Fading film star shares stage with oversized suppository

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Doug Joseph (standing) and Ralph E. Scott in Die, Mommie, Die! (photo by Jerri Shafer)

Doug Joseph (standing) and Ralph E. Scott in Die, Mommie, Die! (photo by Jerri Shafer)

By Richard Ades

I first saw Die, Mommie, Die! in its original off-Broadway production back in 2007. Strangely, I don’t remember much about it other than the fact that playwright Charles Busch played Angela Arden, a once-big Hollywood star whose career is as tattered as her marriage.

I think I got a few laughs out of the New York show, but I got many more from Short North Stage’s current revival of the campy comedy. Directed by Edward Carignan, the production boasts all sorts of strengths, starting with its cast.

Filling in for Busch as Angela, Doug Joseph proves once again that he’s the master (mistress?) at this kind of cross-dressing role. He plays the aging diva with just enough exaggeration to make it clear we’re watching a spoof. Specifically, we’re watching a spoof of “hag horror” flicks such as Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte and Die! Die! My Darling!

Equally on the mark is Ralph E. Scott’s portrayal of husband Sol Sussman, a producer who knows Angela has been fooling around while he’s been away raising money for his latest epic. But his wife’s infidelity is no higher than third on his list of problems, which include a business transaction with the mob and a killer case of constipation.

My main reservation about the production is Nick Lingnofski’s take on Angela’s not-so-secret lover, former TV star Tony Parker. Lingnofski can usually be counted on to improve whatever show he’s in, but here he spends so much time preening and posing that the character never comes alive. It’s like Lingnofski is playing a hack actor playing a hack actor, an approach that seems distractingly out of place.

Erin Mellon is fun as daughter Edith, who hates her mother nearly as much as she loves her father—and who expresses that love in ways that border on incest. Johnny Robison has his hands full playing her brother, Lance, a character marked by (1) mental challenges, (2) awakening sexual urges and (3) an out-of-control temper. On opening night, I didn’t always feel he combined all three in a coherent way, but he mostly succeeded.

Rounding out the cast, Josie Merkle does a fine job as longtime maid Bootsie Carp, whose loyalty to Sol makes her a liability to Angela.

In tune with the “hag horror” theme, the 1967-set tale includes murderous plotting on the part of Angela. In tune with the campy atmosphere, the story is spiced up with copious amounts of outrageousness, including an encounter with a painfully large suppository.

Bill Pierson’s set design perfectly captures 1960s decorating trends, right down to the planter and the star-shaped clock on the wall. Rob Kuhn’s lighting, along with well-placed sound effects and snippets of mood music, underline the faux-melodramatic atmosphere.

One reason this all plays so well is that it unfolds in the Garden Theater’s intimate Green Room, which allows viewers to catch the actors’ every glance, leer and frown. But of course, that’s an advantage only because nearly every glance, leer and frown is delivered so flawlessly.

Short North Stage will present Die, Mommie, Die! through Feb. 21 at Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25 general seating, $30 reserved. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

‘Best of Burlesque’ strips out the plot, leaves the stripping

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Leah Haviland, one of the featured performers in The Best of Shadowbox (Shadowbox Live photo)

Leah Haviland, one of the featured performers in The Best of Burlesque (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

Shadowbox Live’s annual Best of Shadowbox shows often benefit from honing—the honing that takes place once the players have enough performances under their belts to realize what does and doesn’t work.

You’d think the same would apply to the current Best of Burlesque show, which repeats the best skits and song/dance/striptease numbers from the three previous Burlesque shows. But it doesn’t, at least as far as the skits are concerned.

Since they’re based on actual routines that were performed in old vaudeville houses, director Stev Guyer and his cast probably don’t feel free to tweak the material. And since the acting is based on the over-the-top clowning that was practiced back in the day, Shadowbox doesn’t have much room to tweak that, either.

The result is that if you’ve seen these skits before, you won’t find much that’s fresh here. Of course, if you haven’t been to the previous Burlesque shows, you’ll likely enjoy the comedy, assuming you have a high tolerance for corny jokes about the kinds of things our grandparents or great-grandparents found amusing.

Fortunately, the rest of the show bases its appeal on something that’s more timeless: sex. Because The Best of Burlesque omits the loose storyline that tied its predecessors together, it can pack in more song-and-dance numbers that inevitably leave women stripped down to their pasties and/or men stripped down to their skivvies.

Not all of these numbers are equally inspired. But when the songs are strong, the costumes are colorful and the stripping is done with panache and attitude, you can’t help sitting up and taking notice.

One number that combines great singing and great stripping is Bang Bang, with lead vocals by a fearless Leah Haviland. Shadowbox wisely places it at the end of Act 1, which allows viewers to step outside and cool off during intermission.

