Hansel and Gretel (CATCO is Kids! – Columbus, OH)

 
It must be tough to know when your child is of the proper age to be taken to a movie theatre or a live performance and be trusted not to act out. No one wants to deal with a restless preschooler, especially in public. Fortunately, here in Columbus, we have Columbus Children’s Theatre and CATCO is Kids!, two companies that present short (usually less than an hour) productions intended for the younger set in an environment far less formal (not to mention much less expensive) than taking a chance on a stress-free excursion to The Lion King or Wicked. Something short, familiar, and less formal is exactly what CATCO is Kids! is presenting with Hansel and Gretel at the Van Fleet Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center. Seating is on bleachers, the performance runs for around forty minutes, and the production is tame enough that the toddlers in attendance shouldn’t be too frightened.

 

Photo: Joe Bishara – (left to right) Colby Tarrh and Madison Rose Wilson
 

Hansel and Gretel is presented in an adaptation of The Grimm Brothers original by Steven C. Anderson, CATCO’s Artistic Director, sticking closely to the outline of the source except for a post-modern spin; the actors come out to present the story, referring to many other fairy tales before settling on the proper details for this one. For those not in the know, Hansel and Gretel is the story of two children living an impoverished life with their woodcutter father and his harridan of a second wife. In an extreme example of free-range parenting, the children are lead into the woods to survive on their own or perish, only to happen upon the gingerbread house of a cannibalistic witch. Hansel and Gretel must use their brains to outwit the witch and return home.

 

Photo: Joe Bishara – (left to right) Madison Rose Wilson and Colby Tarrh
 
Director Joe Bishara leads two energetic young actors (Colby Tarrh and Madison Rose Wilson) to perform all of the parts, manipulate the puppets, and handle the scenic changes, and they appear more than up to the challenge. Mr. Tarrh is especially engaging as Hansel, Hansel’s father, and one of the narrators. Ms. Wilson comes off as shrill whether she is portraying the stepmother, the witch, or Gretel, and her narrator is one that is characterized as a know-it-all and brash; the part is written so she could have performed it as confused and simple, which would’ve helped her come off as more likable and comedic. Still, Ms. Wilson and Mr. Tarrh make a good, determined team, and they appear perfectly comfortable interacting with the audience.

One glaring directing snafu is one in which the actors turn away from the audience when they are voicing their puppets. It only happens when the witch or either of the parents are also in the scene conversing with Hansel and Gretel, but having the actors spin around is not only unnecessary but even looks a bit ridiculous; when they are both doing it, reciting lines as multiple characters and twirling around together, it’s like they are funneling down a bathtub drain. Children can be trusted to suspend disbelief enough to understand that when Ms. Wilson is playing the stepmother that she is also controlling and voicing Gretel as a puppet; after all, surely their parents have read them bedtime stories without the need to turn away as they did various voices.

 

Photo: Joe Bishara – (left to right) Colby Tarrh and Madison Rose Wilson
 
The set by John Baggs is serviceable, a wooden unit painted to resemble trees, designed with layered backdrops for the witch’s home and her oven. The only problem is how flimsy the backdrops look being split down the middle and held in place by bands on either side; the section representing the oven doesn’t look much like an oven either. The main standing set looks quite sturdy, as if it was designed to withstand weather and use. Curtis “Nitz” Brown’s lighting is quite effective, creating the illusion of dappled sunlight through the trees, though interestingly enough the demise of the witch doesn’t involve the use of any bold lighting or sound effects; the conclusion of the play is oddly devoid of excitement, so much so that the audience remained silent at the performance I attended until Mr. Bishara let them know, “That’s it!” at the end. 

 

Photo: Joe Bishara – Madison Rose Wilson
 

Hansel and Gretel is just about par for the course as far as children’s theatre goes, which is unfortunate. As with many a children’s television series and film, adults in attendance will probably find themselves checking their watches from time to time, something that shouldn’t happen for a show that lasts only forty minutes. Hansel and Gretel is benign enough to be suitable for very young children as one of their first theatre experiences, but it certainly could’ve been a bit more engaging for the rest of us with a tad more effort and creativity.

