A clown, a rabbit and a llama walked into a TV studio…

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Appearing in MadLab’s production of Clowntime Is Over are (from left) Shana Kramer as Susie the Bunny, Andy Batt as Max and Chad Hewitt as Tidy the Llama (photo by Michelle DiCeglio)

Appearing in MadLab’s production of Clowntime Is Over are (from left) Shana Kramer as Susie the Bunny, Andy Batt as Max and Chad Hewitt as Tidy the Llama (photo by Michelle DiCeglio)

By Richard Ades

Clowntime Is Over has been touted as a typical MadLab play, and that’s an accurate description. Written by Joseph E. Green, it’s the kind of small, dark and weirdly offbeat work we’ve come to expect from the theater on North Third.

But that’s not the only reason MadLab fans will eat it up. The play also gives them the chance to see two familiar actors spread their wings in unfamiliar ways.

Andy Batt (who also directs) has never been averse to trying new things, but he’s seldom stretched himself as far as he does here. As TV clown Max P. Twinkle, he’s sardonic, morose and morbidly philosophical. He also has great comic timing, which helps to keep Green’s play from getting bogged down in existential angst.

The equally familiar Stephen Woosley is normally less chameleonic than Batt, but there’s nothing Woosley-like about Paco, the mouse he plays during a short but spirited appearance. Just as Batt’s Max brings humor to the tale, Woosley’s Paco brings energy, and lots of it.

Adding to the novelty of their performances is Suzanne Camilli’s liberally applied makeup, which ensures that neither Batt nor Woosley looks anything like himself.

Green’s metaphorical story is set in the TV studio where Max normally presents his children’s show. One fateful day, however, he arrives to find his crew is AWOL. Even more strangely, the “bunny” and “llama” who also appear on the show seem to be just that: a bunny and a llama. At any rate, their costumes have no zippers in sight.

Shana Kramer and Chad Hewitt play Susie the Bunny and Tidy the Llama, respectively. Of the two, Kramer’s Susie makes a stronger impression. Hewitt has been great in other shows—most notably as Nick in an early-2015 production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—but his portrayal seemed a bit too understated on opening night.

The four actors—as well as an unseen snake that plays a pivotal role—do their thing on Brendan Michna’s creatively designed set.

So what is Green’s play about? Oh, about 75 minutes. Sorry. I normally would have resisted such an obvious joke, but the show’s brevity happens to be one of its best qualities. It has some funny moments, as well as some biblically inspired ponderings about life and death, but it doesn’t hang together well enough to support a longer running time.

You want my best guess? I think Green meant it as a Christian metaphor, but that doesn’t explain everything.

Of course, one advantage of the show’s brevity is that you’ll have plenty of time to head to a bar or coffee shop afterward and look for your own meaning. And even if you don’t find any, at least you can bask in the memory of witnessing two familiar actors doing very unfamiliar things.

Clowntime Is Over runs through Sept. 5 at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes. Tickets are $15, $13 students/seniors, $10 members. 614-221-5418 or madlab.net.

I knew Will Shakespeare, and Mr. Moliere, you’re no Will Shakespeare

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Appearing in Actors’ Theatre’s production of The Miser are (from left) Danny Turek as Cleante, Ted Amore as Harpagon and Elizabeth Harelik as Elise (photo by Nick Pershing)

Appearing in Actors’ Theatre’s production of The Miser are (from left) Danny Turek as Cleante, Ted Amore as Harpagon and Elizabeth Harelik as Elise (photo by Nick Pershing)

By Richard Ades

Actors’ Theatre has gone through quite an evolution.

Shakespeare in the park has always been the troupe’s bread and butter, but recent years have seen the Bard’s stage time reduced. In his place, Actors’ has tried to attract families with swashbuckling adventures, some of them written especially for Schiller Park. Vintage comedies by other playwrights, such as the current production of Moliere’s The Miser, have also been tried.

It’s been an interesting experiment, and no doubt it’s paid off in some ways. For one, the kids who enjoy plays such as Treasure Island (2010) or Robin Hood (2012) may well return to the park when they’re older to watch more-challenging works.