Act 2 kicks back into high gear with The Mating Game, in which vocalist Amy Lay holds forth in an impossibly tall and feathery hat while fairy-like creatures cavort around her. That’s soon followed by a funny and sexy take on the Coasters song Little Red Riding Hood. Brandon Anderson handles the vocals while a raunchy version of the titular fairy tale is acted out by Nikki Fagin as Red, Stacie Boord as Grandma and Guillermo Jemmott as the lascivious Wolf.

A dark perversion of sexuality is represented by Sweet Dreams, sung by Fagin and Jemmott while Jack the Ripper (Andy Ankrom) saunters around in search of his next victim. It’s one of several numbers that owe much to Aaron Pelzek’s moody lighting.

Also memorable: You Look Like Rain, with lead vocals by Kevin Sweeney and tasty instrumentals by guitarist Matthew Hahn and his band.

As stated earlier, The Best of Burlesque dispenses with a storyline. Partially taking its place are video biographies of Gypsy Rose Lee and other iconic strippers of years past. These are scattered throughout and offer interesting tidbits of information, such as the fact that erotic dancers were sometimes featured at world’s fairs. I’d always assumed these were more family-friendly affairs.

The videos made me wonder whether Shadowbox might decide to re-create some of these ladies’ classic dances for future Burlesque shows. From a historic, nostalgic and, ahem, every other standpoint, they’d be a great addition.

The Best of Burlesque continues through April 17 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 student/senior/military. Special Valentine’s Day packages are available for Feb. 14 performances. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Graczyk, Grossberg honored at Roundtable awards gala

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The cast of Gallery Players' production of Les Miserables sings One Day More at the Theatre Roundtable's 2016 Awards Night (photos by Jerri Shafer

The Theatre Roundtable’s 2016 Awards Night featured performances from nominated musicals, including Gallery Players’ 2015 production of Les Miserables (photos by Jerri Shafer)

By Richard Ades

At one point during the Theatre Roundtable’s annual Awards Night on Sunday, a presenter joked that it was just like the Oscars because we’d been there two hours and were only halfway through. He was exaggerating a little, but the show did run quite a bit longer than usual.

At least the weather was cooperative—unlike last year, when an incoming winter storm darkened the usually festive atmosphere. Besides, there were enough high points that most people probably didn’t mind sticking around.

The Central Ohio Theatre Critics Circle provided one of the highest points: an appearance by Ed Graczyk. He received the circle’s Roy Bowen Lifetime Achievement Award for, among other things, leading Players Theatre Columbus for many years and writing the groundbreaking play Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.

Taking part in the Theatre Roundtable’s 2016 Awards Night are critics (from left) Paul Batterson, Jay Weitz, Christina Mancuso, Michael Grossberg, Margaret Quamme, Richard Sanford and (at the podium) Richard Ades (photos by Jerri Shafer)

Taking part in the Theatre Roundtable’s 2016 Awards Night are critics (from left) Paul Batterson, Jay Weitz, Christina Mancuso, Michael Grossberg, Margaret Quamme, Richard Sanford and (at the podium) Richard Ades

Also honored by the critics were Evolution Theatre Company, Short North Stage, Shadowbox Live and MadLab’s former artistic director, Andy Batt. Before walking off with his citation, Batt delighted the audience by turning the tables on the critics, passing out both praise and pans to the people who’d long been judging his work as an actor and director.

Later—much later—in the evening, critic Michael Grossberg received an honor of his own: the Roundtable’s treasured Harold Award. The group probably chose to present it this year because Grossberg officially retired in 2015 when The Columbus Dispatch’s new owners made dozens of staff cuts. But fortunately for the local theater scene, the Dispatch is still counting on him to lead theater coverage, the only difference being that now he’s doing it as a freelancer.

The evening also included excerpts from 2015 musicals that were nominated for Roundtable awards. For me, the most exciting moment came when Gallery PlayersLes Miserables cast reassembled for a rendition of One Day More. It was a spectacular reminder of just how great that production really was.

For a list of Sunday’s nominees and winners, visit www.theatre-roundtable.org. It includes everything but the citations presented by the Central Ohio Theatre Critics Circle, which are listed below:

▪ To Evolution Theatre Company and managing artistic director Mark Schwamberger for a lineup of 2015 productions that entertained viewers while fulfilling the troupe’s refocused mission of advancing the understanding of gender issues and exploring gay and lesbian themes.

Andy Batt critiques the critics after accepting a citation for his longtime leadership of MadLab Theatre

Accepting a citation for his longtime leadership of MadLab Theatre, Andy Batt takes advantage of the opportunity to critique the critics

▪ To Andy Batt, who stepped down as MadLab’s artistic director at the end of 2015, for leading the troupe through 13 years of growth and development that included its 2012 launch of an annual festival for high school playwrights and its 2010 purchase and renovation of a performance space and gallery that has helped to nurture both the performing and visual arts in Downtown Columbus.

