Children of Eden (Dare 2 Defy – Dayton, OH)


In lieu of a full review, here is a promotional video I created for Dare 2 Defy’s Children of Eden, which runs for only three performances this weekend in Dayton, Ohio. I attended the dress rehearsal and found the score catchy, the choreography highly inventive, and the cast of nearly fifty full of energy. I was worried that this would be somewhat like Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell, but it wasn’t in the slightest. Though the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah and his ark are told, they are treated more like literature than a Bible lesson, making the subject matter highly accessible to any audience, be they believer or Atheist. *** 1/2 out of ****

Until He Wasn’t (MadLab – Columbus, OH)

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What’s it about?

Until He Wasn’t concerns four strangers connected by one man: Colin Bayley. Colin is attentive, sexy, sensitive – the perfect guy to each of his former lovers commiserating about their time with him; that is, until he wasn’t. As the evening progresses, each member of the group divulges just how deep their connection to each other goes – all because of one man.

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) Laura Spires (Raya), Tenille (Jenn Feather Youngblood), Will Macke (Gavin), and Kasey Meininger (Natalie)

Is it worth seeing?

When I first entered the MadLab Theatre to see how the seating had been completely rearranged to present this show in the round, I knew Until He Wasn’t was going to be special. I didn’t plan on how involving the piece would ultimately be, as the writing by Patrick McLaughlin can be interpreted as either dramatic or cynically comical all depending on the way the audience chooses to interpret it; there were many moments were certain groups would laugh at a particular moment whereas other parts of the audience were solemnly quiet. The set pieces are minimal and never in danger of blocking any of the action, and director Audrey Rush takes care to spread the action out so there doesn’t appear to be a bad vantage point.

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) Laura Spires (Raya), Rob Philpott (Colin), and Kasey Meininger (Natalie)

This is one hell of a cast working through some rough material, and it’s quickly apparent that this is not their first time at the rodeo. Laura Spires could be whiny as Raya, the wife who was married to Colin for years, but she isn’t; Ms. Spires isn’t keen on hearing of his infidelities, and so she comes off as naturally defensive of what she believes were those special years before the trouble started. Kasey Meininger makes Natalie, Colin’s lover while still married to Raya, quite aggressive, exhibiting a natural inclination towards physicality that fits the role and the actor playing it; a semi-dream sequence in the second act requires Ms. Meininger to fling herself around in a way that would send most of us to the chiropractor, but she manages it all in stride.

Jenn Feather Youngblood as Tenille at first glance might seem like the stereotypical “sexless, quirky best friend of the lead who never gets the guy,” but she is so much more than that. At times able to connect with a beat that jolts the audience with laughter and at other times uncomfortably vulnerable, Ms. Youngblood is able to turn the perceived stereotype on its head, showing more than anything that we all seek love and acceptance and don’t necessarily question it when it comes in an unbelievably attractive package. Will Macke’s Gavin definitely stands out in the otherwise female group, his swagger and sexual innuendos definitely meant to shock and disarm; still, Mr. Macke has a way of letting the audience in to look past his brusque facade, most shockingly during an intense sequence in the second act.

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) Laura Spires (Raya) and Rob Philpott (Colin)

It takes a special actor to be able to generate chemistry with four very different people in the same play, and Rob Philpott is just such a special talent. As Colin, Mr. Philpott is disarmingly suave and appealing, but he performs at a much higher level than one might expect from what seems like a typical pretty-boy role. His Colin says the right things at the right time, and the heat he generates with each of his on-stage lovers (no matter the gender) is electric and dangerous. Without a special person for each of the four main characters to pine for, Until He Wasn’t wouldn’t work; with Mr. Philpott as Colin, it works so well that I bet it could make members of the audience wonder if they might also be taken in under his spell if they encountered him in the same circumstances as did Raya, Natalie, Tenille, and Gavin.

Until He Wasn’t is one of those two-act plays where the first act ends with a big revelation, one that I didn’t see coming. This big moment lays the groundwork for the second act, as thrilling and tense as anything I’ve seen in years. At the end of this two and a half hour journey, I was exhausted yet exhilarated by the ride. Highly recommended!

My rating: *** 3/4 out of ****

Where can I see it?

