Jackie & Me (Columbus Children’s Theatre – Columbus, OH)

Joey is a ten-year-old with a very special gift: he can travel through time by holding a baseball card and concentrating. Joey’s adventures through time meeting various baseball players are detailed in a series of “Baseball Card Adventures” children’s novels by Dan Gutman, with titles such as Honus & Me (1997), Babe & Me (2000), and Shoeless Joe & Me (2002). Jackie & Me (1999), the second novel in the series, covers Joey traveling back to 1947 in order to meet Jackie Robinson, the first black player in the major leagues. Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, winning Rookie of the Year for the Dodgers in a time when most of the country was still quite segregated. Columbus Children’s Theatre is now presenting Jackie & Me as a play, perfectly timed to be a part of Black History Month.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – (left to right) Eric Qualls (Jackie Robinson) and Collin Grubbs (Joey)
 
So much of the success of the show rests on the shoulders of Colin Grubbs as Joey, the time traveler who begins as a Polish white boy dealing with anger issues and awakens as a black boy in 1947! That little plot twist of changing skin colors reminded me of the musical Finian’s Rainbow (1947), but what better way to illustrate how black people (referred to as “colored” or “negroes” in the play) were treated than to have a red-headed white boy be treated as a black boy by the cast? Mr. Grubbs is in every scene, and all of the action revolves around him; he controls so much of the pacing by how and when he chooses to respond, and his excellent timing is quite startling. A key scene requires Mr. Grubbs to say the “N word,” and he doesn’t take the task lightly; the moment feels genuine because of the way he handles it.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – (left to right) Ken Erney (Flip) and Collin Grubbs (Joey)
 
Mr. Grubbs is surrounded by some terrific stage veterans, many playing several roles; these are the kind of people who are so good that they make their younger, less experienced co-stars rise to the occasion. Ken Erney is Flip, the kind sports memorabilia store owner who supplies the rare Jackie Robinson card needed for time travel; Brent Alan Burington plays Branch Rickey, the sharp Dodgers owner who gives Jackie Robinson his chance in the major league; Mitchell Spiro plays a spirited coach and manager, a bundle of nerves and energy akin to Mickey Rooney; Catherine Cryan is Mrs. Herskowitz, the sweet shopkeeper who hands out promotional baseball cards, but she also plays a woman on the street who spits at poor Joey when he forgets to tow the “whites only” line; Jenna Lee Shively is caring but stern as Joey’s mom; and Eric Qualls plays a calm and controlled Jackie Robinson.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – (left to right) Chris Curran, Louis Weiss, and Jack Carson
 
Standouts in the young ensemble include Jacob Cohen as Ant, a fellow batboy from the past who taunts Joey; and Louis Weiss, playing a student and a kid in Brooklyn. Mr. Cohen has to say and do some despicable things to Joey without being so awful that he throws the show off balance; he performs intelligently while also embracing his inner bully. Mr. Weiss doesn’t have a great deal of lines to say, but his expressions throughout the play are quite funny and say more than enough; at any point he can be counted on to be responding with an array of funny facial expressions to what is going on around him.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – (left to right) Mitchell Spiro (Coach), Jack Carson, Collin Grubb (Joey), Devin Lapp, and Jacob Cohen
 
Ray Zupp’s set, complete with ramps and a raised platform behind a baseball diamond on the stage floor, is an excellent setting for the action; it’s one of those sets that is best appreciated from the middle on back in the audience so the full breadth of it can be taken in. Director William Goldsmith is successful in keeping the energy of the cast up between the scenes involving the baseball games, only faltering with the storytelling in a few notable places; a scene between Joey and Ant in the locker room where Joey scares Ant with his revelation about time travel plays out awkwardly, and the first act closing where Joey reads a letter signed by much of the team requesting to be traded rather than play on the field “with a negro” is treated as a throwaway moment without the proper reverence and buildup.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – (left to right) Brent Alan Burington (Eddie Stanky) and Eric Qualls (Jackie Robinson)
 