But where does that leave those of us who already enjoy more-challenging works, especially those written by one William Shakespeare? We’ve had to get by with a single helping of the Bard per summer.

Adding insult to injury, that single helping is sometimes delivered in a high-concept production that overwhelms the original tale. This summer saw an unconvincing attempt to turn Richard III into an American gangster saga. And in 2013, the charming Twelfth Night was raucously updated to the 1980s, complete with pop-culture references to Miami Vice and Ghost Busters.

It’s almost as if Actors’ Theatre has decided it can’t sell Shakespeare without a gimmick.

But Shakespeare still works just fine on its own, as last year’s outstanding production of Hamlet proved. Sure, it had a gimmick of sorts, in the form of the untraditional casting of a teenage girl (Grace Bolander) in the title role. But the real “gimmick” was talent: Under the co-direction of Nick Baldasare and the late John S. Kuhn, every member of the cast found depths of nuanced meaning in each and every line.

That’s not to say there’s no value in giving stage time to other playwrights. It was certainly educational seeing the current production of The Miser. Namely, it taught me that Moliere is no Shakespeare.

To be fair, I might appreciate Moliere’s satire more if I could enjoy it in its original French. In Miles Malleson’s English adaption, unfortunately, it often comes off as heavy-handed and predictable.

Compounding the problem, some of the scenes are delivered in an exaggerated farcical style that underlines the comedy’s heavy-handedness. Especially guilty of this approach are Ted Amore as the stingy Harpagon and Danny Turek as his lovelorn son, though both are otherwise impressive.

Working under Pamela Hill’s brisk direction, most of the cast members are more restrained. They include Andy Falter as the brown-nosing Valere, David Harewood as the devious LaFleche and Michael Neff as the eager-to-please Master Jacques, along with all of the major female players: Elizabeth Harelik as Harpagon’s daughter, MB Griffith as matchmaker Frosine and Lexi Bright as a young woman caught in a romantic bind.

The show also benefits from Trent Bean’s colorful set, Emily Jeu’s imaginative costumes and sparkling clear sound designed by William Bragg and engineered by Catherine Rinella.

Yet, despite all of these strengths, the production is truly funny in only one scene toward the end, when a trio of actors offer deadpan deliveries of monologues accompanied by equally deadpan background music. Otherwise, the show is merely pleasant.

Pleasant entertainment is better than none at all, but I’d rather be challenged, touched and transported, as I am by a good production of Shakespeare. How about it, Actors’ Theatre? Is it time to return the Bard to top billing?

Actors’ Theatre will present The Miser through Sept. 6 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (including intermission). Tickets: Pay what you will. Bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.

One man’s quest to fly under the gaydar

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Director David Thorpe (center) and friends in Do I Sound Gay?

Director David Thorpe (center) and friends in Do I Sound Gay?

By Richard Ades

David Thorpe likes being gay. He just doesn’t like broadcasting his sexual orientation every time he opens his mouth.

Thorpe’s attempt to avoid that is the subject of his new documentary, Do I Sound Gay?

The flick’s theme is bound to raise questions right off the bat. For starters: Why would an openly gay man want to disguise his gayness, especially in an era when society finally seems to be becoming more open-minded about homosexuality?

Thorpe has trouble answering this question, noting only that he’s in his 40s, still single and lacks confidence—all of which “might be why I’m obsessed with sounding gay,” the first-time director says.

But if Thorpe has trouble explaining why he wants to get rid of his gay voice, at least he does a good job of explaining what a stereotypical gay voice is. While careful to note that not all gay men sound gay—and, conversely, not all men who sound gay really are gay—he has a speech therapist lay out its components. They include nasality, high pitch, careful enunciation and a tendency to prolong vowels and “s’s.”

With the therapist’s help, Thorpe works to expunge any such qualities from his speech patterns. At the same time, he talks to friends about their own attitudes toward “sounding gay.”

Also interviewed on the subject are gay celebs such as sex columnist David Savage, Project Runway’s Tim Gunn and Star Trek alum George Takei. Most say it really doesn’t matter what one sounds like, but David Sedaris reveals mixed feelings about his own high-pitched voice. The writer admits that he sometimes worries it will turn off other gay men and the world in general.