▪ To Short North Stage for making a major commitment to nurturing new musicals in 2015 with its successful world premieres of The Great One, The Last Night of Disco and Krampus: A Yuletide Fable.

▪ To Shadowbox Live for celebrating its 25th anniversary by stretching itself with inventive rock tribute shows and collaborations, both local and international.

Critic Michael Grossberg prepares to present a Roy Bowen Lifetime Achievement Award to Ed Graczyk

Critic Michael Grossberg prepares to present a Roy Bowen Lifetime Achievement Award to Ed Graczyk

▪ A Roy Bowen Lifetime Achievement Award to Ed Graczyk, an accomplished director and nationally known playwright, who led Players Theatre Columbus from the 1970s into the early 1990s and wrote Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, a pioneering transgender comedy-drama that premiered at Players in 1976, ran on Broadway and became a Robert Altman film in 1982 and is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2016.

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou holding a whip and handcuffs?

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Fifty ShadesBy Richard Ades

Given what they say about lightning striking twice, I had little reason to believe 50 Shades of Shadowbox would be as much fun as its 2015 predecessor.

That show, Sex at the Box, turned out to be my second-most-fun non-horizontal experience of the entire year. I knew it would be impossible to beat, but I hoped the new show would come close to matching its inspired lunacy.

Mostly, it doesn’t. But sometimes it does.

The skit that best reflects the show’s theme is 50 Shades of Romeo, in which star-crossed lovers Romeo (Robbie Nance) and Juliet (Amy Lay) find they share a penchant for kinky canoodling. Adding to the mock-Shakespearean atmosphere is the liberal use of Elizabethan suffixes (“musteth”).

Even funnier is The Ear Pod, featuring Tom Cardinal as a football fan who’s forced to miss the big game so he can attend couples counseling with his unhappy wife (Julie Klein). Miracle of miracles, it even has a punchline that’s both unexpected and amusing.

Maybe I’m being redundant there, as it’s hard for something to make us laugh if it isn’t unexpected. That’s the trouble with some of the evening’s weaker skits: They’re instantly predictable.

As soon as Kyle (JT Walker III) and his sexy girlfriend (Lay) walk into a room in The Jealous Boyfriend, it’s obvious she’s going to meet one ex-beau after another. It’s also obvious how Kyle will react, since the skit’s title gives it away.

Then there’s Spell Check, in which parents Katy Psenicka and Cardinal accuse their son of seeking out Internet porn. The punchline falls flat because it merely confirms what we knew all along.

The show gets off on the wrong foot with its first skit, Laid Off, about a boss (Klein) who decides to “fire” her lover (Cardinal) from the relationship. It’s disappointing because it tries to find laughs in heavy-handed double entendres rather than characterization or clever developments.

Thankfully, several of the other skits are more inventive, even if they aren’t absolute laugh riots. They include RiDickulous (about an app for girls deluged with photos of classmates’ not-so-private parts) and Sexy Nurse (about a hospital in which nurses dress just like they do in men’s lurid fantasies).

Also fairly amusing is Aw Fuk Me, about a 911 service for embarrassed victims of sexual shenanigans gone awry. However, at the performance I attended, it seemed to be cut short by a lighting miscue. It was a rare instance of imperfection for a troupe whose shows usually run like clockwork.

Shadowbox is such an expert at sketch humor that it’s likely director Stev Guyer and his cast will find ways to squeeze more humor out of the show as its run continues. But for now, the skits aren’t as reliably entertaining as the musical numbers.

The best cover songs include Bruno Mars’s Gorilla (sung by Noelle Grandison and Maurin Penn), Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing (sung by Grandison and Guillermo Jemmott) and Prince’s Little Red Corvette (sung by a very Prince-ly Walker).

Judiciously, Shadowbox saves the best for last: Meat Loaf’s Paradise by the Dashboard Light, with Kline and Lucas Tomasacci trading verses as the dueling leads. The show may not be epic, but it ends in a tunefully epic fashion.

50 Shades of Shadowbox continues through March 19 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-716-7625 or www.shadowboxlive.org.