** out of ****

Hansel and Gretel continues through to March 20th in the Van Fleet Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://catco.org/catco-is-kids/2015-2016/hansel-and-gretel

Photo: Chuck Pennington III – Set Design by Jon Baggs and Lighting by Curtis “Nitz” Brown

Mothers and Sons (CATCO – Columbus, OH)

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

*** out of ****

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

Peter and the Starcatcher (CATCO/CATCO is Kids! – Columbus, OH)

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
Remakes, sequels, and adaptations of James M. Barrie’s Peter Pan have steadily grown in popularity since the original play premiered in 1904. There have been animated films, Broadway musicals, and many feature films about the “boy who wouldn’t grow up,” with a live television broadcast of the 1954 musical, a new Broadway musical (Finding Neverland), and a sci-fi film (Pan) all arriving on the scene within the past year alone! CATCO and CATCO is Kids! now present Peter and the Starcatcher, a prequel that relays just where Peter Pan came from and how he first encountered his nemesis, the future Captain Hook.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 

Peter and the Starcatcher ran for nearly a full season on Broadway from 2012 to 2013; written by Rick Elise with music by Wayne Baxter, it is based on a 2006 young adult novel written by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, the first in a series of prequel books about Peter Pan. The story concerns two ships, the Wasp and the Neverland, both bound for Rundoon; Lord Aster is on the Wasp with special cargo for the queen, and his daughter Molly and her nanny are on the Neverland, where three orphans (the future Peter Pan being one of them) have been hidden as stowaways to be sold. The cargo between the ships is swapped, and it isn’t long before the orphans emerge from hiding on the Neverland and befriend Molly, and a pirate named Black Stache hijacks the Wasp looking for the mystical treasure bound for the queen. What follows includes a shipwreck, mermaids, a hungry crocodile, a magic amulet, and “starstuff.” 

   

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
The cast is extremely likable, with the standouts being Emma Cordray as Molly, Colby Tarrh as Prentiss, Mark Mineart as Black Stache, and Andrew Protopapas as Alf. Ms. Cordray has a way of being a know-it-all as Molly while also being totally correct in her pitch, rising at the end of sentences in a sing-song kind of way that fit perfectly (it annoyed the friend I attended with, but I thought it was just right); Mr. Tarrh is adorably bossy as Prentiss with a lot to do in the first act as the leader of the boys; Mr. Mineart has a booming voice and intimidating look at Black Stache, but can just as quickly turn fey and flippant, a textbook example of how to play that part; and Mr. Protopapas leaves all worry of appearing foolish behind as Alf, performing with a signature walk and carriage that could summon laughter from the audience without even really doing much of anything. His mermaid drag in the second act is particularly cute, as is that of Mr. Mineart. These four performers understand the tone of the piece the most, and they help set it for the rest of the cast to follow.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
Honorable mentions are due for Danny Turek as Peter, Andrew Levitt as Betty Bumbake, and Jonathan Collura as Bill Slank. Mr. Turek may have the title role of Peter, but his character has to grow quite a bit emotionally through the piece from the backward and shy youth simply called “boy” at the beginning of the story. Having seen Mr. Turek in other plays, I can now appreciate how he holds back his natural inclination to be quite animated for the first half of the story so that he can serve the path of the character. Even when he shows more strength and aggression in the second act, Mr. Turek nicely holds back a bit so he seems more a part of the ensemble. Mr. Levitt hams it up nicely as Betty Bumbake, his flirting scenes with Mr. Protopapas a particular comedic highlight, though I do think his character would be better represented with more of a wig and costume than the slight apron and lace headpiece provided. Mr. Collura looks like Jake from “Jake and the Never Land Pirates” with his red bandana, and it’s a most amusing moment when he gets right up into Mr. Levitt’s face in a brief scene they share. Mr. Collura’s part is small, but he is also the musical director of the show, seen off to the side playing the musical accompaniment before rushing back on stage; he wears many hats comfortably and with great skill.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
There is a lack of whimsy to this production that seems odd to me. There are plenty of funny moments (mostly in the second act), but the kind of wide-eyed wonder one would expect from a story about Peter Pan is absent; the sum is less than its individual parts. The show comes off as underproduced overall, lacking enough props and scenic elements to tell the story effectively, especially at the beginning and ending of the first act; the setup with the two ships and cargo, and when the two ships collide and passengers cross from one ship to another, is muddled and difficult to pinpoint exactly what is going on. I’ve seen the show before and know the story, and yet I found myself second guessing a few moments as they seemed to differ greatly from the production I saw in Dayton last June (that production had its own set of problems, but getting the story across was not one of them).

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
Still, CATCO’s Peter and the Starcatcher is enjoyable and ultimately rewarding to a degree, though the first act is at times difficult to get through and there doesn’t appear to be enough to look at for the kids (or adults) in the audience. When the show works, it really works; when it doesn’t, there is a pall that falls over the proceedings from which it takes some time to recover. There are some very good performances on display from an amiable cast, and this production is far from being poor; it just feels like a bit of a missed opportunity considering the source material.

