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.

2014: A brilliant ‘Hamlet’ and a sad departure

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Grace Bolander plays the title role in Actors' Theatre's production of Hamlet (photo by Richard Ades)
Grace Bolander plays the title role in Actors’ Theatre’s production of Hamlet (photo by Richard Ades)

By Richard Ades

Two of the most memorable theatrical events of 2014 took place in Schiller Park.

The first was Actors’ Theatre’s production of Hamlet. Though it garnered the most attention for its offbeat casting of a teenage girl in the title role, what really set the show apart was its overall quality. Every role—from the Danish prince to the lowly gravedigger—was cast and performed to perfection.

The second event was the May 30 memorial for actor Carl Novak, who died unexpectedly last spring. I first met Carl several years ago when he approached me during intermission at a local show and said some nice things about my reviews—frank but fair, something along that line. I didn’t yet know who he was other than a familiar face at opening nights, but I appreciated the supportive words.

It was only after Carl’s death that I learned he’d said equally supportive things to many people. On Facebook and at the memorial service, people described him as a man who went out of his way to make others feel important and appreciated.

Though I don’t share the strong Christian faith that guided Carl, it’s hard for me to think of him without recalling words from the New Testament: “Go and do likewise.” What a world it would be if we all followed his example.

Back to business: This being the end of the year, it’s time for me to share my list of the best theatrical performances and productions I saw in 2014. Notice the “I saw.” No one has time to see everything, and I almost certainly missed many worthy contenders.

Thanks to everyone who made 2014 a good year to go to the theater.

Best Play: Hamlet, Actors’ Theatre. Co-directors John S. Kuhn and Nick Baldasare coaxed incisive performances from the entire cast, starting with Grace Bolander, the high school senior who gave such a brilliant interpretation of the title prince. Runner-up: How We Got On, Available Light Theatre.

Best Musical: The Producers, Gallery Players. Director Mark Mann and his crew paid amazing attention to detail while creating a tuneful show with many laugh-out-loud moments. The entire cast performed with spirit, but special commendations are due to supporting actors Doug Joseph (as Roger De Bris, alternating with Stewart Bender) and Brooke Walters (as Swedish secretary Ulla). Runner-up: Always…Patsy Cline, CATCO.

Best New Work: Memory Fragments, MadLab. Sam Wallin’s “cyberpunk” mystery constantly shifted between the present and the past, and between physical and virtual reality, but director Andy Batt handled the changes with aplomb. Runner-up: Gallery of Echoes, Shadowbox Live.

Best Revised Work: Evo, Shadowbox Live. Stev Guyer’s Evolution was an ambitious but plodding work from the troupe’s early days. The new version, which Guyer revised with help from head writer Jimmy Mak, musical director Matthew Hahn and choreographer Katy Psenicka, was just an ambitious but far more watchable.

Best Touring Show: The Book of Mormon, Broadway in Columbus. Only a poor sod with maggots in his scrotum could fail to enjoy this raunchy but warmhearted satire.

Worst Trend: musicals with canned accompaniment. CATCO’s production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels handled the prerecorded soundtrack pretty well, but taped music drained much of the life out of SRO’s The Sound of Music. Besides, musicians need the work!

Best Direction: Hamlet, John S. Kuhn and Nick Baldasare, Actors’ Theatre. Every role was handled with such clarity that even Shakespeare buffs probably gained new appreciation of the venerable tragedy.

Best Performance, Male: Isaac Nippert, My Name Is Asher Lev, CATCO/Gallery Players. As Asher, Nippert expertly navigated a role that required him to narrate his own tale while playing himself at ages ranging from youngster to adult.

Best Performance, Female: Grace Bolander, Hamlet, Actors’ Theatre. Casting a teenage girl as the melancholy Dane might seem like a gimmick, but Bolander gave an impassioned yet witty performance that proved she was simply the best person for the part.

It’s not yet beginning to feel a lot like Christmas

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Santa Babies (from left) Dixie (Julie Klein), Dolly (Stacie Boord) and Dorothy (Stephanie Shull) return for Holiday Hoopla 2014 (Shadowbox Live photo)

Santa Babies (from left) Dixie (Julie Klein), Dolly (Stacie Boord) and Dorothy (Stephanie Shull) return for Holiday Hoopla 2014 (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

The audience for Holiday Hoopla’s opening night may have been a bit small, but what it lacked in size, it made up in lack of spirit.