Other gay men? The film points out that gay porn invariably features actors with deep, manly voices. Sounding gay is fine in the living room, it suggests, but a no-no in the bedroom. Hmm, maybe we’re getting to the root of Thorpe’s motivation.

The film covers lots of other territory, including the long history of stereotypically gay characters in Hollywood movies.

In one of the more serious segments, it also acknowledges that sounding and acting gay can be dangerous, even in our supposedly enlightened era. The proof is Zach, a flamboyant teen who proudly labels himself a diva but is secretly traumatized by the backlash he receives from classmates.

Thorpe is familiar with such backlash, recalling that, as a youngster, he toned down his own flamboyant tendencies to avoid being bullied by classmates. It wasn’t until much later, he learns from a cousin, that he reclaimed his gay mannerisms.

Given the director’s closeness to the topic, it’s not surprising that Do I Sound Gay falls short of being a great documentary. After more or less stumbling into the controversial subject and attacking it from every possible angle, Thorpe walks a tightrope at the end, trying to wrap things up in a way that placates anyone he might have offended.

Even so, give him credit for tackling the prickly topic in the first place and for examining it in a way that’s entertaining and sometimes even enlightening.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Do I Sound Gay? (unrated) opened Aug. 7 at the Gateway Film Center, 1550 N. High St. For information, visit gatewayfilmcenter.org.

Beware of ex-classmates bearing fish

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Joel Edgerton, Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall (from left) in The Gift (photo by Matt Kennedy/STX Productions LLC)

Joel Edgerton, Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall (from left) in The Gift (photo by Matt Kennedy/STX Productions LLC)

By Richard Ades

Joel Edgerton is determined to set our nerves on edge with The Gift, and he succeeds pretty well. The writer/director/co-star knows just how to push the audience’s collective buttons.

The tale revolves around Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall), who no sooner move into their new California home than they run into one of the husband’s old classmates: Gordo. Thanks to Edgerton’s subtly creepy portrayal, we instantly distrust this guy—to the extent that our stomachs tighten a little when Gordo overhears the couple’s new address.

Sure enough, he’s soon showing up unannounced, invariably when Robyn is home alone. Annoyed, Simon recalls that Gordo was always a “weirdo” and suggests that he has the hots for the pretty Robyn. She, on the other hand, thinks he’s just trying to be helpful.

Robyn, as we eventually learn, is not an accomplished judge of character.

As Gordo’s behavior grows more and more erratic, director Edgerton builds tension by supplying a series of shocks constructed in the time-honored fashion: He primes us with scenes of quiet dread followed by a sudden sight or sound. These are fun, especially when experienced with a vulnerable audience.

But Edgerton’s goal ultimately extends beyond eliciting Pavlovian responses. We learn that Simon has more history with Gordo than he’s willing to admit. It’s an ugly history that Simon would like to forget and that Gordo is unable to let go.

Frankly, there’s a bit of a disconnect between the early scenes, with their stock shocks, and the third act, with its unexpected complexity. That’s one of the few signs that this first-time director has more to learn.

A bigger disappointment is that the tale’s female lead is less interesting than her male counterparts.

Edgerton’s Gordo, as stated, is wonderfully creepy, while Bateman’s Simon has a tendency toward ruthlessness that becomes increasingly obvious as the story unfolds. As for Hall’s Robyn, we never quite get a handle on her.

We know she’s an accomplished interior designer, mostly because her husband tells us she is. We also know she has a history of pregnancy-related trauma and addiction. But she mainly comes across as simply a woman in danger—more of a plot device than a flesh-and-blood character.

Hall makes her watchable, but Edgerton’s script fails to make her knowable. The result: Even though The Gift continually scares us and surprises us, it never quite moves us.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

The Gift, rated R, opens Friday (Aug. 7) at theaters nationwide.

Schumer leaves her mark on raunchy rom-com

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Bill Hader and Amy Schumer in Trainwreck (Universal Pictures)

Bill Hader and Amy Schumer in Trainwreck (Universal Pictures)

By Richard Ades

We knew Amy Schumer was funny. Likewise, SNL alum Bill Hader.

