Heartfelt performances, fine vocals mark revival of ‘Les Miserables’

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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), who’s being detained by two local constables (Derryck Menard and Emerson Elias) in this scene from Les Miserables (photo by Jerri Shafer)

By Richard Ades

As the familiar opening strains of Les Miserables filled the air, I held my breath. Having seen the blockbuster musical at least four times (including the 2012 movie), I knew how much depended on the actor playing Jean Valjean.

Would he have a voice powerful enough to carry off the demanding part? Would he have enough acting chops to make us care about the put-upon French fugitive?

But as soon as Bill Hafner sang Valjean’s first few notes, I began to relax. Hafner not only has an exceptional voice, but he’s able to project the combination of nobility and humility that makes Valjean such an appealing hero.

And Hafner is far from the only talent who’s up to the Les Miz challenge. Director David R. Bahgat and his cast and crew have created something remarkable on the JCC stage. Every performance, every lighting effect, every costume contributes to an experience that builds to one emotional climax after another.

Set in the early 19th century, the Claude Michel Schonberg/Alain Boublil/Jeffrey Hatcher musical focuses on Valjean’s attempt to remake and redeem himself after serving years at hard labor for the petty crime of stealing a loaf of bread. When he unknowingly contributes to the downfall of a single mother named Fantine, he takes on a new responsibility as the guardian of her young daughter, Cosette.

Meanwhile, he’s constantly forced to be on the lookout for Javert, a police officer who’s determined to bring him to justice for violating his parole. But that doesn’t stop him from becoming entangled with young idealists who are determined to launch a revolution.

Besides Hafner, many cast members give affecting performances in this sung-through musical. They include:

• Melissa Muguruza as Fantine
• Violet Hicks (alternating with Sigal Judd) as her young daughter, Cosette
• Amy Rittberger as the grown Cosette
• Madeline Bolzenius as the lovelorn Eponine

Eponine’s disreputable parents, the Thenardiers, are deliciously played by Mark Schuliger and Mary Sink. Their appearances, especially the rousing number Master of the House, give the tragedy-prone musical a few welcome moments of comic relief.

Moments of romantic relief arise after the grown Cosette falls for young revolutionary Marius (Elisha Beachy), leading to such beautiful ballads as A Heart Full of Love. But this subplot, too, has a tragic element, as it dooms Eponine’s own feelings for Marius, as expressed in her heart-rending lament On My Own.

Marius’s fellow revolutionaries include leader Enjolras (Jay Rittberger) and a plucky street urchin named Gavroche (Yaakov Newman). Their anthems, including Do You Hear the People Sing?, are as glorious as ever, but they take on a touching note of pathos in this production. That’s because the performances and even director Bahgat’s costume designs suggest that Enjolras and his followers are really just idealistic “schoolboys,” as Javert derisively calls them.

As for Javert, Scott Green plays him with the ramrod posture of a man who’s unable to see beyond his narrow interpretation of right and wrong. Green mostly meets the role’s vocal needs, but his voice occasionally showed signs of strain at the matinee I attended.

Les Miz fans know that Javert’s final exit is a challenge for a semiprofessional troupe like Gallery Players. Fortunately, Bahgat handles it with creativity and dramatic flair—qualities that mark the entire production.

As I said in the beginning, much rides on Jean Valjean’s broad shoulders, and actor Hafner never disappoints. His rendition of the difficult Act 2 solo Bring Him Home is simply the highpoint of a triumphant lead performance.

But there is so much else that contributes to the show’s success, including Jon Baggs’s scenery and Jarod Wilson’s light and sound design.

Yes, there are minor problems: the odd sour note from the band, a few voices that are under-amplified. None of these detract from the show’s ability to pull us into a musical that retains its ability to move us even after multiple viewings.

At its best, Les Miserables is a mesmerizing experience. In case you haven’t figured it out by now, this is Les Miserables at its best.

Gallery Players will present Les Miserables through March 29 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: 3 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $25 ($20 JCC members), $20 ages 60-plus ($18 JCC members), $15 students and children. 614-231-2731 or www.jccgalleryplayers.org.

One-night stands and recalcitrant cabbies

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Nick Lingnofski, Geoffrey Nelson, Colleen Dunne and Stephen Woosley (clockwise from top left) appear in The Collection, one of four works featured in On the Edge (photo by Julia Stonerook)

Nick Lingnofski, Geoffrey Nelson, Colleen Dunne and Stephen Woosley (clockwise from top left) appear in The Collection, one of four works featured in On the Edge (photo by Julia Stonerook)

By Richard Ades

Columbus thespian Katherine Burkman is continuing her love affair with Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.