‘Spotlight’ shines in 14th annual Central Ohio Film Critics Association awards

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Central Ohio’s film critics have voted on their favorite films and performances of 2015. I’m happy to report that my favorite 2015 release, Spotlight, won some of the top awards. The press release is below:

Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Brian d’Arcy James (from left) play journalists investigating pedophile priests in Spotlight (Open Road Films)

Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Brian d’Arcy James (from left) play journalists investigating pedophile priests in Spotlight (Open Road Films)

(Columbus, Jan. 7, 2016) Tom McCarthy’s investigative drama Spotlight has been named Best Film in the Central Ohio Film Critics Association’s 14th annual awards, which recognize excellence in the film industry for 2015. The film also claimed three other awards. McCarthy was honored as Best Director. The cast, including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams, was named Best Ensemble. And Josh Singer and McCarthy won for Best Original Screenplay.

Columbus-area critics lauded Alicia Vikander with three awards: Best Supporting Actress (Ex Machina); Actor of the Year for her exemplary body of work in Burnt, The Danish Girl, Ex Machina, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Seventh Son and Testament of Youth; and Breakthrough Film Artist. Other individual screen performers commended for their achievements include Best Actor Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant), who previously was named COFCA’s Best Actor in 2006 for The Departed; Best Actress Brie Larson (Room); and Best Supporting Actor Benicio Del Toro (Sicario).

The Revenant’s Emmanuel Lubezki won Best Cinematography. COFCA members also tabbed him for Best Cinematography in 2011 for The Tree of Life and in 2013 for Gravity. Other winners include: Mad Max: Fury Road’s Margaret Sixel for Best Film Editing; The Big Short’s Charles Randolph and Adam McKay for Best Adapted Screenplay; The Hateful Eight’s Ennio Morricone for Best Score; Best Documentary The Look of Silence; Best Foreign Language Film Phoenix; Best Animated Film Inside Out; and The Tribe (Plemya) as Best Overlooked Film.

Founded in 2002, the Central Ohio Film Critics Association is composed of film critics based in Columbus, Ohio, and the surrounding areas. Its membership consists of 21 print, radio, television and Internet critics. COFCA’s official website at www.cofca.org contains links to member reviews and past award winners.

Winners were announced at a private party on Jan. 7.

Complete list of awards:

Best Film
1. Spotlight
2. Inside Out
3. Room
4. Mad Max: Fury Road
5. Ex Machina
6. Sicario
7. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens
8. The Revenant
9. The Big Short
10. The Martian

Best Director
-Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
-Runner-up: George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Actor
-Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
-Runner-up: Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs

Best Actress
-Brie Larson, Room
-Runners-up: Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn; and Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

Best Supporting Actor
-Benicio Del Toro, Sicario
-Runner-up: Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina

Best Supporting Actress
-Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina
-Runner-up: Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight

Best Ensemble
Spotlight
-Runner-up: The Hateful Eight

Alicia Vikander as an advanced robot named Ava in Ex Machina

Alicia Vikander as an advanced robot named Ava in Ex Machina

Actor of the Year (for an exemplary body of work)
-Alicia Vikander, Burnt, The Danish Girl, Ex Machina, The Man from
U.N.C.L.E., Seventh Son and Testament of Youth
-Runner-up: Domhnall Gleeson, Brooklyn, Ex Machina, The Revenant and Star
Wars: Episode VII -The Force Awakens

Breakthrough Film Artist
-Alicia Vikander, Burnt, The Danish Girl, Ex Machina, The Man from
U.N.C.L.E., Seventh Son and Testament of Youth (for acting)
-Runner-up: Sean Baker, Tangerine (for producing, directing, screenwriting, film editing, cinematography, camera operation and casting)

Best Cinematography
-Emmanuel Lubezki, The Revenant
-Runner-up: John Seale, Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Film Editing
-Margaret Sixel, Mad Max: Fury Road
-Runner-up: Joe Walker, Sicario

Best Adapted Screenplay
-Charles Randolph and Adam McKay, The Big Short
-Runner-up: Emma Donoghue, Room

Best Original Screenplay
-Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
-Runner-up: Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley, Inside Out

Best Score
-Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight
-Runner-up: Junkie XL, Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Documentary
The Look of Silence
-Runner-up: Amy

Best Foreign Language Film
Phoenix
-Runner-up: Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes)

Best Animated Film
Inside Out
-Runner-up: Anomalisa

Best Overlooked Film
The Tribe (Plemya)
-Runner-up: The Gift

COFCA offers its congratulations to the winners.

Front Street troupe was particularly ambitious in 2015

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One of the beautiful stage pictures offered by Short North Stage’s production of A Little Night Music (photo by Ray Zupp)

One of the beautiful stage pictures offered by Short North Stage’s production of A Little Night Music (photo by Ray Zupp)

By Richard Ades

I try not to play favorites when I’m making out my annual “best of” list, but it’s hard to avoid the fact that one Columbus theater company was a dominant force in 2015. Shadowbox Live had so many great and unique shows that I could just about draw up a separate list devoted solely to the troupe on Front Street.

To some extent, this is no surprise. Shadowbox is by far the biggest and busiest company in town. At any given time, it divides its week up among multiple productions.

