Millie continues through to August 2 at Wall Street in Columbus, OH, and more information can be found at http://www.imaginecolumbus.org/thoroughly-modern-millie.html

Columbus Theatre – Alive and Well

Why did it take me so many years to discover that there was so much theatre to enjoy in and around Columbus, Ohio? I don’t have a good answer for that. Sure, I got my theatre fix seeing as many shows on Broadway as possible on my trips to New York a few times every year. I would see a lot of the big tours when they would pass through town as well, and a show now and then at the Riffe Center, but that was about it until two years ago.

My discovery of the large and diverse theatre scene in the area began when I happened upon an ad for tick, tick…BOOM! being performed by the Evolution Theatre Company. I think I saw it on Facebook, but I was unfamiliar with that theatre group or the Columbus Performing Arts Center, the venue in which it was being performed. I certainly didn’t expect much when I saw the little building hidden away on Franklin Avenue in a section of town where I’d never really visited. Maybe that lack of expectation is what made the experience so seminal for me. 

What I experienced that day was what I would call organic theatre, raw and fresh without the burden of large production values that swamp many a Broadway show. Not that I don’t love a big Broadway show (I do), but there is something to be said about having a few set pieces, just a smattering of props, and just getting out there to tell a story. I believe that there is talent everywhere, and Columbus sure seems to have more than its share.

While at the Columbus Performing Arts Center to see tick, tick…BOOM! I saw another theatre company was performing Next to Normal, which I had seen on Broadway years before and loved. Of course I had to come back to see it. I looked up both theatre companies on Facebook, liked their pages, and then started searching for all the other theatre that I was apparently missing out on. I even read the bios of the actors in the programs to tick, tick…BOOM! and Next to Normal to see what other theatre companies they had performed with in an effort to find out as much as I could about this underground (well, it was to me, anyway) network of theatre groups and performance spaces all over town.

I am that person that pestered all of my friends whenever I found a play was being performed to see what they were doing the following night. “What play is it this time, Chuck?” they would sigh. I couldn’t always sell them on joining me, but more often than not when they did they ended up enjoying themselves, which helped me corral them into seeing another show a few weeks later. Not every show was great or even good, but none were as aggressively bad as some Broadway shows I’ve seen. I remember how much fun my friend Kona and I had at Imagine’s La Cage Aux Folles, or the time Michael and I giggled our way through Short North Stage’s The Divine Sister, or the time I went alone to Evolution’s Sons of the Prophet and because of a mistimed potty break found myself returning to the theatre to have two guys stripping (in character) just a few feet away from me.

I started a blog earlier this year on a New York theatergoing trip mainly to chronicle my thoughts on the shows I was seeing so I wouldn’t have to keep repeating myself to the people that would ask, “What did you see, and what did you think?” Lots of people write about New York theatre, but what about theatre in Columbus? The Other Paper was a good source for information and reviews until it disappeared in 2013, but I was fortunate to find Richard Ades excellent blog at http://www.columbustheater.org (his “On the Boards” weekly listing of theatre in and around Columbus has informed me of so many plays I would’ve missed otherwise). Columbus Alive! is good as well, but with so much theatre to cover naturally many plays would come and go without much notice in print.

I started writing my thoughts on the shows I was seeing in Columbus as I thought that maybe it could help bring some awareness so others could find out about and enjoy the shows that I was seeing all the time. I’m not a professional critic and have no credentials for writing about theatre save for my passion as an audience member. Everyone has an opinion and certainly mine is just that; an opinion, no more or less valid than that of anyone else. One thing led to another and I befriended some actors and directors on Facebook. Then the “I Support Local Live Theatre” group was suggested to me to join, and I started to discover whole other groups of performers that I had overlooked!

Doing theatre on little to no budget leaves no money with which to advertise, and so word of mouth and some effort to seek out the events of interest is required. Some theatre groups have harnessed the power of social media to great effect posting about upcoming performances and keeping their audience “in the loop” while others rarely post until the last minute when most people have their plans for the weekend or evening already set. Because of changes with Facebook I recently had to go to all of the theatre company pages I had previously “liked” to then “subscribe” to their updates as simply liking their page wasn’t enough to keep the notifications coming anymore.

Through the “I Support Local Live Theatre” group on Facebook I learned of the Third Annual Columbus Black Theatre Festival coming up this weekend! I don’t know where I was for the first two festivals, but I know I’ll be there this weekend for the third. Spearheaded by Julie Whitney Scott and her Mine 4 God Productions (http://www.mine4godproductions.com/home.html), the goal is to present original works by local black artists. Ms. Scott’s theatre company also offers workshops and outreach programs for the community. “I support all theatre, even high school plays,” says Ms. Scott. “I also look to promote theatre productions on my radio show (http://www.talktainmentradio.com).”

Tasha Neal Harris is performing her show G-H-E-T-T-OH No She Din’t as part of the festival at 530pm on Sunday, July 12th at the Columbus Performing Arts Center in the Shedd Theatre. Though she performed it at Ohio University and in this same festival last year, Tasha admits, “It’s still scary because there’s really no script to it. It’s usually not very big, unfortunately,” she says of the audience. “I like to perform it in front of any crowd of people who want to be entertained,” she added. “I would prefer to perform it in front of fifteen people who want to be entertained than fifteen hundred people who are jerks.”

My experiences in the audience of the plays I’ve seen in Columbus support what Tasha says; the theatregoing crowd may be small, but they are supportive and fervent. “I did a play for the Little Theater Off Broadway,” Tasha said, referring to the theatre in Grove City (http://ltob.org/), “and it was probably one of my favorite plays I have ever done. The crowd was probably about forty-five to fifty people, and it was so amazing. I like a smaller theatre space as well because when you have a big theatre space everyone kind of spreads out and it looks like less people are there and the mood isn’t contagious because people aren’t close to one another.”

Tasha and I agreed that, as with movies and books, there is some theatre that is right for everyone; people just need to be exposed to the genre that they like. “People who think they don’t like theatre have not been to the right theatre or show,” Tasha said.

This weekend I compiled a bunch of links on my blog (at the bottom of this page on the mobile version, and to the right on the desktop site) covering as many local theatre groups as I know about, and I plan to keep adding more. I’m going to keep nagging at my friends to go see plays with me, and I hope that my writing on this blog might help bring attention to the wealth of inexpensive theatre right here in our backyard.

Two of the big companies that license plays for performance even offer a search tool to find productions playing in your area. Samuel French’s “Now Playing” section helped me find some interesting high school productions planned for the coming year (http://www.samuelfrench.com/now-playing), and Music Theatre International has a terrific app (http://www.mtishows.com/content.asp?id=2_3_1) that helped me discover the Weathervane Playhouse in Newark as a premium theatre just a short drive outside Columbus! During most months I bet I could see a different play every week right here in Columbus, which makes the stretches of time between my marathon New York excursions bareable.

Here’s my itinerary for this week: 

Crowded? Sure, but with so much talent right here in Columbus, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

GO SEE A SHOW! And if you see something you like, tell a friend about it! They say that theatre is a dying art, but I refuse to believe it.