Her former group, Women at Play, presented several works by the playwrights when it was active around the turn of the millennium. And now Burkman has made them the focus of a Wild Women Writing show called On the Edge.

Co-presented by Short North Stage, the program consists of an hour-long one-act and two shorter pieces by Pinter, as well as a one-woman play by Beckett. It’s a pleasantly puzzling way to spend an afternoon or evening.

The most rewarding work is the longest, Pinter’s The Collection. The play delves into the power struggle that grows out of an alleged episode of marital infidelity.

James (Stephen Woosley) accuses Bill (Nick Lingnofski) of having a one-night stand with his wife, Stella (Colleen Dunne). Bill denies it ever happened and tries to keep the whole matter from his older lover and benefactor, Harry (Geoffrey Nelson).

Working under Burkman’s direction, the entire cast performs ably. Woosley exudes menace as the accusatory James, while Lingnofski’s Bill responds with oily obfuscation. One of the piece’s joys is seeing Nelson’s Harry finally take charge of the situation after being consigned to the sidelines for much of the running time.

Oddly, the piece is performed with American accents even though the dialogue places the action firmly in the UK. But that’s a distraction only when a character lets loose with a Briticism such as “old chap” or “bollocks.”

Also performed in Americanese, though it’s obviously set in London, is Victoria Station. It’s the comic tale of a taxi dispatcher (David Fawcett) who tries to send a maddeningly obtuse driver (Lingnofski) to the titular railway terminal.

Much of the piece resembles a low-key version of the kind of absurd comic sketches Monty Python specialized in. (Substitute “dead parrot” for “Victoria Station” and you’ll see what I mean.) The contrast between Fawcett’s increasingly frustrated dispatcher and Lingnofski’s uncooperative cabbie is good for several chuckles, but the piece’s darker elements might work better if the latter came off as something more than a blissed-out ignoramus.

Burkman herself takes the stage in Rockaby, the show’s one contribution by Beckett. Much like the playwright’s Krapp’s Last Tape, it consists of the interplay between an elderly character and that character’s recorded voice.

The situation, however, is far simpler. Rather than reviewing her life, the old woman is simply trying to lull herself to sleep (or something more permanent) by listening to a series of repetitive recordings. Working under Ken Pearlman’s direction, Burkman delivers a portrayal effectively tinged with exhaustion and regret.

After all the power plays, frustrations and anguish of the previous works, Pinter’s Night ends the program on an entirely different note. Susie Gerald and Fawcett offer a tender enactment of an older couple’s attempt to agree on the details of their first meeting.

It’s a short and unexpectedly sweet conclusion to an engrossing visit with two of the last century’s most celebrated playwrights.

Wild Women Writing and Short North Stage will present On the Edge through March 15 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20. Contact: shortnorthstage.org.

Shadowbox, JAG collaborate on joyful Cocker tribute

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Shadowbox Live is setting aside most of its regular shows this week for its tribute to Joe Cocker, Mad Dog and Englishman

Shadowbox Live is setting aside most of its regular shows this week for A Tribute to Joe Cocker: Mad Dog and Englishman

By Richard Ades

Stev Guyer never attended Joe Cocker’s 1969-71 tour, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, but he saw a related documentary. Speaking on the opening night of Shadowbox Live’s new Cocker tribute show, the troupe’s executive producer said he took a lesson from the film that has shaped his thinking ever since.

The lesson: Performing is all about “the joy of doing the thing.”

That philosophy comes across in A Tribute to Joe Cocker: Mad Dog and Englishman. A departure from Shadowbox’s usual variety format, the show fills the entire front of the theater with singers and musicians, including four brass players borrowed from the Jazz Arts Group. Together, they pump out rock and blues with so much joy that the event could almost be mistaken for a religious revival meeting.

One tipoff that it isn’t: Rather than cajoling us to come to Jesus, the gospel-style chorus issues a more earthly invitation: Let’s Go Get Stoned. Really, though, who needs drugs when Cocker’s versions of tunes by the Beatles and others offer a natural high?

Honky Tonk Woman, Feelin’ Alright, She Came in Through the Bathroom Window: The first act alone is blessed with so many up-tempo, driving delights that the average viewer may well be exhausted by intermission. It comes as a relief that Shadowbox wisely starts Act 2 off on a more restrained note.