**/ out of ****

Peter and the Starcatcher continues through to December 20th in Studio One at the Riffe Center on 77 South High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://catco.org/shows/2015-2016/peter-and-the-starcatcher

The Elephant Man (CATCO – Columbus, OH)

“If your mercy is so cruel, what do you have for justice?”

The most important part of a play is whether or not the story is being told. Don’t get me wrong – I love big sets and lots of production values – but at the end of the day it all boils down to the story, and if the acting, set, and direction support the telling of it or not. CATCO’s production of Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man is a brilliant example of a play that works, beautifully written with challenging and touching scenes that need no more than to be performed by capable actors. This production has talented performers on board, so it is disheartening when the staging and set get in the way of the story being told.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Connor McClellan (Merrick)
 

The Elephant Man premiered in London in 1978 before opening to acclaim on Broadway in 1979, garnering Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Direction of a Play; an Emmy-winning television adaptation was broadcast in 1982; a theatrical film directed by David Lynch was released in 1980, but it was not based on the play; and Broadway revivals in 2002 and 2014 starred Billy Crudup and Bradley Cooper, respectively. It is about the true story of Joseph (“John”) Merrick, a severely deformed man who was a side show attraction in the late 1800s in England. He suffered much abuse and ostracism before being rescued in a sense by Dr. Frederick Treves, who studied and made a home for him at The London Hospital. He experienced being a part of high society and receiving compassion for a time before his death in 1890 at the age of twenty-seven.

The Elephant Man is widely recognized as a classic; a tearjerker in the best sense of the word, and a grand challenge for any actor as the deformity of Merrick is suggested rather than presented realistically with prosthetics. I was fully prepared for an emotional experience upon attending this Steven C. Anderson production, and yet I was unmoved. Thinking perhaps I was suffering from a foul mood, I saw it again later in the week and again was emotionally dry. Staged in a three-quarter thrust setting, I saw it from the left and then the right with different elements catching my attention both times.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
Each scene is introduced with a title projected on a backdrop comprised of a line of dialogue from the forthcoming scene. The support beams in the octagonal raised platform obscure parts of these titles from being read from nearly every seat save for the extreme angles on the far left and right sides. A printed list of these scene titles is included in the program, and an announcement is made before the production commences about the issue. But here’s the thing – they aren’t necessary. They telegraph the action, break up transitions unnecessarily, cause a lot of leaning on the part of the audience to see them around the support beams, and are the cause of audible shuffling of the paper inserts throughout the show.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Sarah Dandridge (Mrs. Kendal)
 
The first time I saw this production was to the left of the action, and the performances that stood out to me were by Ben Gorman as Dr. Frederick Treves and Sarah Dandridge as Mrs. Kendal, an actress who befriends Merrick. Mr. Gorman is adept at projecting concern and, ultimately, paternal feelings for Merrick, while Ms. Dandridge is especially touching when her countenance melts as Merrick says, “Sometimes I think my head is so large because it is filled with dreams.” She understands fully the layers of her part (she is an actress playing an actress playing a friend), and during that scene I could see as her eyes began to tear that Merrick’s words were slicing through those walls to get to her core. From that point on, Ms. Dandridge adjusted her performance to be consistent with her emotional awakening, and it was a beautiful sight to behold. And yet, Connor McClellan as John Merrick, the key to the play, struck me as distant and cold, partly because I mostly just saw his back.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Ben Gorman (Dr. Treves) and Christopher Moore Griffin (Ross)
 
My second viewing of this work was on the right side, and this time I was more responsive to Mr. McClellan’s performance while also being impressed by Christopher Moore Griffin as Ross, Merrick’s abusive manager, who eventually robs and leaves Merrick for dead. Mr. Griffin is gruff and distinct with a hint of Alfred P. Doolittle in him, a biting embodiment of the cruelty to which Merrick has become accustomed. Mr. Griffin then appears solemn and pious as Bishop Walsham How, so opposite his role as Ross that I wasn’t entirely sure he was the same actor. And as for Mr. McClellan’s performance as John Merrick…

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Connor McClellan (Merrick)
 