Skit after skit drew only titters, leading me to wonder whether it was simply too early for folks to get in the Christmas spirit. After all, we hadn’t even made it to Thanksgiving yet.

Then again, maybe the patrons were already suffering from seasonal affective disorder, courtesy of an early blast of wintry weather.

Of course, one can’t discount the possibility that the main problem was the material, which is neither great nor fresh. Much of the show is very familiar, and the skits that aren’t familiar are short on comedy.

The biggest dud is Cookie Party, the tale of a holiday family get-together. You could call this the classic example of a piece with more funny characters than funny lines except that the characters aren’t all that hilarious.

Slightly more success is enjoyed by the three skits featuring Santa Claus (David Whitehouse). The best of them is Elf Reflection, in which St. Nick’s helpers watch a Lord of the Rings movie and come to the conclusion that they aren’t talented enough to be real elves. It’s a clever premise, but it needs more laughs to make it a winner.

Another Santa skit, Naughty Appeals, also fits into the more-clever-than-funny category. But at least it’s better than Santa Breaks Down, which relies on forced jokes such as a woman confusing “origami” with “orgasm.”

One of most familiar skits is Kidsmas Carol, in which a harried teacher (Stephanie Shull) tries to shepherd a cast of grade-schoolers through a performance of A Christmas Carol. The few chuckles it generates are mostly provided by Julie Klein’s spunky portrayal of the girl playing Scrooge. Maybe we’ve seen this chestnut once too often.

Yet familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt. The biggest laughs on opening night were produced by the Santa Babies, a comically bad lounge act featuring Klein, Stephanie Shull and Stacie Boord. True, they offer little variation on the shtick they’ve been doing for years, but that seems to be good enough for many. And it was plenty good enough for a group of kids sitting near me, who cracked up every time the flirtatious Dolly (Boord) showed off her spankies.

Personally, I wish the Santa Babies would vary their routine more from year to year. Meanwhile, I like them best when they play it straight, cranking out harmonies worthy of that swing-era act known as Andrews Sisters.

Even without those rare moments, Hoopla has an abundance of good music. And unlike the comedy, it doesn’t lose its effectiveness when it’s been heard in previous incarnations of the show.

Children Go Where I Send Thee (sung by Klein), The Old Man (sung by Stev Guyer), The Hounds of Winter (sung by Leah Haviland), Oi to the World (sung by Amy Lay and Haviland): It wouldn’t be Hoopla without these returning classics.

Other entertaining tunes include James Taylor’s version of Jingle Bells (sung by JT Walker III), the BillWho? band’s metal version of Sugar Plum Fairy (from The Nutcracker), Lullay Lullay (sung by Nikki Fagin) and I’ve Longed for Christmas (sung by Boord).

Speaking of which, Holiday Hoopla 2014 should go over better once the audience actually starts longing for Christmas. But it wouldn’t hurt if Shadowbox worked on improving the product in the meantime.

Holiday Hoopla continues through Dec. 27 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. select Tuesdays-Thursdays, 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. select Fridays-Saturdays, plus 7:30 p.m. Dec. 22 (no shows Nov. 25-27 or Dec. 24-25). Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$50. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Portrait of an artist as a Hasidic young man

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Ralph Scott, Isaac Nippert and Melissa Graves (from left) in CATCO and Gallery Players' co-production of My Name Is Asher Lev (photo by Ben Sostrom)

Ralph Scott, Isaac Nippert and Melissa Graves (from left) in CATCO and Gallery Players’ co-production of My Name Is Asher Lev (photo by Ben Sostrom)

By Richard Ades

The protagonist of My Name Is Asher Lev is still a boy when he begins drawing pictures of Jesus and nude women. Not surprisingly, the images upset his Hasidic Jewish parents.

“No Torah Jew would think of drawing such things,” thunders his father, Aryeh Lev (Ralph Scott).