But who knew LeBron James could slam-dunk a joke almost as easily as he does a basketball? That’s just one of the revelations crammed into Trainwreck, a raunchy rom-com that’s awash in hilarious surprises.

Written by and starring Schumer and directed by Judd Apatow (Bridesmaids), Trainwreck is tailor-made for the current queen of provocative comedy. Schumer even plays a New Yorker named Amy who, like her stage persona, indulges in a life of bed-hopping abandon.

That is, she does until she meets Aaron Conner (Hader), a sports physician who volunteers for Doctors Without Borders when he’s not keeping James and other athletes in competition-worthy shape. Assigned to interview Aaron for the aggressively hip magazine that employs her, Amy soon finds herself questioning the prejudice against monogamy that she learned from her cynical father (Colin Quinn).

Incidentally, the scene in which Dad imparts that advice to an adolescent Amy and her little sister is the first of the flick’s hilarious surprises. But since comedy is always better when it catches you unawares, I’ll say nothing more about that moment except to advise you to get to the theater on time.

Throughout the movie, Schumer is a delight, whether Amy is having her way with a one-night stand or trying to convince Aaron she really does know something about sports. Schumer even handles the rare detours into pathos with aplomb. Maybe she’s not quite as versatile as Bridesmaids star Kristen Wiig, but she’s no one-trick pony, either.

Even more surprising is screenwriter Schumer’s ability to make the most out of the film’s innumerable supporting players, including prominent sports figures.

Appearing as himself, James generates laughs whether he’s arguing over a check or talking up the hometown that welcomed him back after his sojourn in Miami. Fellow NBA star Amar’e Stoudemire also is effective, playing himself during one of his bouts with knee injuries.

Funniest of all is the WWE’s John Cena, who plays the pre-Aaron Amy’s closest thing to a steady guy. A particularly funny bedroom scene even finds a way to utilize Cena’s fluency in Mandarin Chinese.

Non-sports-related players include familiar Saturday Night Live faces such as alum Quinn and current cast member Vanessa Bayer. Also prominent are Tilda Swinton as Amy’s blithely nasty boss and Brie Larson as her happily married sister.

Is there anything wrong with Trainwreck? Well, some of the transitions seem a bit abrupt, if you want to be picky. I also could have done without the “homage” to Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Not only does it remind us of an even better film (never a good idea), but it includes a humorless dig at Allen himself.

A more welcome detour consists of scenes from a fictitious avant-garde movie about a dog walker played by Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe. Trainwreck is so full of such throwaway moments that it’s one of the few flicks that would benefit from a second viewing, just so you can catch the subtle jokes you missed the first time.

In recent weeks, Schumer has been criticized for making supposedly misguided jokes about racial and ethnic matters. After initially explaining that the comments were made in the guise of the clueless chick she used to play in standup routines, she vowed to do better.

Let’s hope Schumer doesn’t censor herself too much. Her first big-screen vehicle demonstrates that we’re all the winners when Amy is free to be Amy.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Trainwreck, rated R, opens Friday (July 16) at theaters nationwide.

Are you now or have you ever been a homosexual?

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Donnie Lockwood, Brent Alan Burington, Adam Latek, Mark P. Schwamberger and David Vargo (from left) in The Temperamentals (Evolution Theatre Company photo)

Donnie Lockwood, Brent Alan Burington, Adam Latek, Mark P. Schwamberger and David Vargo (from left) in The Temperamentals (Evolution Theatre Company photo)

By Richard Ades

If you’re like most people, you think America’s gay rights movement began with New York’s 1969 Stonewall rebellion.

Well, it did and it didn’t. The uprising was a prime catalyst, but a few brave souls were already fighting anti-gay discrimination nearly two decades earlier. Their efforts are the subject of Jon Marans’s The Temperamentals.

The play is set in Los Angeles in the early 1950s, a red-baiting era when homosexuals are treated with as much suspicion as communists. And it so happens that the main protagonists, Harry Hay (Brent Alan Burington) and Rudi Gernreich (Adam Greenbaum Latek), are both.