Halfway through the first act, the show includes a couple of numbers popularized not by Cocker, but by singer-songwriter Leon Russell. Before JT Walker III launches into a falsetto-spiced version of Tight Rope, we’re informed that Russell (who led the Mad Dogs and Englishmen band) actually deserves the credit for shaping the distinctive Cocker sound.

Whoever invented the sound, Shadowbox and its guests from JAG do a masterful job of re-creating it. All throw their hearts and souls into the music so totally that it’s probably unfair to choose an MVP, but I’ll do it anyway: Kevin Patrick Sweeney, whose limber keyboard work powers several songs, and whose lead vocals make Something and Sticks and Stones two of the evening’s highlights.

Walker, with his powerhouse voice and lithe dance movements, is another natural stand-in for the late Cocker (1944-2014). So is Guyer, whose many vocal contributions include his familiar rendition of Unchain My Heart.

Rounding out the male vocalists is his son, Gabriel Guyer, who brings his rich baritone voice to bear on the down-and-dirty Delta Lady and the inspiring Up Where We Belong (a nifty duet with Nikki Fagin).

Though Cocker’s lustier arrangements aren’t always a good match for female soloists, Shadowbox’s women excel on several numbers. Among them: Stacie Boord holds her own on Feelin’ Alright, with its series of calls and responses (Boord: “All right!” Chorus: “Uh-huh, uh-huh!”), then offers sweetly bluesy takes on The Ballad of Mad Dogs and Englishmen and Can’t Find My Way Home.

Another female-led highlight is Julie Klein’s rendition of Catfish, a blues number that tells an appropriately sad tale.

This is Shadowbox’s first collaboration with the Jazz Arts Group, and one can only hope it won’t be the last. Sax player Kris Keith is particularly prominent, but all four JAG musicians are given opportunities to shine.

With two percussionists (Matt “The Beast” Buchwalter and Brandon “Dreds” Smith) drumming simultaneously at center stage, guitarists wailing away at stage right and a smiling chorus singing with Pentecostal fervor at stage left, the Joe Cocker tribute is nearly as much fun to watch as it is to hear.

Frankly, it’s just fun, period. And, of course, joyful.

A Tribute to Joe Cocker: Mad Dog and Englishman continues through Sunday (March 8) at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Hollywood agent drops names, spills secrets in one-woman gabfest

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Deb Colvin-Tener in Short North Stage’s production of I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers (photo by Jerri Shafer)

Deb Colvin-Tener in Short North Stage’s production of I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers (photo by Jerri Shafer)

By Richard Ades

Do you like to dish? Do you love show business? Are you crazy about Bette Midler?

If you answered “yes” to all three questions, you’ll probably enjoy I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers.

Midler starred in the one-woman play on Broadway, and Short North Stage’s production never lets you forget it. If Deb Colvin-Tener’s portrayal doesn’t remind you of the Divine Miss M, you must be suffering from either extreme youth or a serious case of amnesia.

Mengers (1932-2011) fled Nazi Germany as a girl and grew up to be a successful Hollywood agent. John Logan’s script reveals how she did it, then imparts juicy bits of gossip about her famed clients and other Tinseltown bigwigs she scuffled with while promoting those clients.

It leaves us with the feeling that Mengers could be an invaluable friend and a formidable adversary.

In one of her most fascinating stories, she talks about her campaign to persuade a reluctant William Friedkin to hire an obscure actor named Gene Hackman to star in The French Connection (1971). She pursued this partly by blocking the director’s driveway with her Bentley, but mostly by delivering a soundly reasoned explanation of just what Hackman would bring to the role.

When you hear who they were thinking of hiring in his place, you realize just how much we all owe her.

Mengers could be described as a force of nature—except that it would have to be an immobile force of nature. “Exercise has not played a big part in my life,” she announces, and she proves it by spending the entire play lounging on her couch. So averse is she to unnecessary exertion that she calls on an audience member for help when she needs something that’s on the other side of her plush, Michael S. Brewer-designed living room.

Directed by Jonathan Putnam, one of Central Ohio’s leading experts on comedy, Colvin-Tener makes the most of curmudgeonly lines like “I just don’t get the appeal of children.” It would have been nice to see a little more Colvin-Tener mixed in with the Midler-inspired gestures and intonations, but Midler fans won’t mind in the least.