Until He Wasn’t continues through to October 22nd in the MadLab Theatre located at 227 North 3rd Street, and more information can be found at http://madlab.net/until-he-wasnt.html

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

The Fantasticks (Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)


It’s funny how some plays can become such a part of popular culture that they can feel like you’ve seen them before even if you haven’t. The Fantasticks, the long-running 1960 Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt musical about two neighboring fathers pretending to feud in the hope that their children will rebel and fall in love, is one of those evergreens, a musical that is akin to a rite of passage as each new generation discovers and embraces its charms. The Fantasticks isn’t a great work, but its memorable score, including such standards as “Try to Remember,” “Much More,” and “Soon It’s Gonna Rain,” has done much to solidify its reputation.

Photo: Jason Allen – Emma Coniglio (Luisa) and Robert Carlton Stimmel (Matt)

Now Short North Stage presents their version of The Fantasticks, only this time director Jonathan Flom has changed its setting and locale to Oklahoma circa April 1935 during The Great Depression, more specially after a great dust storm that has left much death and destruction in its wake. Not a word or song has been changed to accommodate this interpretation, and yet what emerges in this production injects new life and relevance in the all-too-familiar story of boy meets girl/boy loses girl/boy gets girl back. Mr. Flom’s production, with a sprawling set by Jonathan Sabo complete with mounds of dirt and partially buried farm paraphernalia, is presented in the round with limited seating around the perimeter of a raised wooden platform (the room’s support beam is cleverly dressed to appear like a tower); the overall effect is one of inclusion, like the audience is a part of the action.

Photo: Jason Allen – Brian Hupp (El Gallo) and Emma Coniglio (Luisa)

The cast is uniformly excellent, exuding a kind of familial affection for one another that permeates past their roles. Brian Hupp makes an oddly dangerous and elusive El Gallo, a fresh take on this character all dressed in black; Robert Carlton Stimmel plays Matt with energy to spare, and Emma Coniglio has a way of playing a bit spoiled as Luisa that isn’t cloying; Doug Joseph and Ryan Stem, as the fathers of Matt and Louisa respectively, should be listened to carefully for their humorous ad libbing as they bicker with each other in the way that only great friends can do; Mr. Joseph and Mr. Stem both have a way of embodying the spirit of both mother and father that makes their investment in the future of their children all the more significant.

Photo: Jason Allen – (left to right) Robert Carlton Stimmel (Matt), Kate Lingnofski (Mortimer), and Alex Lanier (Henry)

Though her stage time is brief, Alex Lanier makes a dizzyingly bombastic Henry, the old actor who helps to stage an attempted abduction of Louisa to help Matt appear to be a hero; Kate Lingnofski as Mortimer, Henry’s sidekick, has a staunch posture and walk that is highly individual and comedic; her goggles, cap, and scarves conjure images of a Chaplinesque Amelia Earhart. Megan Valle plays The Mute, and she is also responsible for the choreography that feels so organic that it can be difficult to tell when it starts and ends; Ms. Valle acts silently with an expression that looks as if she’s on the cusp of saying something quite profound, the story of Matt and Luisa’s courtship playing out in front of her being the one respite from the world around her.

Photo: Jason Allen

Short North Stage’s The Fantasticks has a wistful, dreamlike quality to it, almost like recalling a memory through a haze of sheer muslin. All of the familiar songs and characters are there, but this telling has more of an urgency and relevance to it; the love and joy of the young lovers is more poignant with The Great Depression as a backdrop. This reimagining doesn’t feel forced or heavy-handed at all, and the simplicity of the story has never felt more welcome a luxury. Aside from the intimacy of experiencing this production in the round, there is an added benefit; many times I caught myself glancing at the smiling faces of other audience members on the opposite side of the performing space. I’m sure I sported an incongruous smile as well since the sweetness and hopefulness of this production is infectious. “Aren’t you glad we came out tonight?” I heard a lady ask her friends as we all exited the theatre after the play. Everyone agreed that seeing this production of The Fantasticks was time well-spent.

**** out of ****

The Fantasticks continues through to August 14th in The Green Room at The Garden Theatre located at 1187 North High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.shortnorthstage.org/calendar/v/471

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 Music Man (Weathervane Playhouse – Newark, OH)


It might be hard to believe now, but West Side Story and The Music Man competed against each other at the 1958 Tony Awards, with The Music Man walking away with the Best Musical prize as well as three of the four acting awards! It’s not that Meredith Willson’s The Music Man isn’t a good show; it’s just that with time (and the hugely popular 1961 film adaptation), West Side Story has emerged as arguably one of the greatest musicals ever and the one from that season that made the biggest lasting impact on popular culture. Still, the story of “Professor” Harold Hill selling band instruments and uniforms from town to town, convincing families to invest in their children’s musical “gifts” (Harold himself can neither play an instrument or read music), and wooing Marian the Librarian is the kind of old-fashioned, sweet and simple crowd-pleaser that has made it an enduring favorite for nearly sixty years now; how nice to have it return in an enjoyable production at the Weathervane Playhouse in Newark right around Independence Day.