With any adaptation there will be changes made for one reason or another; while overall the stage adaptation of Jackie & Me by Steven Dietz (he is credited with the stage script along with the writer of the novel, Dan Gutman) is solid, there were a few changes that didn’t make sense to me. For example, in the play Flip lets Joey borrow his rare Jackie Robinson card for $20; in the novel he lends it to him for free, which makes a heck of a lot more sense. Who would someone charge a little boy to “rent” a baseball card? The aforementioned scene involving several Dodgers signing a petition against Jackie Robinson only to have one of them balk and tear it up has been weakened, and the use of racial slurs has been greatly tamed (most of which is understandable – the “N word” doesn’t need to be shouted all the time to get the point across). Ant calls Joey the “N word” in the novel, but in the play Joey reads a letter that contains the word. It’s an odd shift to have Joey, now a black boy when he appears in 1947, to be the one character that says that word; it changes the impact to have the message soft pedaled in that way. There is a lot more to the novel that wouldn’t have fit into this ninety-minute, two-act play, and I recommend reading it; I just think a few of the changes were unnecessary in the transition from page to stage.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – Collin Grubbs (Joey)
 
Still, Jackie & Me is that rare children’s show that doesn’t talk down to its young target audience. A serious message about prejudice and fear is mixed in delicately with all of the fun and humor, and yet it doesn’t come off as heavy-handed or too simple. The suggested age of seven and up seems right, though kids aren’t required to enjoy this production. No prior knowledge of baseball is needed either as this is more a human story than anything else.

*** out of ****

Jackie & Me continues through to February 28th in The Garden Theatre located at 1187 North High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.columbuschildrenstheatre.org/jackie–me.html

A Little Night Music (Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)

It takes a lot of drive and talent to direct a show with a large cast involving an enormous set and make it all seem effortless. The challenge is even greater when the show is a musical by the great Stephen Sondheim. It’s for these reasons that Short North Stage is fortunate to have Michael Licata on hand to guide their production of A Little Night Music, a confection high in style and grace, and the opening show of their new season.

A Little Night Music, with a score by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, premiered on Broadway in 1973, won six Tony Awards (including Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book), ran for a year and a half, was adapted into a rather poor 1977 film, and has gone on to become one of Sondheim’s most beloved and accessible works. Based on Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), A Little Night Music is about middle aged widower Frederik Egerman and his much younger wife, Anne; his son from his previous marriage, Henrik; Petra, the Egermans’ saucy maid; Desiree Armfeldt, a successful touring actress and Frederik’s former mistress; Desiree’s daughter Fredrika; Desiree’s mother, Madame Armfeldt; Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, Desiree’s current boyfriend; and Charlotte Malcolm, the count’s wife who wants to take her husband back from Desiree. All of these people find themselves at Madame Armfeldt’s estate one weekend where relationships are rekindled while others are broken. It is a sweetly romantic comedy from which came the song “Send in the Clowns,” arguably Sondheim’s most commercial hit, though it also includes such penetrating compositions as “A Weekend in the Country,” “Every Day a Little Death,” and “The Miller’s Son.”

 

Photo: Heather Wack
 
You know you’re seeing something special when you can recognize so many faces from other shows around Columbus playing small or mute roles in this production when they are usually leads (I’m looking at you Nick Hardin, Doug Joseph, Chris Rusen, and Kristen Basore). Everyone on stage here is perfectly cast and on their A game; the moment that Jennifer Barnaba (Anne) is seen next to her on-stage husband, Mark A. Harmon (Frederik), I thought, “She’s too young for him,” and that’s one of the points of the story! The cast seems to enjoy grandly prancing around the elegant set by Ray Zupp, delicately designed with patterns and pieces evocative of a more tasteful period. The orchestra sounds lush and full, firmly conducted by musical director and orchestrator Lloyd Butler; the players are behind a screen on stage, their silhouettes comfortingly visible in the background.