Though outwardly more conservative than Rudi, Harry is the one who seems determined to challenge the status quo.

Taking advantage of costume designer Rudi’s connections, he approaches Hollywood bigwigs such as Vincente Minnelli (David Allen Vargo) and asks them to sign a manifesto he’s drawn up on the rights of “temperamentals” (the euphemistic 1950s term for homosexuals). Not surprisingly, Minnelli and others are afraid to have anything to do with the document.

Eventually, Harry and Rudi do gather a tiny group of like-minded men and found the Mattachine Society, an organization devoted to the cause of equality. However, they accomplish little until Dale (Donnie Lockwood) is arrested on the trumped-up charge of soliciting sex from an undercover cop.

Such ruses are common in these pre-enlightened times, as gay men are so desperate to keep their sexual identity a secret that they willingly pay a hefty fine to make the charge go away. But when Dale says he can’t afford to take that route, Harry suggests a bold alternative: Admit his homosexuality while declaring his innocence. Members of the jury will be so impressed by his brave honesty, Harry reasons, that they’ll have to believe him.

In a perfect world, such a courageous act would inspire more courageous acts, all of which would lead to the kind of acceptance the Mattachine Society was seeking. But our world isn’t perfect, and it was even less so in the 1950s. Thus, The Temperamentals is the story of a movement that proves to be ahead of its time.

Because it remains true to history, with its mix of triumphs and disappointments, the play lacks an overall dramatic arc. But it makes up for it by documenting the huge barriers early gay activists faced. And not all the barriers were external; a big first step was learning how to communicate with each other about their shared heartaches and frustrations.

Director Douglas Whaley helps us understand these struggles by drawing relatable performances out of his cast. Burington anchors the production as the abrasive, impatient Hay, while Latek offers contrast as the more diplomatic Rudi. Besides Lockwood’s Dale, other founding members of the Mattachine Society are Chuck (Vargo) and Bob (Mark Phillips Schwamberger).

In addition to their central roles, all of the actors except for Burington play multiple supporting roles, both men and women. For the most part, they rise to the multitasking occasion.

Like Evolution Theatre Company’s spring production of Yank! The Musical, The Temperamentals is an imperfect but engrossing work that offers insights into gay life in the mid-20th century. That makes it invaluable.

Evolution Theatre Company will present The Temperamentals through July 18 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20, $15 students/seniors. 1-800-838-3006 or evolutiontheatre.org.

Will Richard III get into a turf battle with Tony Soprano?

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Geoff Wilson (center) plays the conniving title character in Actors’ Theatre’s updated production of Richard III (Actors’ Theatre photo)

Geoff Wilson (center) plays the conniving title character in Actors’ Theatre’s updated production of Richard III (Actors’ Theatre photo)

By Richard Ades

When I heard Actors’ Theatre was going to turn Richard III into a 1950s American crime saga, my first thought was: How are they going to explain the title character’s best-known line: “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”

Are they going to pretend that 20th-century mobsters have traded their Cadillacs and Lincolns in for four-legged transportation?

As it turns out, the relocated Shakespearean drama runs into problems long before Richard utters the iconic lament. Thankfully, good acting helps to salvage the production, but not before viewers have spent much of the proceedings scratching their heads.

At first glance, it’s easy to see why director Jennifer Feather Youngblood decided to recast Richard and his followers as mobsters. In his attempt to satisfy his lust for power, he’s as ruthless and violent as any Mafia capo.

Unfortunately for Feather Youngblood and her cast, Shakespeare refuses to cooperate. His script is clearly about someone aspiring to be England’s king, not the head of some crime syndicate. The tale is so immersed in British history and geography that you quickly forget it’s been relocated to 20th-century America. It simply comes across as Shakespeare that’s being performed in relatively modern dress.

To make matters worse, viewers apparently aren’t the only ones who don’t buy the hop across the pond. Most of the cast doesn’t, either. Though a few of the smaller roles are played with Jersey accents, Geoff Wilson’s Richard and most of his cohorts and victims speak in standard Shakespearean English.