Besides being funny, Colvin-Tener communicates the forced bravado that shows not everything is right with Mengers’s world.

We learn early on that she’s been fired by Barbra Streisand, one of her first and favorite clients, and is expecting the personal call that will make it official. Mengers’s career seems to be in trouble, but she’s determined to tough it out with her usual swagger, fueled by whatever courage she can gain from alcohol and marijuana.

With the Academy Awards presentation less than a week away, this is a particularly appropriate time to catch I’ll Eat You Last. After seeing it, you begin to understand the crucial role Mengers and her colleagues played in shaping the industry it celebrates.

Short North Stage will present I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers through March 1 in the Green Room of the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday (no show Feb. 27) and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 95 minutes. Tickets are $25-$30. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

‘Master Class,’ like fact-based flicks, revises history

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Maria Callas (Ilona Dulaski, center) gives a lesson to Sharon Graham (Sara Pardo) with help from her Accompanist (Quinton Jones) in Master Class (photo by Ben Sostrom)

Maria Callas (Ilona Dulaski, center) gives a lesson to Sharon Graham (Sara Pardo) with help from her Accompanist (Quinton Jones) in Master Class (photo by Ben Sostrom)

By Richard Ades

Several recent movies have been suspected of bending historical reality to suit their dramatic needs.

Was LBJ really as hostile to civil rights as he’s portrayed in Selma? Was World War II code breaker Alan Turing as socially inept as he seems in The Imitation Game? And what about Navy SEAL Chris Kyle? Was he depicted with warts-and-all accuracy in American Sniper?

The answer to such questions is nearly always “no.” For better or worse, scriptwriters often reshape real-life personalities and events for the sake of a good storyline.

Playwrights are no different. It’s been suggested, for example, that the title king in Shakespeare’s Richard III wasn’t nearly as villainous in real life. History has its place, but the plot must be served.

Which brings me to Terrence McNally’s Master Class, now being revived by CATCO. Based on an actual series of workshops Maria Callas led at Julliard in 1971-72, it portrays the former opera star as so wrapped up in her ego and her painful past that she fails to realize the effect her brutal critiques are having on her vulnerable students.

When I first saw a touring production starring Faye Dunaway in 1997, I wondered why McNally would portray a singer he’d long admired in such an unflattering light. After reading a 2011 piece by New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini, I wondered even more. Transcripts of the actual Julliard classes, according to Tommasini, prove the real-life Callas was demanding but far more supportive and sensitive than McNally’s fictional version.

The only explanation for the makeover is that McNally felt Callas would be a better dramatic character if she were preoccupied by memories of her former stardom and failed relationships, especially with Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis. To me, though, the play’s brief flashbacks to her glory days are less satisfying than her best moments in the “present.”

These mainly involve two students who show up in the second act and manage to pull valuable advice from Callas and incorporate it into their renditions of dramatic arias. In director Joe Bishara’s CATCO production, Daniel A. Lopez is personable as tenor Tony Candolino, while Sara Pardo delivers the night’s most glorious operatic performance as soprano Sharon Graham.

Act 1, which is dominated by Callas’s diva-like introductory remarks and a lengthy teaching session with soprano Sophie DePalma, is less compelling. Ilona Dulaski is haughtily cranky as Callas, but she’s isn’t quite regal enough to carry off the diva-hood routine, while Alexandra Kassouf’s Sophie is an unconvincing caricature of meekness when she isn’t displaying her lovely singing voice.

It should be noted that those comments are based on Thursday night’s preview performance, when Act 1 was hampered by minor stumbles and an overall lack of energy. It’s very possible that things will improve in subsequent performances.

Serving as an effective sounding board for Callas when he’s not tinkling away on a grand piano is Quinton Jones as the Accompanist, while Andrew Protopapas makes a few brief appearances as the surly Stagehand.

The serviceable wood-paneled scenery is designed by Edith Wadkins. Marcia Hain designed the costumes, including the fancy gown worn by Sharon and belittled by Callas.

Besides the fine singing by Pardo’s Sharon and the other students, Master Class is at its best when Callas shares her philosophy on what it takes to be an operatic artist. It’s hard work, she stresses, requiring much more than mere musical technique.

These moments, at least, seem faithful to the world-renowned singer who inspired McNally’s play.

CATCO will present Master Class through March 1 in Studio One, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $11.50 for Wednesday matinees, $30 Thursday, $45 Friday-Saturday and $41 Sunday. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.