 

Photo: Heather Wack – Marya Spring (Desiree) and Mark A. Harmon (Frederik)
 
Mark A. Harmon (Frederik) and Marya Spring (Desiree) have sparkling chemistry as the lovers who rekindle their romance, and they both have commanding stage presence. The play has many other delightful characters, but it is the moments with Mr. Harmon and Ms. Spring that I treasure and of which I found myself wanting to see more.

 

Photo: Heather Wack – Linda Dorff (Madame Armfeldt)
 
Linda Dorff (Madame Armfeldt) is wry and direct in her wheelchair-bound role, and her rendition of “Liasons” is beguiling as she keeps a firm grasp on her emotions, releasing her grip every so slightly in a few moments; it’s a subtle shift but highly effective.
 
Photo: Adam Zeek (zeekcreative.com) – Eli Brickey (Petra)
 
Eli Brickey (Petra) all but stops the show with her rousing rendition of “The Miller’s Son,” though every scene in which she appears has a bit more kick than it would’ve otherwise. Her scenes with JJ Parkey (Henrik) bristle with sexual energy. Mr. Parkey plays repressed well, even persevering through the score’s weakest moment (in my opinion, mind you) – his section of the otherwise charming “Now/Later/Soon.”

 

Photo: Heather Wack – Jennifer Barnaba (Anne) and JJ Parkey (Henrik)
 
There is an odd audio anomaly that is worth pointing out; all of the voices, no matter where the actors are on stage, come solely out of a far left speaker. It’s a disconcerting sound problem, especially when the orchestra can be heard so clearly across the stage. I hope this was an issue just with the performance I attended and not a design flaw.

Short North Stage’s A Little Night Music is a very good production of a very good show, and its leisurely pace suits the material, though at around three hours it sometimes feels a bit slow. It’s a real testament to Short North Stage to have some of the biggest talents in the area on their stage all at once. I’ve always found the show itself to be second tier Sondheim (which means it is better than first tier most anyone else), but it’s that rare musical that improves in its second act. There is no shortage of talent or beauty on display in this production, one of the largest and most ambitious I’ve ever seen in Columbus not part of a touring production.

*** out of ****

A Little Night Music continues through to November 1st in 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/467

Into the Woods (Dare to Defy Productions – Dayton, OH)

I understand why Into the Woods has become a modern classic. Since its premiere on Broadway in 1987, Into the Woods has been recorded for television broadcast, toured, had several subsequent major productions in London and New York, been licensed for production by tens of thousands of high schools and community theatres, and was finally transformed into a star-filled 2014 feature film starring Meryl Streep. The show has a terrific score with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, an unpredictable but intriguing book by James Lapine, and requires a large cast of talented performers to pull off; Dare to Defy Productions presents their Into the Woods for just one weekend at the Victoria Theatre in downtown Dayton, paying justice to the material with distinct qualities that make it worth seeing even if one has already seen dozens of productions of the show in the past.

 

Photo: Sydney Fleming – Tori Kocher (Little Red Ridinghood) and Ray Zupp (The Baker)
 

Into the Woods tells of famous storybook and fairy tale characters inhabiting a land together and how their lives change in strange and new ways once their paths cross. There is a witch, a baker and his wife, Jack and his beanstalk, Cinderella and her family, Rapunzel, and Little Red Ridinghood; they all have desires and lives that are derailed by wolves, giants, and circumstances involving death and infidelity. Even though the story meanders quite a bit in the second act and comes off as a little preachy (must so many songs in one show have some kind of moral message?), the score includes such classics as “Children Will Listen,” “Stay With Me,” “No One is Alone,” “Last Midnight,” and “Giants in the Sky,” all songs forever to be performed in auditions by budding performers. This production is fortunate to have John Benjamin directing and conducting a talented team of musicians that bring the score to life with the kind of brisk tempo the material requires.