In 2015, though, Shadowbox seemed to be trying harder than ever. Not only were several of its variety shows particularly enjoyable, but it launched all-new productions that were like nothing we’d ever seen.

Shadowbox’s ambition didn’t always pay off. After putting everything else on hold for its fall production of The Tenshu, the kabuki-inspired tale turned out to be visually exhilarating but dramatically dull. But Joe Cocker: Mad Dog and Englishman was a joyful musical tribute, while the Pink Floyd retrospective Which One’s Pink? had moments of pure genius.

To top the year off, Shadowbox announced plans to purchase its expansive Brewery District venue. It’s a gutsy move, but if anyone can pull it off, it’s Stev Guyer and company.

Jean Valjean (Bill Hafner, left) risks being recognized by Javert (Scott Green, center) when he intercedes on behalf of Fantine (Melissa Muguruza), who’s being detained by two local constables (Derryck Menard and Emerson Elias) in this scene from Les Miserables (photo by Jerri Shafer)

Jean Valjean (Bill Hafner, left) risks being recognized by Javert (Scott Green, center) when he intercedes on behalf of Fantine (Melissa Muguruza) in this scene from Gallery Players’ production of Les Miserables (photo by Jerri Shafer)

Beyond Shadowbox, my 2015 was highlighted by two wonderful musical productions: Gallery Players’ Les Miserables and Short North Stage’s A Little Night Music. The former was the year’s biggest surprise. I’d previously seen four productions of Les Miz, including two touring shows and the 2012 film version, but I’d never found Jean Valjean’s saga as moving as it was on the Jewish Community Center stage.

On a more modest scale, several of the year’s biggest treats were provided by little Evolution Theatre Company, which staged gay-centered shows that were at once enjoyable and consciousness-raising. Especially rewarding were the WWII musical Yank!, the historical drama The Temperamentals and the Texas-based comedy Sordid Lives.

Also interesting: Wild Women Writing’s On the Edge and Over the Edge, collaborations with Short North Stage that featured short works by Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and contemporary American playwright Will Eno.

A few of the other shows were mixed successes for me: I had reservations about the works themselves, but I admired the way they were staged. Warehouse Theatre Company’s This Is Our Youth, Available Light Theatre’s The Christians, MadLab’s Clowntime Is Over and A&B Theatrical’s Devotion all fell into this category.

Outright disappointments? Of course there were some, but maybe the biggest was that I missed many shows that doubtlessly were worthwhile. Often I was too busy or out of town. In the case of one popular show staged in a relatively small space, I simply couldn’t get a ticket. At any rate, it should be remembered that any “best of” list is limited by what that particular critic has or hasn’t seen.

Obviously, 2015’s biggest shock was the unexpected death of Actors’ Theatre artistic director John S. Kuhn in late February. Though it was a great loss to the company and the theater community at large, Actors’ staff and supporters came together to ensure that the outdoor troupe’s summer season went forward as planned. Since then, Actors’ Theatre has named Philip J. Hickman as its new artistic director and announced a promising 2016 season, offering hope that the troupe will continue to build on the gains it made under Kuhn’s leadership.

On that somber but optimistic note, here’s my list of the best productions and performances of 2015:

Best play: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Adrenaline Theatre Company. Director Audrey Rush and her cast brought fire and commitment to Edward Albee’s tale of a monstrously dysfunctional relationship.

Best musical (tie): Les Miserables, Gallery Players; and A Little Night Music, Short North Stage. The former demonstrated that Les Miz still has the power to move us. The latter proved once again that Short North Stage has a way with Sondheim.

A sampling of the characters and costumes featured in Sex at the Box (Shadowbox Live photo)

A sampling of the characters and costumes featured in Sex at the Box (Shadowbox Live photo)

Best variety show: Sex at the Box, Shadowbox Live. The show’s many highlights included Shadowbox’s funniest skit in years (Funk Daddy Love, starring Brandon Anderson) and perhaps its best cover song ever (Ball and Chain, with Julie Klein expertly channeling Janis Joplin).

Best touring show: Anything Goes, Broadway in Columbus/CAPA. Watching the seagoing musical was like crossing the Atlantic while time-traveling back to the 1930s.

Best new work: Krampus: A Yuletide Tale, Short North Stage. Created by Nils-Petter Ankarblom and Carrie Gilchrist, the musical was a delightfully menacing alternative to A Christmas Carol. Honorable mention: The Great One: A Hockey Musical, Short North Stage.

Best “far out!” moment: Act 2 of Which One’s Pink?, Shadowbox Live. Footage from The Wizard of Oz was combined with live re-enactments of scenes from the film, live performances of music from Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon album and interpretive video by CCAD students. Bravo to director Stev Guyer and his talented collaborators.