Complementing the inconsistent accents is the production’s inconsistent tone. Most of the play’s many murders are handled with appropriate solemnity, but one is as darkly comedic as if it had been directed by Quentin Tarantino.

Most inconsistent—and jarring—of all is the recorded music that accompanies each scene change. It seems to have little to do with what’s happening around it.

For example, after Richard sends a pair of assassins to dispatch his trusting brother Clarence (David Ailing), the air is suddenly filled with the strains of Jerry Lee Lewis’s Great Balls of Fire. If you’re like me, this will leave you with two responses: (1) “Oh, that’s right, this is supposed to be 1950s America” and (2) “Huh?” It’s hard to fathom why the rockabilly hit is being used to introduce an act of outright villainy.

One gets the feeling that Feather Youngblood envisioned an interpretation of Richard III that was much more sardonic—and, obviously, more American—than it ended up being. The result is that it comes across as a production with multiple, clashing personalities.

As I said, good acting helps to make the show entertaining despite its problems, particularly in Act 2. As for Act 1, I should mention that I didn’t see it at its best, as the performance I saw was plagued with annoying sound problems prior to intermission. But the script itself is also a problem early on: Shakespeare bombards us with so many historical characters and intrigues that we struggle to keep them all straight.

By Act 2, thanks to Richard’s murderous machinations, many of these characters have disappeared. This leaves us free to enjoy the rousing arguments and battles of those who remain.

Throughout, Wilson’s Richard is a powerhouse, exuding evil from every pore of his twisted frame. The rest of the cast also is consistently strong, even though it speaks with inconsistent accents.

Three actors are particularly notable as a trio of wronged women: Vicky Welsh Bragg as former Queen Margaret, Beth Josephsen as current Queen Elizabeth and Christina Yoho as Lady Anne. Male characters who stand out from the crowd include Ailing’s Clarence, Alexander Chilton’s Buckingham, Philip J. Hickman’s King Edward IV and Robert Philpott’s heroic Richmond. In a prominent smaller role, Jason Speicher is memorable as the goon-like Ratcliffe.

Maybe it’s because I share his name, but I have to point out that not everyone believes the actual Richard III was as evil as the Bard portrays him. Nevertheless, he makes a great villain. Even though you almost need a degree in English history to understand his world—and even though Actors’ Theatre further complicates matters by pretending he’s an American gangster—it’s fun to watch him connive his way to the throne.

Especially since you know he’ll eventually have that problem with the horse.

Actors’ Theatre of Columbus will present Richard III through Aug. 2 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets: pay what you will (donations accepted at intermission). Bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.

[title of review]

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Annie Huckaba, Bradley Johnson, Elisabeth Zimmerman and Jonathan Collura (clockwise from front) star in CATCO’s production of [title of show]

Annie Huckaba, Bradley Johnson, Elisabeth Zimmerman and Jonathan Collura (clockwise from front) star in CATCO’s production of [title of show]

By Richard Ades

I arrive at the Riffe Center’s Studio Three and prepare to watch CATCO’s cabaret-style production of [title of show]. The intimate room is a pleasant place to watch theater, but I have my doubts about whether I should be watching this particular piece of theater.

My trepidation stems from what I’ve heard about Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell’s offbeat musical, which first appeared in 2004, had an off-Broadway run in 2006 and finally turned up on Broadway for about three months in 2008. What I’ve heard is that the show is loaded with inside jokes and references that only gay, theater-obsessed New Yorkers can fully appreciate.

As the show begins, my fears seem justified. Some jokes fly right by me, while others just don’t seem that funny. Several audience members seem equally mystified—indeed, I can see one woman across the room who doesn’t crack a smile for the entire two hours and 10 minutes.

However, a small group of viewers makes up for this by laughing at nearly everything the cast does. Looking around, I realize that most of the laughs are coming from four men sitting in a tight circle. To be sure, many viewers chuckle or at least smile at various jokes, but this quartet supplies the bulk of the audience response.

So what is this show that appeals—intentionally, as it turns out—to such a select audience? It’s basically a musical about putting on a musical. Composer/lyricist Bowen and book writer Bell wanted to enter a show in an upcoming theater festival, and since they didn’t have any ideas, they decided to make the show its own subject.