But the parents soon learn that trying to stifle the youth’s artistic impulses is no easy task. Though he wants to be a good son and a good Jew, Asher himself (Isaac Nippert) seems unable to control his need for self-expression. The result is a recurring argument with his devout father and a source of stress for his mother, Rivkeh (Melissa Graves), who tries to be loyal to both her husband and her gifted son.

Adapted from a novel by Chaim Potok, Aaron Posner’s one-act is set in a particular time and place: a Hasidic enclave in Brooklyn in the 1950s. The basic situation, however, is universal: The parents want their child to obey them and respect their traditions, while the child is driven by his need to find his own way.

Though the play sometimes seems like a collection of biographical scenes rather than a cohesive drama, the unifying factor is Asher’s fierce need to create art. Nippert expresses that need with a portrayal that incorporates joyful discovery and youthful enthusiasm—and, sometimes, youthful petulance. All the while, he succeeds in suggesting ages as young as 5 without turning into a childish caricature.

As Asher’s mother, Graves projects quiet dignity and equally quiet desperation. Because we see Rivkeh through her son’s eyes, she comes off as more of a symbol of long-suffering motherhood than a flesh-and-blood woman, but Graves fills the need by radiating an aura of profound sadness.

Graves also doubles as a couple of relatively minor female characters, but it’s Scott who does the heavy lifting in terms of multiple roles. In addition to Asher’s father, he plays a supportive uncle, a local Hasidic leader and, most notably, Jacob Kahn, a secular Jewish artist who becomes Asher’s mentor. Though some of the portrayals carry a whiff of stereotype, Kahn comes across as distinctive and fully human.

Under Kahn’s exacting tutelage, Asher is encouraged to remain true to his Hasidic identity while studying the European and largely Christian traditions that shaped Western art. The resulting tension leads to a climax that supplies the drama—melodrama, even—that much of the play lacks.

Steven C. Anderson’s sensitive direction makes the most of the work’s strengths, including its portrait of a youth torn between his art and his devotion to his family and faith. Jarod Wilson’s lighting design brings out every nuance of that portrait, while well-chosen background music adds both drama and ethnic flavor. Eric Barker’s painterly scenic design includes a floor divided into multiple, odd-shaped levels and distorted windows that play a symbolic role in later scenes.

The sum total of all this effort is a nearly perfect staging of an interesting, if not-quite-perfect, work of theater.

CATCO and Gallery Players will present My Name Is Asher Lev through Nov. 9 in Studio Two, 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: 95 minutes. Tickets are $11.50 for Wednesday matinees, $30 Thursday, $45 Friday-Saturday and $41 Sunday. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.

Recorded memories prove invaluable in dystopian murder mystery

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Sharing a rare moment of peace and happiness are (from left) Cloud (Stephen Woosley), Meryl (Katharine Pilcher), Charlotte (Colleen Dunne) and Mordecai (Travis Horseman) in the world premiere of Memory Fragments (photo by Andy Batt)

Sharing a rare moment of peace and happiness are (from left) Cloud (Stephen Woosley), Meryl (Katharine Pilcher), Charlotte (Colleen Dunne) and Mordecai (Travis Horseman) in the world premiere of Memory Fragments (photo by Andy Batt)

By Richard Ades

Following the world premiere of Memory Fragments last week, playwright Sam Wallin described the mystery as an example of “cyberpunk.” He explained that this is a form of science fiction that mixes a futuristic setting with elements of film noir.

Well, it’s definitely science fiction, and it’s definitely set in the future. The film-noir part isn’t quite so obvious. The scene breaks are accompanied by the kind of jazzy noodlings that would have made Sam Spade feel right at home, but the scenes themselves fail to capture the dark moodiness that characterized Spade’s world.

No matter. Memory Fragments may not be noir-ish, but it’s never boorish. As long as you don’t mind being confused for much of the running time, it’s an intriguing murder mystery.

The hero is a police detective named Cloud (Stephen Woosley) who’s assigned to investigate the death of a barista named Mordecai (Travis Horseman). Cloud’s first job is to determine whether the man was murdered or committed suicide.