Best direction (tie): David R. Bahgat, Les Miserables, Gallery Players; and Michael Licata, A Little Night Music, Short North Stage. Both directors performed miracles with the help of talented casts and crews. Bahgat made the familiar Les Miz as affecting as ever, while Licata brought out every tender, aching moment in Sondheim’s tale of longing and regret.

Best performance, female: Marya Spring, A Little Night Music, Short North Stage. Spring exuded both worldly confidence and vulnerability as glamorous actress Desiree.

Dr. Eve Bolinger (Ruth Sternberg) tries to “de-homosexualize” Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram (Mark Phillips Schwamberger) in Evolution Theatre Company’s production of Sordid Lives (photo by Jerri Shafer)

Dr. Eve Bolinger (Ruth Sternberg) tries to “de-homosexualize” Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram (Mark Phillips Schwamberger) in Evolution Theatre Company’s production of Sordid Lives (photo by Jerri Shafer)

Best performance, male: Bill Hafner, Les Miserables, Gallery Players. Hafner sang beautifully while portraying Jean Valjean with just the right combination of nobility and humility.

Best cross-dressing performance: Mark Phillips Schwamberger, Sordid Lives, Evolution Theatre Company. The musical shifted into high gear only after Schwamberger appeared as the pitiable but hilarious “Brother Boy.”

Mythical ogre stalks kids in musical yuletide tale

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A scene from Short North Stage's production of Krampus, a Yuletide Tale (photo courtesy of Short North Stage)

Krampus (JJ Parkey, center) terrorizes Flora (Emma Lou Andrews) and Bruno (William Gorgas) while St. Nicholas (Edward Carignan) watches on (photo courtesy of Short North Stage)

By Richard Ades

Christmas, at its essence, is a holiday devoted to hope and redemption.

Thus, it’s not surprising that redemption is at the heart of the granddaddy of all holiday yarns, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. And it’s also at the heart of Krampus: A Yuletide Tale, a musical that’s wrapping up its world-premiere run this weekend at Short North Stage’s Garden Theater.

Another similarity to A Christmas Carol: The road to redemption is a scary one indeed, probably too scary for small children. But for adults and mature youngsters, Krampus is a bracingly original journey.

With music by Nils-Petter Ankarblom (who also leads the three-piece band), and book and lyrics by Ankarblom and Carrie Gilchrist (who also directs), Krampus feels like an instant classic. The songs are beautiful and varied, and the story is thought-provoking and involving.

The title character (JJ Parkey) is a demon-like figure from Austro-Bavarian folklore who is said to kidnap and punish naughty children during the Christmas season. In this story, he sets his sights on siblings Flora (Emma Lou Andrews) and Bruno (William Gorgas), the offspring of penniless widow Anna Schlecht (Stephanie Prince).

Flora and Bruno aren’t really bad kids—they simply make a bad decision in order to help Anna avoid being evicted by their money-grubbing landlord, Herr Ulrich (Luke Stewart). But this momentary lapse is enough to remove them from the good graces of St. Nicholas (Edward Carignan), the forerunner of our modern Santa Claus.

Contributing to the tale’s charm is the intimate way it’s presented. Viewers sit on the stage of the Garden’s big auditorium, placing them a handful of feet away from Carignan’s storybook-like set. The imaginative costumes (also designed by Carignan) and the dramatic lighting add to the magical atmosphere.

The only production’s only technical shortcoming is that the band occasionally overpowers the vocals. This is mostly a matter of sound mixing, but Prince adds to the problem by singing some of her lines at a nearly inaudible level.

In the two showiest roles, Parkey and Carignan are spectacularly successful. Parkey makes a fearsome but somehow vulnerable Krampus, while Carignan is a surprisingly officious St. Nicholas. (Those of a spiritual bent may read religious significance into the implication that the mythic figures are but two sides of the same coin.) Both actors sing beautifully, but Carignan’s rich voice is put to particularly good use on St. Nick’s introductory solo, On This Night of December Fifth.

Among the human characters, Andrews’s Flora is the most engaging, but all of the cast members display heart and commitment.

Any new work can benefit from a tweak or two, and Krampus could stand to whittle down some of its sappier elements. Otherwise, this new work is just about perfect.

As I said, an instant classic.

Short North Stage will present Krampus, a Yuletide Tale through Dec. 20 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes. Tickets are $25, $15 for children. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

What’s a nice Jewish girl like you doing in a Christmas pageant like this?