“Merrick’s face was so deformed he could not express any emotion at all,” states Mr. Pomerance in the introduction to his published play. “His speech was very difficult to understand without practice. Any attempt to reproduce his appearance and his speech naturalistically – if it were possible – would seem to me not only counterproductive, but, the more remarkably successful, the more distracting from the play.” Mr. McClellan appears to be working very hard to emulate Merrick’s posture and frozen visage, so much so that a lot of the emotion doesn’t come through. It doesn’t help that the set and staging works to make nearly every seat in the theatre partial view for extended periods of time, even the center section. Mr. McClellan comes off as so focused and technically accomplished that at times I was acutely aware that it was a performance in a play, impressive as hell, but with invisible barriers. Perhaps some of this is intentional, as he seems to relax his tight grasp as the play goes on, and it helped to see so much more of his face when I saw the play for the second time from the right. And yet, when I finally was experiencing more of Mr. McClellan’s effort, I missed out on what touched me so in Ms. Dandridge’s performance when I viewed the play the first time from the left. It was almost as if I had to cut between both performances I saw from different angles in my mind to get the most out of the play; no doubt seeing it for a third time from the center would reveal even more that the work has to offer, but why should that be necessary if it is staged and presented so that everyone has a clear view of the pertinent action? The answer: it isn’t.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Connor McClellan (Merrick) and Sarah Dandridge (Mrs. Kendal)
 
There is only one scene that I found to be poorly played; it is when Mrs. Kendal “exposes” herself to Merrick. In the 1982 television version of the play, the scene implies nudity by showing her slowly unbuttoning and unlacing her blouse and corset, her bare back to the camera. Her gaze stays fixed on Merrick, and her warning, “If you tell anyone, I shall not see you again,” is said with weight. It is a tense, sexually charged moment in that production, but here it comes off as comical as Mrs. Kendal merely shows a bit of her corset to Merrick, smiling as if it is a game. I don’t think bare breasts need to be shown, but without any skin on display the reaction of Dr. Treves upon entering the room made little sense.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
CATCO’s production of The Elephant Man is ultimately a mixed bag. There are some extremely good performances, but design and staging elements work against the storytelling. I saw the play twice and had a different reaction each time, but both experiences fell short of reaching the potential of the material. There is still a lot to admire here, and it is a very handsome production overall, but I walked away feeling less affected than I had expected.

** out of ****

The Elephant Man continues through to November 8th in Studio Two at the Riffe Center on 77 South High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://catco.org/shows/2015-2016/the-elephant-man

Violet (Porthouse Theatre – Cuyahoga Falls, OH)

I’m a sucker for the unusual. A simple boy-meets-girl story isn’t always enough to keep me interested; girl disfigured with an axe blade to her face, on her way to see a faith healer? And it’s a musical set in the 1960s? Now we’re talking! The show I’m speaking of is Violet, based on the short story The Ugliest Pilgrim by Doris Betts, and it is a musical with music by Jeanine Tesori (she just won the Tony for Fun Home and also did Thoroughly Modern Millie) and book and lyrics by Brian Crawley. In the show, Violet is a woman living with a scar down the side of her face from a childhood accident, and she is traveling from North Carolina to Oklahoma by bus to visit a faith healer she saw on television with the hope that he can rid her face of the disfigurement for which she has been ridiculed and ostracized. If it sounds like an unconventional premise for a musical, that’s because it is; it’s also so much more, examining how we all have lives marred with scars that we have to come to terms with – Violet’s just happens to be on her face.

Violet premiered off-Broadway for a brief run in 1997 that produced a beloved cast recording; an acclaimed Encores! Off-Center one-night event in 2013 led to the 2014 Broadway premiere starring Sutton Foster, for which another cast recording was made. I saw the 2014 Broadway production and had mixed feelings about it, though it was well-reviewed and nominated for many Tony Awards. Seeing it live didn’t affect me the same way as listening to the initial cast recording did, so I was excited to get the chance to re-evaluate the show at the Porthouse Theatre as part of the Kent State University summer season. 

Photo: Bob Christy
This was my first visit to the Porthouse Theatre, a lovely outdoor performance space that is a part of the Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls, a pleasant drive around two hours from Columbus. I was a little surprised to find that the show was being performed outside on such a bright and sunny (and hot) Sunday afternoon, but the theatre is constructed on the side of a hill with the seats descending stadium-style to the stage at the bottom. I found it quite comfortable as the seats on the padded, backed benches were roomy, and the audience and stage were sheltered from direct light. It was like viewing theatre under the shade of a large tree with the breeze flowing and birds chirping; I can only imagine how nice it would be to see a show here on a crisp evening. The grounds have many picnic tables, ample free parking, and a nice concession area for drinks and treats.