 

Depression-era musical is far from depressing

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Emma Stratton (center, lower deck) shows off her dance moves with other members of the company of Anything Goes (photo by Jeremy Daniel)

Emma Stratton (center, lower deck) shows off her dance moves with other members of the company of Anything Goes (photo by Jeremy Daniel)

By Richard Ades

Watching Anything Goes is like taking a trans-Atlantic voyage while simultaneously time-traveling back to the 1930s.

The seagoing musical has been tweaked since it opened on Broadway in 1934, but the basic show remains intact. As a result, you feel like you’re enjoying the same kind of entertainment that helped to take our ancestors’ minds off the Great Depression.

What does the show tell us about our forebears? That they laughed at silly and sometimes naughty humor. And, mostly, that they had great taste in music.

The musical’s main claim to immortality is its collection of classic Cole Porter tunes such as You’re the Top and the title song, among many others. In the current touring show, all are wonderfully delivered by the cast and a brassy, jazz-savvy band conducted by Robbie Cowan.

Complementing the songs are some truly awesome dance numbers choreographed by director Kathleen Marshall. For tap-dancing fans, the highlight is the Act 1 capper set to the title tune. For those with a taste for something a little more provocative, Act 2’s Blow, Gabriel, Blow is equally fun.

The story centers on a young stockbroker named Billy Crocker (Brian Krinsky) and his attempt to woo engaged-to-be-married heiress Hope Harcourt (Rachelle Rose Clark). However, the show’s real star is neither Krinsky nor Clark.

Instead, it’s Emma Stratton, who plays nightclub performer Reno Sweeney. In the first scene, Reno declares her affection for Billy (I Get a Kick Out of You), only to learn that he’s fallen for Hope. A trooper if there ever was one, Reno then joins Billy’s campaign to win Hope away from her stuffy British fiancé, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Richard Lindenfelzer).

Reno is such an engaging character that you may root for Billy to choose her over the mousey Hope, even though you realize it’s a long shot. Meanwhile, you get to enjoy Stratton showing off her pipes and her equally impressive dance prowess in a bevy of tunes and production numbers.

Several other notable characters also figure in the plot. They include Billy’s alcoholic boss, Elisha Whitney (Michael R. Douglass); small-time gangster Moonface Martin (Dennis Setteducati); and Moonface’s free-loving girlfriend, Erma (Mychal Phillips). All have tuneful and reasonably funny moments.

Strangely, though, the funniest moment of all comes from an unlikely source. Lindenfelzer’s Lord Evelyn spends much of his time trying to master American slang, which produces chuckles at best, but the real comic gem is his attempt to locate The Gypsy in Me in an Act 2 dance duet with Reno.

The set, originally designed by Derek McLane and coordinated by James Kronzer, is clever depiction of ocean-liner interiors and exteriors.

Anything Goes is best known for its amazing collection of Porter tunes. Besides those already mentioned, the familiar solos and duets include Easy to Love (Billy), It’s De-Lovely (Billy and Hope) and Friendship (Moonface and Reno).

But thanks to the efforts of director/choreographer Marshall and her talented cast, crew and band, the show is much more than a few excerpts from the American Songbook. It’s a silly, sexy and footloose return trip to 1930s Broadway.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Anything Goes through Sunday (Feb. 8) at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $28-$98. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.

George and Martha go at it again in troupe’s premiere production

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By Richard Ades

A statement printed in the program of Adrenaline Theatre Company’s first production calls Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? “perhaps the greatest single play in American theatre.”

You may or may not believe that. The important thing is that director Audrey Rush appears to believe it. That’s obvious from the amount of care and passion she and her cast have invested in Edward Albee’s tale of a spectacularly dysfunctional marriage.

The fireworks begin when history professor George (Stefan Langer) and his wife, Martha (Vicki Kessler), return from a faculty party at 2 a.m. The party was at the home of the college president, Martha’s father—which is an automatic source of tension.

George was hired with the expectation that he would rise to become the head of his department and eventually inherit his father-in-law’s position, but none of that happened. It’s a failure that Martha never tires of throwing in his face.

At any rate, George is ready to turn in, but Martha surprises him with the news that they have guests coming: Nick (Chad Hewitt), a new member of the biology department, and his wife, Honey (Marybeth Griffith). Once the younger couple arrives, the gloves really come off.

First produced in 1962 and set during the same era, the play is divided into three acts with distinct personalities.