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Rose Clubok (right) as Shirley and Georgia Fried as her best friend, Evie, in the Gallery Players production of Coney Island Christmas (photo by Rebecca Barger-Amato)

Rose Clubok (right) as Shirley and Georgia Fried as her best friend, Evie, in the Gallery Players production of Coney Island Christmas (photo by Rebecca Barger-Amato)

By Richard Ades

I always wondered how Sandy Cohen felt about playing the Virgin Mary.

Sandy was one of the two Jewish girls who were in my class in elementary school. She played Mary in our annual Christmas pageant, this being back in the days when most people thought it was perfectly normal to hold a religious drama in a public school.

Then again, most people weren’t Jewish. I assume Sandy wanted to play the plum part or she wouldn’t have tried out for it, but how did she feel about our school hosting this seasonal Christian event while ignoring Hanukkah? For that matter, how did her parents feel?

Such questions occurred to me after seeing Gallery Players’ charming production of Coney Island Christmas. Written by Donald Margulies (The Loman Family Picnic), it’s about a Jewish girl who lands an even bigger role in her own school’s Christmas pageant: Jesus Christ.

Cursed with an obnoxiously loud voice and low self-esteem, Shirley Abromowitz (Rose Clubok) is thrilled when drama teacher Mr. Hilton (Rick Cohen) asks her to play the adult Jesus, who serves as the pageant’s narrator. Her supportive father (Brian A. Belair) also is thrilled for her, but her mother (Kate Willis), not so much. An immigrant who came to America to escape anti-Semitism, she sees the play as yet another form of persecution.

The family dispute develops in Brooklyn in the 1940s and is presented in the form of a memory that the adult Shirley (Laurie Alexander) relates to her young granddaughter, Clara (Nora Butter).

Nora Butter (left) as Clara, Laurie Alexander as adult Shirley and Rose Clubok as young Shirley (photo by Jared Saltman)

Nora Butter (left) as Clara, Laurie Alexander as adult Shirley and Rose Clubok as young Shirley (photo by Jared Saltman)

Co-directors April Olt and Sonda Staley make good use of the Jewish Community Center’s big stage, allowing the story to hop from place to place, and from the present to the past, without skipping a beat. More importantly, they make good use of their large cast, particularly its younger members.

Rose Clubok’s Shirley seldom sounds as loud as she’s described, but she’s a lovable and compelling heroine. Other youngsters give unforced performances as her fellow students, which makes it all the funnier when they overact their way through Mr. Hilton’s Thanksgiving and Christmas productions.

The adult cast members—including Laura Crone as music teacher Mrs. Glace—are equally on target. Mr. and Mrs. Abromowitz’s squabbling scenes do tend to drag a bit, but the eventual emotional payoff is worth the wait.

Alexander holds it all together as the adult Shirley, who both narrates and plays a supporting role in the extended flashback to her childhood. As the granddaughter to whom she tells the tale—a role that mostly consists of observing quietly—Nora Butter displays poise and confidence.

Jon Baggs’s scenery, Debbie Hamrick’s costumes and Jarod Wilson’s sound and lighting design are all unobtrusively effective.

My only real quibble with Margulies’s comedy is that it could be more sympathetic to Mrs. Abromowitz. She comes across as an unfeeling parent when she tries to keep Shirley out of the Christmas pageant, but she really is right that the school shouldn’t be favoring one religion over another.

As a memory play, though, Coney Island Christmas captures the spirit of a time when few questioned this lack of division between church and state. It also celebrates children like Shirley who were strong enough to survive the era with their identities intact.

Gallery Players will present Coney Island Christmas through Dec. 20 at the Jewish Community Center, 1125 College Ave., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes. Tickets are $20 ($15 for JCC member), $18 for ages 60-plus ($13 for JCC members), $10 students/children. 614-231-2731 or www.jccgalleryplayers.org.

Welcome to the world where gay is the new straight

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ZannaBy Richard Ades

Sean Felder seems a bit miscast as Steve, the football star in Zanna, Don’t! He sings and acts just fine, but the gridiron doesn’t usually attract guys with such a slight build.

Then again, there’s nothing usual about the world portrayed in Tim Acito’s “musical fairy tale.” It’s set at Heartsville High School, where being gay is the norm and being hetero is so unheard of that the head of the drama club is scandalized when a member suggests doing a musical about straight people.

Just as unconventional is the students’ attitude toward extracurricular activities. Though Steve is such a talented jock that he wins a game by actually passing the ball to himself, the school’s biggest celebrity is chess champion Mike (Ricky Locci). But the real key to popularity, as new student Steve recognizes, is joining the drama club.

Obviously, this is the school many a gay student has dreamed of attending. As written and scored by Acito (with help from Alexander Dinelaris), Zanna, Don’t! brings the dream to fizzy, tuneful life.