In this version of the near future, people’s memories are recorded and stored so that they can be played back as needed. Ordinarily, this makes Cloud’s job pretty easy. In Mordecai’s case, however, the fatal wound destroyed all but 17 fragments of the victim’s memory. Along with Jerome (Andy Woodmansee), an annoying stranger who inserts himself into the investigation, Cloud begins watching the fragments in hopes of solving the case.

It’s through the recorded memories that we meet a number of people who played a role in Mordecai’s final days, including a new girlfriend (Colleen Dunne), a male psychiatrist (Andy Batt), a lascivious female psychiatrist (Laura Spires) and a mysterious man in a brown suit (Erik Sternberger). Cloud attempts to sift through the clues with help from his late wife, Meryl (Katharine Pilcher), whom he frequently resurrects in the virtual world where he spends most of his time.

Eventually, the mystery of Mordecai’s death is solved, but not until more people have died—and not until Cloud has followed the evidence to the upper echelons of the two huge corporations that control this future society.

Speaking after Thursday’s preview performance, Wallin and director Batt revealed that MadLab spent two years planning the play’s premiere. Part of the delay was due to the problem of portraying the work’s frequent shifts between the present and the past, and between physical reality and virtual reality.

With help from designers Brenda Michna (scenery and lighting) and Peter Graybeal (sound), Batt’s production succeeds admirably. Especially effective are the gauzy curtains that separate the present from the past, as represented by the recorded memories.

Also admirable is the large cast, which also includes Julie Ferreri and MaryBeth Griffith. The portrayals are rooted in emotional reality, which helps to ground a play that otherwise could disintegrate into a confusing mixture of sci-fi jargon and dystopian paranoia.

To be sure, Memory Fragments still challenges viewers to keep up, but MadLab keeps them so entertained that they’re happy to make the effort.

Memory Fragments will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday through Nov. 1 at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $12, $10 for students/seniors, $8 for members. 614-221-5418 or madlab.net.

Hollywood has-been seeks comeback in Webber musical

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Norma Desmond (Gina Handy) tangoes with Joe Gillis (Chris Shea) in Short North Stage’s production of Sunset Boulevard (photo by Heather Wack)

Norma Desmond (Gina Handy) tangoes with Joe Gillis (Chris Shea) in Short North Stage’s production of Sunset Boulevard (photo by Heather Wack)

By Richard Ades

One of Sunset Boulevard’s two most famous lines comes early on. When a struggling writer stumbles into Norma Desmond’s Hollywood mansion and tells her she “used to be big,” the former silent-film star replies: “I’m still big. It’s the movies that got small.”

Movies may or may not be smaller nowadays, but movie-based stage musicals are often extravaganzas. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s adaptation of Billy Wilder’s 1950 film certainly was. In fact, the 1994 Broadway production was so expensive that it ran for more than two years and still managed to lose millions.

Short North Stage’s production isn’t quite that big, but it’s still huge by Columbus standards. Michael Brewer’s two-story set effectively stands in for Norma’s grandiose mansion and other locations, with help from video segments projected on two large screens. Moreover, music director P. Tim Valentine’s offstage band is sizable enough to handle Webber’s soaring score.

If director Scott Hunt’s staging fails to consistently match the power of Wilder’s classic, it’s partly because the nourish film is tricky source material for a stage musical. Just the right touch is needed to carry off its blend of cynicism, desperation and passion.

One problem is that leading lady Gina Handy only occasionally projects the brittle mixture of grandiosity and insecurity that marks Norma Desmond, an ex-celeb who clings to the belief that the world is eager for her return. At Thursday’s preview performance, Handy also was decidedly pitchy on her first big solo (Surrender), though her voice was better on later, quieter numbers.

Jarod Wilson’s bland lighting design is another disappointment. This tale of a woman lost in the caverns of her ego-driven delusions cries out for uber-dramatic lighting effects, and it seldom gets them.

Most of the cast does strike the right chords, beginning with Chris Shea as Joe Gillis, the struggling screenwriter who wanders into Norma’s abode and ends up falling under her dangerous spell. Perhaps Shea could project a bit more world-weariness as Joe, who has become tired of the ass-kissing it takes to prosper in Hollywood, but he has no trouble earning our attention and concern.