Photo: Bob Christy – Jared Dixon as Flick and Amy Fritsche as Violet
Amy Fritsche plays Violet, appearing in her first Porthouse Theatre production during her summer off from teaching theatre at Kent State University. With facial structure that brings to mind Ann Todd and Laura Linney, Amy acts wounded well, appearing emotionally calloused from years of taunting even though in reality she’s a gorgeous blonde. As on Broadway, the scar is not represented by makeup but rather by the reaction people have to it and Violet’s own words. As Violet, Amy doesn’t scowl and act gruff like Sutton Foster did on Broadway, but that’s because she doesn’t have anything to prove; Sutton had to show she could play more than the peppy ingenue after Tony wins in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Anything Goes, and I think that pushed her performance in Violet too far in the opposite direction. Amy isn’t afraid to smile at a joke or greeting, and she is more vulnerable and reachable as a result. Like Sutton she comes off as a bit too intelligent to believe that a faith healer could suddenly heal her scar when doctors couldn’t; unlike Sutton I didn’t feel like her emotional dukes were up to the extent that she couldn’t be reached. It’s always thrilling to see an actor go on a journey in a role and grow, and Amy makes Violet’s eventual epiphany heartbreakingly honest and touching.

Jared Dixon plays Flick, the black serviceman Violet befriends along with his buddy Monty, played by Ian Benjamin. Jared is likable and sweet as Flick, and I believed his interest in Violet was coming from a place of mutual understanding. Ian is perfectly cast as Monty, an immature young serviceman who talks big thinking that people will take to him better for it; the part was played on Broadway by a pretty-boy type far beyond the age for which the part was written, but Ian has the fresh-faced look that is just right for it and the slight awkwardness of youth that the part requires. Both men sing quite well and drift in and out of verse with ease. 

Photo: Bob Christy – Talia Cosentino as young Violet, Dane Castle as her father, and Amy Fritsche as Violet

Dane Castle and Talia Cosentino play Violet’s father and the younger Violet, respectively, in flashbacks and dream sequences. Dane is caring but reserved as the father, and his bearded, broad mountain man look helps to hide the guilt and concern he has for his motherless daughter. His affection for Talia feels real. What Talia lacks in resemblance to Amy she makes up for in heart; her eyes are extremely expressive and warm, and I enjoyed seeing her come back onto the stage for each appearance.

The smaller roles are also extremely well cast, and many of the actors play several parts. Allisyn Just plays the old lady with verve, looking like a more mobile Thelma Harper from Mama’s Family; as the hotel singer her sterling voice, sly grin, and beautiful teeth are on display, as well they should be. Shamara Costa as the landlady is someone I wouldn’t dare cross, quick and sharp, shifting gears completely to sing effectively as the gospel soloist. Paul Floriano doubles as the bus driver and the preacher, the latter part he grabs and runs with, appearing like the perfect religious zealot working the crowd.

What I liked about director Steven C. Anderson’s production of Violet is that he has found a way of presenting the story simply on such a relatively small stage. Characters often appear walking around the perimeter of the theatre and then enter the performance space walking down the aisles where the audience is seated. The flashback and dream sequences are staged in a way that spells out exactly what they are, while on Broadway I was sometimes confused. An intermission has thankfully been added at an appropriate place, and the events of the story play out at a brisk pace while not feeling rushed. The gore hound in me would’ve liked more realistic blood and makeup in the flashback to Violet’s accident, but that’s a pretty minor criticism for such a strong production.

While I think Violet is slightly over musicalized (there is a lot of recitative when regular dialogue would’ve more than fit the bill), I found a new appreciation for the show in this production. Violet’s inner and outer journey is easier to understand and embrace with this team of talented performers behind it, and it is a show that only improves in its second half (quite unusual in my experience). The show is worth seeing even if one only saw the last few minutes when Violet learns how to let someone in to love her and give love in return in her relationship with Flick. Whether or not their interracial relationship would last in such a troubled time isn’t as important as the fact that Violet, by way of her pilgrimage, grew emotionally and would never again be the same untrusting, closed-off person that she was at the start of her journey. This is the kind of theatre that is touching without being preachy, the kind that shows feelings rather than tells about them. The Porthouse Theatre production of Violet demonstrates what theatre is all about, and my only regret is that I only got to see this incarnation of the show once. 

***/ out of ****

Violet continues through to July 25th at the Porthouse Theatre in Cuyahoga Falls, OH (around two hours from Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.kent.edu/porthouse/news/porthouse-continues-season-violet

My friend Michael Nalepka and I at the Sunday matinee of Violet.