In Evolution Theatre’s production, director Brent Ries captures the piece’s mood with the help of Shane Cinal’s imaginative set, Danielle Mann’s playful choreography, music director Tim Sarsany’s well-heeled band and, most importantly, a lovable cast.

In the center of it all is William Macke as the title character, a wand-carrying, spell-casting student whose only desire is to hook up everyone with his or her same-sex soulmate. Indeed, Zanna devotes so much time to others’ happiness that he neglects his own. His sole friend is Cindy, an exotic bird portrayed by puppeteer Mike Writtenberry.

Even when trouble rears its head, Zanna does his best to keep romance alive. After Roberta (Tahrea Maynard) learns that girlfriend Karla (Alex Lanier) has been unfaithful, Zanna immediately points her toward Kate (Jordan Shafer). In general, everything is sweetness and light until a girl and boy come to the reluctant realization that they’re attracted to each other. The resulting controversy threatens the school’s loving atmosphere, forcing Zanna to respond with a spell that has unforeseen consequences.

Also in the cast are Laura Crone as the bossy Candi, Brian C. Gray as the put-upon Arvin and T. Johnpaul Adams as radio deejay Tank.

Everyone does a good or better-than-good job on the show’s songs, which represent vintage pop-rock and other lighthearted genres. Though the actors don’t appear to be miked, most put out enough volume to be heard over the carefully modulated band. That’s not to say the show wouldn’t benefit from more amplification, which would add to the fun quotient, but it functions just fine without it.

Despite its satirical, upside-down view of reality, Zanna, Don’t! mostly serves up frothy fantasy. As a theatrical work, it’s about as slight as the build of Heartsville High’s star football player, but its tunefulness and charm make it a modestly pleasant diversion.

Evolution Theatre Company will present Zanna, Don’t! through Nov. 21 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 students/seniors, $30 for “generosity seating” (second or third row center). 1-800-838-3006 or evolutiontheatre.org.

Boyfriend and ex vie for woman’s affection

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James Harper, Beth Josephsen and Danny Turek (from left) in Devotion (A&B Theatrical photo)

James Harper, Beth Josephsen and Danny Turek (from left) in Devotion (A&B Theatricals photo)

By Richard Ades

Local playwright Bill Cook has been known for plays about men in nightmarish situations.

In two of his previous works (Love in an Age of Clamor and The Promised Land), the nightmare was mainly financial in nature, but a woman also played a role. It seems that in Cook’s world, as in real life, romantic relationships can be both complicated and precarious.

In his new play, Devotion, those relationships move to center stage. Set in New York City, it’s about Tricia (Beth Josephsen), a struggling artist with two men in her life: current boyfriend James (James Harper), a video artist; and former boyfriend Alex (Danny Turek), an actor.

As the play begins, both James and Alex are sharing Tricia’s loft, but Alex keeps promising to move out as soon as he finds a new place. This irks James, who suspects Alex is biding his time while he looks for ways to con his way back into Tricia’s good graces. And his distrust seems justified, especially after Alex claims he’s met an art buyer who can help boost Tricia’s career.

Who will end up with Tricia? It’s hard to feel we have a horse in this race, as we don’t particularly like any of the characters. However, we may well recognize them, as Cook injects their interchanges with verbal slings and arrows that many will find wincingly familiar. Director Pamela Hill builds on the script’s strengths by encouraging the actors to dive headfirst into their characters.

On opening night, Harper gave the most understated performance as James—to the extent that, at times, it seemed he had yet to fully invest in the character. Turek started out with the opposite problem, overplaying his first scene. Overall, though, he gave a spirited and entertaining interpretation of the glib, conniving Alex.

Even more impressive is Josephsen’s performance, despite an occasional tendency to mumble her lines. Whether Tricia is keeping Alex’s advances in check or greeting James’s pronouncements with maternal disapproval, she creates a convincing portrayal of a woman who likes to be in control.

Though Devotion differs from Cook’s earlier works in some ways—for example, the tone is naturalistic rather than surreal—it retains the previous plays’ cinematically short scenes. This means the action has to stop every few minutes while stagehands adjust Peter Pauze’s appropriately realistic scenery. The pauses would be more of a distraction if the interludes weren’t accompanied by well-chosen mood music.

Another, more unfortunate, way in which Devotion resembles other Cook plays I’ve seen is that its ending doesn’t quite work. At least, it doesn’t quite work for me. At a certain point, two of the three characters begin acting in ways that make no psychological sense. I can hazard a guess as to why Cook has them behave this way, but sorry, I’m just not buying it.

Until the final scene, however, Devotion is a low-key but interesting take on the Battle Between the Sexes.

A&B Theatricals will present Devotion through Nov. 14 at MadLab Theatre, 227 N. Third St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $15, $12 for students and seniors. 614-441-2929 or ab-theatrical.com.

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