As Max, Norma’s mysterious butler, Christopher Moore Griffin is appropriately reserved and sings with the show’s deepest, richest voice. The only drawback is that Max’s lyrics sometimes get buried under a droning German accent, so a little more enunciation would be helpful.

The fourth major character, script editor Betty Schaeffer, is played by Cassie Rae. The perky blonde proved in Short North Stage’s early-2014 production of A Grand Night for Singing that she’s a charismatic performer with an irresistible voice. She proves it again here, to the extent that Betty’s growing affection for Joe becomes one of the show’s strongest threads.

Smaller parts are divided among a group of worthy actors who each play multiple roles. Doug Joseph, for example, portrays “Finance Man #1” in addition to legendary director Cecil B. DeMille.

Of the nearly sung-through musical’s two acts, Act 2 is stronger, as it contains several dramatic payoffs. They include the show’s other famous line, Norma’s surreal announcement that she’s ready for her close-up.

Surprisingly, this is the first time we see clearly just how many years separate Norma from the glamorous, youthful image she carries around in her head. Up until then, she’s appeared to be little older than the writer who’s joined her household.

If only she’d posed for that close-up a couple of hours earlier, the depths of her delusion would have been easier to understand.

Short North Stage will present Sunset Boulevard through Oct. 19 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$40. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

Revised musical drops its pedantic personality

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Stacie Boord as the Ringmaster in Evo (Shadowbox Live photo)

Stacie Boord as the Ringleader in Evo (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

Over the past 25 years, Shadowbox Live has settled into a comfortable role as the troupe that plies viewers with skits, food, booze and rock tunes.

It wasn’t always this way. Back in the early days, Shadowbox head honcho Stev Guyer was determined to create big, important works about big, important topics. The result was a series of original musicals such as 1995’s Evolution.

Like the others, Evolution was loud, flashy and ambitious. Sometimes, particularly in the dance sequences, it was impressive.

More often, though, it came across as a lecture set to music. How could it seem otherwise, when it methodically introduced each topic before discussing it with billboard-style dialogue and lyrics?

Now, apparently, Guyer wants to take another crack at creating important art. With help from Shadowbox head writer Jimmy Mak and musical director Matthew Hahn, he’s revisited Evolution and renamed it Evo.

Thankfully, the new version has lost more than a portion of its name. It’s also lost the pedantic attitude that made viewers of Evolution feel like they deserved college credit just for sitting through it.

Guyer and his fellow Shadowboxers have learned a lot about showmanship in the past quarter-century, and they’ve funneled it all into Evo.

The new show still addresses some of the same questions about human beings and our relationships with ourselves, each other and society: Why are we so prone to violence? Is “justice” just another word for “revenge”? And, most basically, what is the point of our existence?

Sex, love, parenting and old age also are taken up.

The most obvious change from the previous version is that all of these topics are introduced by the Ringleader, a flawed character energetically portrayed by Stacie Boord. Her presence helps to put a recognizably human face on the proceedings.

Another difference is that the show often makes effective use of humor to get its points across.

Often the humor is of the darker variety, as it is in a segment on parenting and the complications it creates in romantic relationships. When “Mr. Know It All” (Billy DePetro) and “Mrs. Don’t Tell Me What to Think” (Katy Psenicka) are asked which part each wants to play in a knife-throwing act, the latter eagerly grabs a handful of blades. It seems she has a wealth of pointed comments that she’s been dying to aim at her hubby.

As in the original Evolution, music and dance are at the center of the action.

From the first notes of Risking It All, with its ever-changing time signatures, the music is an interesting combination of melodies and intricate rhythms. The heavy percussion often carries echoes of traditional African drumming, reminding us of the continent where human evolution likely has its roots.

The dancing, choreographed by Psenicka, is as varied as the show’s many moods. Though it can be frenetic and exciting, it also can be sensitive and graceful. In a particularly lovely segment, Guyer and Boord sing a song about aging desire while JT Walker III and Nikki Fagin act it out through dance.

Throughout the show, Scott Aldridge’s dramatic lighting is a key component. So are the colorful and flowing costumes (designed by Linda Mullin, Myah Shaffer and Lyn Walker), which help to establish the circus-like atmosphere.