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com)

The Music Man is a slice of Americana set in Iowa during the summer of 1912 when the biggest news of the day included the local gossip and happenings within the town, not what was going on anywhere else in the world. It was a time of traveling salesmen, including the type that would make a big sale and then skip town as quickly as possible once the customers found that they had been mislead. Harold Hill is just that kind of salesman, promising to form a marching band and teach music to the children of the town only to disappear once the instruments and uniforms arrive. It is a con he has been working for years, making it difficult for the honest traveling salesmen who find themselves unwelcome in towns burned by Mr. Hill’s tactics. All of that is about to change when Harold arrives in Iowa, bewitches the town, and earns the affection of the town librarian, Marian. With a score containing “Seventy-Six Trombones,” “The Wells Fargo Wagon,” “Till There Was You,” and “Ya Got Trouble,” The Music Man is an enjoyable work, one that also shows how easy it is to convince people of anything you want so long as you keep telling them what they want to hear (brings to mind this election season, doesn’t it?).

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com)

Layne Roate plays Harold Hill, tough shoes for anyone to fill as Robert Preston, who originated the role on Broadway, preserved his performance in the popular 1962 film adaptation. Mr. Roate wisely doesn’t try to copy him; his Professor Hill seems far more human and relatable than the template, yet he doesn’t reinvent the character entirely. He may not be able to master Mr. Preston’s speed or diction in “Ya Got Trouble,” but Mr. Roate’s “Till There Was You,” in which he expresses his love to Marian, is sincere in a way Mr. Preston’s was not in comparison. His Harold is still a sneaky salesman, but what he really sells isn’t instruments or uniforms but hope. Sure, he may be planning to disappear as soon as the checks clear, but he has a knack for making a lot of people happy in the process.

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com)

Natalie Szczerba is a kind and emotionally accessible Marian Paroo, completely believable in the moment when she decides not to expose Harold for what he really is to the town when she sees his positive effect on her lisping brother, Winthrop. Ms. Szczerba doesn’t make Marian a pushover at all, but she isn’t as militarily strident as Shirley Jones was in the film either. This Marian’s “Goodnight, My Someone” feels like a hope-filled prayer, and Ms. Szczerba and Mr. Roate’s chemistry is immediately apparent. Do we know they are going to end up together? Sure, but the joy is in watching it happen.

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com)

Standouts in the supporting cast include Brad Johnson as Tommy, the rowdy boy courting the mayor’s daughter, and Ricardo Locci as Charlie Cowell, the salesman looking to expose Harold’s past to the town. Neither part is particularly large or defined, but these two performers bring a lot to the table. Mr. Johnson’s energy and bright smile as Tommy would be cloying if it didn’t come off as so naturally naive and youthful. Mr. Locci’s Charlie is the kind of anvil salesman you’d definitely want to steer clear of; when he starts to get close to Marian, Mr. Locci comes off as genuinely slimy and a real threat to her safety! This Charlie has an ax to grind alright, but his motive is to hurt Harold, not save the townspeople from being swindled.
Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com)

Director Kevin Connell and choreographer Tracy Wilson have their work cut out for them with such a large number of children in the ensemble; and yet, everyone has their own space and something to do, even when the action extends into the auditorium and within the aisles. While there may not be a lot of complexity to much of the dancing, everyone seems to be doing their part and appear glad to be there. The production moves quite well, and that includes the moments when there are forty people on the stage, which is no small achievement.The set is made up of three panels to the left that represent the colors of American flag, a large newspaper advertisement that serves as the pool hall in the center, and the Paroo home to the right. The Paroo’s house swings around to reveal the living room and is quite well-executed; the vintage ad being on the building for the pool hall looks quite odd, and the panels to the left that rotate to reveal books (for the library) leave a lot to be desired. Still, Jennifer Sansfacon’s lighting brings a surprising array of colors to scenes; the cues shift subtly to support the action at hand, a highlight being the pastel blues, pinks, and greens during “Shipoopi” and some other crowd numbers. Ms. Sansfacon also keeps the entire stage dark save for a single light several times to focus the audience’s attention on the more intimate moments.
Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com)

There is a lot of joy to be found in Weathervane Playhouse’s The Music Man; I honestly think one would have to put forth effort not to have a good time. The overall positive, cheerful effect of this production far outweighs its relatively minor deficits. This is family entertainment that isn’t icky sticky sweetness, yet it also isn’t trying to be “hip” and alienate half of the audience. The Music Man exists in a specific time and place, and how nice it is to see it live in a production as happy as this one.