Act 1 introduces George and Martha’s no-holds-barred approach to hosting, which includes lobbing barbed comments at each other and even at their guests. It’s often darkly funny, as when George spins his theory that Nick and his fellow biologists will use genetics to remake humanity in their own image.

Act 2 is grimmer, as grudges, ambitions and copious amounts of alcohol form a combustible combination. But the real combustion comes in the shocking and cathartic Act 3.

Through it all, Langer is properly the strongest of the cast’s four strong links. Whether he’s skewering his guests with sarcasm or blowing up over Martha’s latest insult, his George is always the prime protagonist.

Kessler’s Martha is a worthy opponent, to the extent the script allows her to be. Martha lacks George’s glib command of the language, but she makes up for it in the depth of her anger and her willingness to express it at the top of her lungs.

The oddly touching thing about George and Martha’s relationship is that, as much as they detest each other, they also need and care about each other. That comes across in Langer and Kessler’s portrayals.

As Nick, Hewitt captures the younger man’s surface civility and just-below-the-surface ambition and ruthlessness. As Honey, Griffith offers an amusing portrait of naïveté and brandy-fueled obliviousness.

The full and homey-looking set is lit by Rob Philpot in a manner that’s mostly just functional, though it turns effectively dramatic for a key development.

You may or may not agree that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the greatest American play, but you have to admit it’s a powerful piece of theater in the right hands. In its first production, Adrenaline Theatre Company proves it has the right hands.

Adrenaline Theatre Company will present Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? through Feb. 7 at MadLab Theatre & Gallery, 227 N. Third St. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes (including two intermissions). Tickets are $15. Contact: madlab.net.

Hockey musical is gone, but spoofy sand-and-surf tale remains

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Chicklet (Nick Hardin) gets a lift from friends (from left) Provoloney (Andrew Trimmer), Star Cat (Jason Crase), YoYo (Luke Stewart) and Kanaka (Dan Montour) in Psycho Beach Party, one of two plays opening this week at Short North Stage (photo by Jason Allen, Second Glimpse Photography)

Chicklet (Nick Hardin) gets a lift from friends (from left) Provoloney (Andrew Trimmer), Star Cat (Jason Crase), YoYo (Luke Stewart) and Kanaka (Dan Montour) in Psycho Beach Party (photo by Jason Allen, Second Glimpse Photography)

By Richard Ades

It was one busy week at the Garden Theater.

Last Wednesday, Short North Stage opened its first original work, The Great One. Timed to complement the National Hockey League’s All-Star Game in Columbus, the musical focused on a traumatic moment in western Canadian history: the Edmonton Oilers’ 1988 trade of star player Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings.

With direction by Scott Hunt, who also co-wrote the book and lyrics, it boasted a committed cast of five and some surprisingly pretty tunes by composer James Higgins. In just about an hour, it neatly summarized the profound impact a local team’s ups and downs can have on members of its community. (That’s something you don’t have to be Canadian to understand, eh?)

Unfortunately, the show’s run was as short and sweet as its running time. Its last performance ended before Sunday’s All-Star Game.

However, last week’s other Garden Theater production will continue through this weekend. A new troupe called Columbus Immersive Theater is reviving Charles Busch’s Psycho Beach Party in the venue’s main auditorium.

That’s a big room, but director/choreographer Edward Carignan is living up to the “Immersive” moniker by cramming the audience onto the stage with the players. That makes this tale of a troubled teenage girl named Chicklet a pleasantly intimate experience.

I first saw Busch’s campy comedy nearly a quarter-century ago at the old Reality Theatre. It was pretty entertaining, even though the troupe took the unorthodox tack of having Chicklet played by an actual woman.

In Immersive’s production, thankfully, tradition reigns. A cross-dressing Nick Hardin makes such a hilarious Chicklet that you can’t help wondering why anyone would want to do it the other way. Just as funny is Doug Joseph as her protective and borderline-abusive mom, Mrs. Forrest.

Set in Malibu Beach in 1962, Psycho Beach Party spoofs both Hitchcock-style psychodramas and old sand-and-surf epics like Beach Blanket Bingo. As in the latter, everyone is G-rated innocent—on the surface. Underneath, sexual tension rears its head, sometimes even between a couple of suspiciously compatible guy friends.