A bit self-indulgent, don’t you think? Like the theatrical equivalent of a taking a selfie? Yes, and some of the early humor acknowledges that fact by focusing on the creators’ superficiality. In particular, the show’s version of Hunter is loath to begin a new project because he’s too involved in watching TV’s The Bachelor and Project Runway.

If the musical has any depth and universal meaning, it involves the participants’ desire to do something that would finally allow them to make theater the center of their existences. The self-doubt that prevents all of us from taking necessary chances in life is lampooned in one of the better songs, Die, Vampire, Die.

Back to Studio Three: As I watch the musical unfold under Joe Bishara’s direction, I admire both the cast’s singing and the keyboard work of accompanist Quinton Jones. But I also think the actors are portraying their characters with mixed success. That’s especially true of two female friends who join Jeff and Hunter’s project.

Elisabeth Zimmerman—who played one of my favorite characters in CATCO’s wonderful 2013 production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee—is entertaining as Heidi, to the extent that the thinly written role allows her to be. However, Annie Huckaba never quite gels as Susan, instead coming off as a caricature of playful quirkiness.

As for the men, Bradley Johnson is tastefully flamboyant as Hunter, while Jonathan Collura balances him out nicely as the more down-to-earth Jeff. It’s only in the later stages of the play that I begin to think Collura’s Jeff should have shown more passion for their shared project from the beginning. Maybe then the argument that arises late in Act 2 would be more convincing.

Truthfully, though, it’s unfair to blame the actors for anything that happens in Act 2.

The act didn’t even exist when the musical first opened, having been written to explain how the show and its creators changed as it moved to off-Broadway and finally to Broadway itself. Watching the second act in Studio Three, I quickly decide that adding it was a mistake.

And I’m not alone, judging from the audience’s reaction. Even the four biggest laughers are noticeably quiet as Jeff, Hunter, Susan and Heidi argue endlessly about whether they’ll ever get the show to Broadway and whether all of them will still be on board if and when it gets there.

Finally, Hunter suggests it’s time to bring the elongated show to an end, noting, “We can’t keep adding everything that happens to us.” It’s a brilliant insight, though it’s hard not to wish it had occurred to him about half an hour earlier.

Then again, I’m hardly in a position to throw that particular stone. It’s now been days since I saw the show, and I can’t find a way to finish this review, which already has dragged on for way too long.

Should I mention that, while watching the show, I kept thinking Zimmerman was playing Susan because she reminded me so much of the short-lived Seinfeld character of the same name? No, chances are no one else will make the connection, and really, who cares?

I guess I should just finish by addressing the all-important question: Will you enjoy the show? Maybe, maybe not. The creators themselves admit it won’t appeal to everyone, declaring in the finale that they’d rather be “nine people’s favorite thing than 100 people’s ninth-favorite thing.”

It should be obvious by now that [title of show] isn’t my favorite thing, my ninth-favorite thing or even my 90th-favorite thing. But who knows? Maybe it will be your favorite thing—at least until the second act.

CATCO is presenting an open-ended run of [title of show] in Studio Three of the Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $35, $180 for a reserved table of four; a limited number of $15 student tickets will be available two hours before curtain. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.

Funk Daddy Love shares bill with spirit of Janis Joplin

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Two gay fathers (Tom Cardinal, left, and Jimmy Mak) suspect their daughter (Nikki Fagin) of being a closet Republican in Elephant in the Room, one of the skits featured in Best of Shadowbox (Studio 66 photo)

Two gay fathers (Tom Cardinal, left, and Jimmy Mak) suspect their daughter (Nikki Fagin) of being a closet Republican in Elephant in the Room, one of the skits featured in Best of Shadowbox (Studio 66 photo)

By Richard Ades

The annual Best of Shadowbox show basically amounts to summer reruns, consisting of selected songs and skits from previous shows. As a result, it isn’t always something I look forward to.

But this year’s version was different. So much of the material was awesome the first time around that I couldn’t wait to see it again.

Last Friday, I finally got the chance. It turned out to be just as good as I expected.