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

The Music Man continues through to July 9th 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/meredith-willsons-the-music-man/

Precious Heart (Eclipse Theatre Company – Worthington, OH)

What exactly is “dessert theatre?” It’s like dinner theatre but just with dessert, which is the perfect supplement to spending a couple of hours with Fleeta Mae Bryte, a sixtyish Texas spinster with a vivid imagination and a cartload of stories to tell about herself, her family, and her hometown, Precious Heart, Texas. Precious Heart is a “dessert theatre” event, the second production by the Eclipse Theatre Company occupying a cozy performance space off the beaten path in Worthington, Ohio.

Photo: Kathy Sturm – Greg Smith (Fleeta Mae)

Precious Heart by Ted Karber, Jr., began life in the early 1990s as a submission to a theatre festival in Dayton, going on to enjoy many full productions throughout Ohio and Texas, at long last premiering just outside Columbus. The show is all about Fleeta Mae and her memories of her high school rivalries (you’ll hear a lot about a coy bitch named Emmaline), the lives of those around her in the little town, and her encounters with nymphomaniac armadillos, clandestine waltzing with her dress form, and a strange little creature that may or may not have been an alien. Anything is possible in Fleeta Mae’s world as she has retained a child-like wonder many people loose as they pass into adulthood. There is a certain kind of Grey Gardens-type charm to Fleeta Mae’s hoarding; a reference to the popular paperback Scruples by Judith Krantz being found in her basket of goodies particularly tickled me, as it would any other fan of trashy, soap opera fiction from the “Dynasty” era.

Photo: Craig Roberts – Greg Smith (Fleeta Mae)

Greg Smith recreates his performance as Fleeta Mae having performed the role in many productions over the years. Mr. Smith has the part down like a bad habit, but he doesn’t play it as a man in drag; this is not a campy performance that pokes fun at anyone, but rather a man completely embodying a woman’s role as a woman. The show has a few moments with a bit of audience interaction, but this is not an audience participation show at all. Mr. Smith as Fleeta Mae might point you out, make eye contact, or even take a Polaroid with you, but your main job is to sit back, enjoy some sweets, and let the laughter flow.

Photo: Kathy Sturm – Greg Smith (Fleeta Mae)

Mr. Smith makes sure Fleeta Mae’s feelings are known through a pile of expressions that show what she’s really thinking even if she’s trying her darnedest to be polite. Mr. Smith has a way of flicking his Gene Simmons-like tongue out to express Fleeta Mae’s dislike for her nemesis Emmaline that never gets old, and he is great at bringing out props like Fleeta Mae’s scrapbook to share with the audience. Fleeta Mae uses terms like “TV television” and “icebox” taking no mind of how redundant or outdated they may be, and Mr. Smith’s affection for the character is very clear in how he makes her in charge of all of the jokes rather than letting the jokes be on her.

Vintage photo of Fleeta Mae (far left)

The show only feels a bit heavy handed at the very end when the background music rises in volume and Fleeta Mae begins a new adventure with a gentleman caller (who may – or may not – actually be there). Something about the blissfully optimistic scene feels saccharine to me, but I can imagine many would find it an uplifting end to a show full of laughter and old fashioned kitchen table talk.

Photo: Kathy Sturm – Greg Smith (Fleeta Mae)

Precious Heart is unlike anything I’ve seen in or around Columbus, and that’s a shame. Where else can one get a wide selection of delicious desserts and enjoy a hilarious one-woman show in an intimate setting with plush, comfortable table seating? Fleeta Mae is one of those eccentric characters who is difficult to forget, and Precious Heart is just that: precious with heart.


Take note that the evening performances begin at 7:30pm instead of the usual 8pm, but I recommend arriving closer to 7pm to secure one of the limited seats (there are only five tables with eight chairs each) and getting first dibs at the dessert buffet (I recommend the cream puffs, lemonade, and the streusel-covered apple pie). 

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

Precious Heart continues through to June 19th 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/

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Melissa Hall (Catherine)
 

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

**/ out of ****

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

*** out of ****

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