Most misleading of all is Chicklet, a going-on-16 girl who spends her time hanging out with bookish friend Berdine (Vera Ryan Cremeans) and begging the local beach bums to teach her how to surf. She seems harmless, but if you make her mad, a dominatrix-like alter ego named Ann Bowman suddenly appears. And that’s only one of Chicklet’s multiple personalities, all played to a comic “T” by Hardin.

Other cast members include Dan Montour as surfing ace Kanaka, Kaitin Descutner as popular mean girl Marvel Ann, Bria Schultz as movie star Bettina Barnes, Jason Carl Crase as Star Cat, Luke Stewart as YoYo and Andrew Trimmer as Provoloney. All give likable but restrained performances, basically acting as “straight men” to Hardin and Joseph.

The result is that the show isn’t really at its funniest unless Chicklet and/or Mrs. Forrest are center stage. But when they are, it’s a spoofy blast out of the past.

Immersive Theater Company will present Psycho Beach Party through Feb. 1 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 4:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20. Contact: beachpartycolumbus.com or shortnorthstage.org.

Newspaper vendors go on strike in fleet-footed musical

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Stephanie Styles and Dan DeLuca play Katherine and Jack in the touring production of Newsies (photo by Deen van Meer)

Stephanie Styles and Dan DeLuca play Katherine and Jack in the touring production of Newsies (photo by Deen van Meer)

By Richard Ades

It was kind of odd watching Newsies Tuesday night at the Ohio Theatre.

The history-based Disney musical is basically a salute to the power of unions. As a result, it was hard to see it without remembering that a blatantly anti-union law had been passed about four years ago right across the street at the Statehouse—or that the governor who signed the law was re-inaugurated on Monday night.

All of that might have made it hard to enjoy the musical except that the anti-union law was overwhelmingly repealed thanks to a 2011 referendum. Yes, the little guys do occasionally win out in real life, as they do in Disney musicals.

Based on a 1992 movie, which was based on the Newsboys Strike of 1899, Newsies is about what happens when New York City newspapers put the screws to the young lads who eke out a living by selling their products on the street.

Joseph Pulitzer (Steve Blanchard), owner of the New York World, is the first to raise the wholesale price his “newsies” must pay, thinking that’s the easiest way to offset recent losses. He doesn’t count on the tenacity of Jack Kelly (Dan DeLuca), the paper pushers’ unofficial leader.

Jack persuades Manhattan-based newsies to go on strike, then begins seeking support from their counterparts in other New York boroughs. Backing him up are his best friend, Crutchie (Zachary Sayle), along with newcomer Davey (Jacob Kemp) and his little brother, Les (played at alternate performances by Vincent Crocella and Anthony Rosenthal).

Fighting the newspapers is a nearly impossible task, but unexpected help comes in the form of Katherine (Stephanie Styles), a society reporter who wants to write about the labor struggle to prove she’s ready to graduate to hard news.

Newsies gained several Tony nominations after opening on Broadway in 2012, but it won only for its musical score and choreography. The touring version makes it clear that these remain the show’s prime strengths.

With music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Jack Feldman, the score has several enjoyable numbers. They include The World Will Know, a defiant anthem that captures the spirit (if not the power) of Les Miz’s Do You Hear the People Sing?, and Watch What Happens, an amusing expression of Katherine’s determination in the face of self-doubt.

True, a few of the other numbers are either less memorable or less relevant, coming off as mere filler. But a worse problem on opening night was a sound system that often failed to elevate the generally fine voices above the large band conducted by James Dodgson. It sometimes was hard to pick out the lyrics, particularly in the group numbers.

Working under Jeff Calhoun’s direction, DeLuca makes Jack such a caricature of New York swagger that he’s not as compelling a hero as he might be. (Also, he seemed to suffer from subpar amplification at Tuesday’s performance.) But Styles turns Katherine into a lovable heroine, while Blanchard’s Pulitzer is such an effectively loathsome villain that you can almost imagine him twirling his mustache.

The real stars, though, are choreographer Christopher Gattelli and his spinning, leaping and somersaulting dancers. Several numbers fill Tobin Ost’s set with amazing moments of motion.

The dancing makes this musical history lesson as impressive as it is inspiring.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Newsies through Sunday (Jan. 18) at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $28-$98. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.

Struggling to grow up in the Reagan era

Newsies demonstrates that 1890s young adults could accomplish quite a lot when they put their minds to it. Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth, in contrast, shows that 1980s young adults could accomplish next to nothing, especially when their minds were clouded by drugs and immaturity.