Occasionally, the show still carries a whiff of the classroom. One example is a section that delves into the ancient practice of taking aged tribe members out into the wilderness to die. It seems like a needless digression since society now treats its oldsters a bit more humanely.

But most of the show is entertaining and engrossing, and it’s consistently so after intermission. Even when Evo preaches, as it does in the section titled Revenge, it drains the self-righteousness from the sermon by delivering it with a comedic touch.

Shadowbox clearly has evolved for the better through the years by learning from its past mistakes. If only we could say the same for the rest of humankind.

Evo will be presented at 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 2. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 for students and seniors. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Shadowbox gets anniversary season off to a freaky start

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By Richard Ades

Fabulous costumes, a smokin’ guitar solo and a very funny Jack Hanna. These are some of the highlights of Shadowbox Live’s Freak Show.

More generally, the show offers some really smart comedy, including a vintage skit that’s being repeated as part of the troupe’s 25th anniversary celebration.

Let’s start with Jack Hanna. The Columbus Zoo’s director emeritus has demonstrated his deadpan sense of humor over the years during his many appearances on The Late Show With David Letterman, but he’s never been funnier than he is here.

In a video segment, Shadowbox executive producer Stev Guyer seeks out Hanna’s advice on how to keep the troupe going for another 25 years. Instead, Jungle Jack begins paddling down a stream of consciousness that carries us into areas that are hilariously personal.

As for the guitar solo, it takes place in a cover of Van Halen’s House of Pain and features the nimble fingers of Brent Lambert. Amy Lay ably handles the vocals, but make no mistake: Lambert’s screaming guitar is the tune’s reason for being.

And the costumes? Designed by Linda Mullin, Nick Wilson and Lyn Walker, they accentuate the show’s spooky theme while turning several musical numbers into visual as well as aural treats. My favorites include the colorful tutus lead vocalist Anita McFarren and her backup singers don for Mz. Hyde.

Comedy-wise, Shadowbox theme shows easily beat the success ratio of Saturday Night Live, but that’s really damning with faint praise. For Freak Show, director Guyer, head writer Jimmy Mak and the cast actually approach the success ratio of Modern Family.

Not everything inspires big laughs. Jason’s Scary Poem, a narrated and mimed homage to Dr. Seuss, is more apt to inspire appreciative nods and chuckles. And Zombie or Not to Be?, a faux TV show about the undead, is mostly unfunny. But an astounding number of skits are ingeniously written and brilliantly performed. Some of the standouts:

Modern Day Freaks: A carnival barker (JT Walker III) introduces such contemporary oddities as a 6-year-old girl who hates Frozen and a tea partier who’s down with gay marriage.

Literal Wizard: A substitute teacher (Tom Cardinal) uses his wizardly skills to instruct his students on the proper use of the word “literally.” (English majors will love this one!)

The Line: Disney makes a horror film inspired by Disneyland’s scariest attraction of all: those endless lines.

Haunted House Training: The socially inept Gary (Mak) thinks he knows how to scare people at a Halloween haunted house because he’s so good at inadvertently scaring them in real life.

Captain’s Kirk’s Advice: Office worker Herb (Jamie Barrow) is too shy to ask out co-worker Lisa (Carrie Lynn McDonald) until he’s goaded on by video clips of that planet-hopping Lothario himself, James T. Kirk.

Incidentally, McDonald is a former Shadowbox regular who’s making a return visit for this show, probably in honor of the anniversary season. Other welcome returnees include the final skit, The Exorsister, and the spectacular final tune, Thriller, featuring vocals by Leah Laviland and a stageful of creepy dancers.

There’s much more of worth in Freak Show, including such musical numbers as Save Me (sung by a gruff-voiced Walker) and the familiar Mama Told Me Not to Come (talk-sung by Brandon Anderson).

Even the video segments, which normally function as semi-cute fillers, are great. Besides the Jungle Jack interview, my favorite is Flashback, in which a prophetic spirit tells young Shadowbox founder Steve Guyer to postpone his ambitious dream of staging original rock operas and concentrate on sketch comedy. And, oh yes, he’s advised to change his first name to Stev.

Sure, it’s self-referential and maybe even self-indulgent. But after 25 years, Shadowbox is entitled.

Freak Show continues through Nov. 1 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

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