A notable surprise is the song “Our Little World”; it was written for the London production but is not always performed. It was in the 2002 Broadway revival that I saw with Vanessa Williams as The Witch, but it was not in the film. Though listed in the program erroneously as “Rapunzel,” the song gives The Witch (and especially Rapunzel) another moment to shine and examine the complexities of their relationship. I had forgotten about the song’s existence until it appeared like a gift in this production.

Director Mathys Herbert and set designer Ray Zupp (he also plays The Baker to great effect with a clear voice and good diction) have transformed this play by using the theatre as its own setting, creating a kind of “found theatre” approach by employing so many types of media and backstage equipment in this production. No attempt has been made to recreate the woods in the story, the stage appearing to be a combination of scenic elements from various prior productions with suitcases, trunks and such items as a Victrola all around the set; it all looks more like Follies than Into the Woods, but I liked it. A rolling ladder with a platform at the top represents the tree where Cinderella’s mother is buried; an overhead projector is used to project an image of the wolf on a screen for the baker to slash through and rescue Little Red Ridinghood and her grandmother; animated silhouettes represent a large eye of the female giant to great effect. The mix match of design extends to the characters as well; the stepmother (Amy Askins, as svelte and statuesque as any runway model) is dressed in a sparkling dress as if she walked out of “Real Housewives of New York,” while Cinderella’s father is a puppet that looks a lot like one from Avenue Q, and Milky White is a puppet controlled in plain sight a la War Horse (though curiously without legs, appearing to float on udders). It’s all terribly inventive and fresh, and bravo to Herbert and Zupp in pulling it off, with great assistance via the atmospheric lighting by Sammy Jelinek, puppet builder Danielle Robertson, and costume designer Carolyn McDermott.

 

Photo: Lauren Schierloh (edited by Sydney Fleming) – Natalie Sanders (Cinderella)
 
The cast is uniformly good, though there were some notable standouts; Natalie Sanders is a wistful and longing Cinderella, with a thrilling voice; Evan Benjamin is a buoyant Jack, with athletic movement akin to an older Billy Elliot and a sweet innocence that is charming; Kelsey Hopkins brings humor to The Baker’s Wife more than I’ve seen before, though when she lets her hair down (literally and figuratively) she is dramatically effecting (her performance of “Maybe They’re Really Magic,” a great song with clever lyrics that was not in the film version, is precise and performed with exactly the right tone); Jackie Darnell has a splendidly operatic voice as Rapunzel, and projects more than just the sad victim as the role is often portrayed; Tori Kocher reinvents Little Red Ridinghood as a physically developed, precocious vixen, loud and fierce; Kocher is a great foil for The Wolf, played by Bobby Mitchum, who is also Cinderella’s Prince, classically handsome and unafraid to poke fun at that fact; and last but not least is Mimi Klipstine as The Witch, wry and enjoyably abrasive, her performance of “Last Midnight” particularly enjoyable.

 

Photo: Lauren Schierloh (edited by Sydney Fleming) – AJ Breslin (Rapunzel’s prince)
 
I can’t say I was a fan of the obtrusive masks worn by The Wolf and The Witch (before her transformation); they were quite stylized and well-executed but covered too much of the performers’ faces and were set off of their heads in a way that cast shadows with the lighting that often hid their mouths. Still, that is a relatively minor criticism in a production so striking and original. It’s a shame that it gets to haunt the classic Victoria Theatre for only three performances, only two left later today at the time of this writing. This Into the Woods dispenses with trying to cater to the kiddies, feeling delightfully more adult though still appropriate for the middle school crowd. Even if you’ve seen it before (and if you’re reading this, you probably have), you really should catch Dare to Defy’s production of Into the Woods before it’s gone.

***/ out of ****

Into the Woods continues through to September 5th in the Victoria Theatre at 138 North Main Street in Dayton (a little over an hour outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.d2defy.com/