It’s a savvy, clever portrait of an era and an age group that is entertaining until it gets bogged down in talkiness and redundancy, as it does during the second act.

In Warehouse Theatre Company’s production, the three actors give fully committed performances under Kristofer Green’s direction: John Connor as the self-absorbed Dennis, Jesse Massaro as the self-doubting Warren and Erin Mellon as the emotionally cautious Jessica.

Will Warren find a way to recover the $15,000 he stole from his hated father? And will he ever connect with Jessica, the oblivious object of his romantic obsession?

Such questions hold the viewers’ interest for a while, but Lonergan eventually overplays his dramatic cards. It’s a shame, because the actors do everything they can to keep us involved.

It’s a valiant effort, to say the least.

Warehouse Theatre Company will present This Is Our Youth at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday (Jan. 15-17) at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $22, $15 student rush. 614-371-5940 or warehousetheatre.org.

Explicitly sexual and deliriously funny

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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)

By Richard Ades 

Is your heart healthy enough for Sex at the Box?

This may not be Shadowbox Live’s sexiest show—that honor belongs to the midweek offering Burlesque Biographie—but it’s easily Shadowbox’s funniest show of recent memory. If you’re not sure whether your body is up to two hours’ worth of hearty guffaws, you’d better get your doctor’s approval before attending.

A few more distinctions held by the theme show:

  • Funniest Shadowbox skit in years.
  • Most explicit skit in the history of Sex at the Box.
  • Best Shadowbox cover song of all time.

Just in case you’re wondering whether you should bring your children or parents to Sex at the Box, I’ll start with the “most explicit” skit. Called Holy Hell, it stars Tom Cardinal as a priest and JT Walker III as Henry, an unmarried parishioner who seeks forgiveness for what he describes as the best sex he’s ever had. When the priest demands details, Henry provides them at length and with great specificity.

Should you bring your kids or parents to the show? Unless the former are very mature or the latter are very broadminded, absolutely not.

Most Shadowbox theme shows have at least one or two good skits like this one. What sets Sex at the Box apart is that just about every skit is top-drawer from beginning to end. Other winners include:

  • In a Bar: A squeaky-voiced would-be Lothario (Brandon Anderson) has no luck attracting the opposite sex until he’s aided by the “In a world…” tones of a movie-trailer announcer (Walker).
  • The Friend Zone: The Twilight Zone’s Rod Sterling (Robbie Nance) narrates the spooky tale of a man (Jimmy Mak) whose amorous feelings are strangely invisible to the woman he desires (Amy Lay).
  • Life Duet: Mak and Lay silently portray a couple whose changing relationship is defined by the music they play on the car radio.
  • Sneak a Peak—Dirty Movies: In the funniest episode yet of the faux movie-review show, hosts Shelly and John (Julie Klein and David Whitehouse) look at various porno scenes that invariably climax in the appearance of the heroine’s sexy sister.

As it plans to do throughout its 25th-anniversary season, Shadowbox also brings back a vintage skit. The Pyramid Game, a TV-style competition pitting a geeky Upper Arlington couple (Mak and Katy Psenicka) against a pair of South Siders (Whitehouse and Lay), is cute, but it’s not as consistently funny as some of the newer sketches.

And nothing is as funny as Funk Daddy Love, in which the titular soul singer is put on trial for the “crime” of being too sexy. Anderson gives a hilarious portrayal of Love, who breaks into one of his down-and-dirty ballads whenever the mood hits him.

Musically, Sex at the Box offers an embarrassment of riches. The best covers and their lead singers include Just Like Heaven (Anderson), Sex and Candy (Walker) and Glorybox (Lay). The BillWho? band provides its usual spot-on accompaniment, as when it backs up Lay’s vocals with unmistakably Portishead-like sounds.

The most surprising cover is the last: Queen’s gospel-style Somebody to Love, sung by an eight-person chorus. The most familiar is The Way You Make Me Feel, which finds Noelle Grandison returning to Michael Jackson mode while lithe dancer Nick Wilson accompanies her with Jackson-like moves.

What’s the best cover of all—in fact, perhaps the best cover tune ever heard on a Shadowbox stage? No contest. It’s Klein’s flawless and passionate take on Janis Joplin’s Ball and Chain.

Even if your heart is healthy enough for Sex at the Box, your voice might not survive the hootin’ and hollerin’ you’ll want to do once this gem is finished.

Sex at the Box continues through March 21 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday (no shows March 6, 7 or 14). Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

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