Lots of people deserve credit for the show’s success, but let’s start by acknowledging the contributions of Brandon Anderson. Not only does he bookend the first act by handling lead vocals on two of the most entertaining songs—Mama Told Me Not to Come and Bruno Mars’s catchy Uptown Funk—but he portrays the central character in the funniest Shadowbox skit in recent memory.

In Funk Daddy Love, Anderson plays a soul singer who’s on trial for the “crime” of being too sexy. As one witness after another explains how his crooning has affected them, Love repeatedly pulls out a microphone and launches into his unbelievably raunchy ballads.

Anderson is great in the role, but it’s all the little touches that really sell the comedy: the nightclub-style lighting that accompanies his warbling, Katy Psenicka’s turn as the uptight prosecutor, Robbie Nance’s portrayal of the awkward defense attorney, Tom Cardinal’s high-pitched attempts to keep order as the judge. In this and every other featured skit, directors Stev Guyer and Julie Klein make sure everything is honed to perfection.

Other welcome returnees include:

Life Duet: The night’s most romantic skit stars Jimmy Mak and Nikki Fagin as a couple whose decades-long relationship is defined by the songs they listen to on the radio.

Sneak a Peek—Dirty Movies: The best episode yet of the faux movie-review series finds hosts Klein and David Whitehouse sampling adult-rated flicks such as Saving Ryan’s Privates and the badly dubbed Samurai Frog Proctologist. The running joke is that the horny heroine inevitably has an equally horny sister who shows up at an opportune moment.

The Friend Zone: The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling (Nance) narrates the horrifying tale of a hapless guy (Mak) who can’t get to first base because his favorite girl (Fagin) doesn’t even know he’s suited up and ready to play.

Holy Hell: A parishioner (Gabriel Guyer) goes to his priest (Cardinal) to confess a night of debauchery. The piece would be even funnier if the priest’s insistence on details weren’t so unlikely, but it deserves recognition as Shadowbox’s most explicitly sexual skit of all time.

Of the comedy bits I missed the first time around, my favorite is Gymnauseum, in which a substitute gym teacher (Whitehouse) is shocked to learn that dodgeball is considered too taxing for today’s mollycoddled students. Also appealing—at least, up until the weak ending—is Elephant in the Room. It’s about what happens when two gay fathers (Cardinal and a particularly funny Mak) are shocked to learn their daughter (Fagin) may be a closet Republican.

In honor of its 25th anniversary, Shadowbox is bringing back highlights from the troupe’s early years. In this show, the highlight is Steven Lynch’s Lullaby, a song last heard in 2006 at the now-defunct 2Co’s Cabaret. Cardinal again favors the piece with his sweet voice, setting the audience up for a humorous jolt when the lyrics take an unexpected turn.

Other musical selections of note include the two that bookend the second act: Portishead’s All Mine, sung by Stephanie Shull and accompanied by suitably spooky dancing featuring Nance, Fagin and Psenicka; and Queen’s Somebody to Love, harmonized by a gospel-like choir. Sandwiched between these two is the most notable number of all: Klein’s fervent re-creation of Janis Joplin’s Ball and Chain, complete with an extended a cappella section.

As if the show’s live entertainment weren’t enough, it’s punctuated by a collection of often-clever videos. The best is the last: Stev Guyer’s interview with the Columbus Zoo’s Jungle Jack Hanna. Hanna is such a treasure trove of unpredictable drollness that he inspires laughs without even trying.

Presumably, Shadowbox’s regular performers have to work at being as funny and tuneful as they are. Luckily for us, they made the effort.

Best of Shadowbox continues through Aug. 22 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday ( no shows July 3-4). Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

WWII musical is traditional in every way but one

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The cast of Yank! The Musical (photo by Jerri Shafer)

The cast of Yank! The Musical (photo by Jerri Shafer)

By Richard Ades

Wartime romance is complicated. When it’s depicted on the stage, it’s also, often, tuneful.

Think South Pacific. Or The Sound of Music. Or Yank! The Musical.

The last may be less well-known than the other two, but it focuses on a type of romance that’s seldom addressed in mainstream entertainment: the same-sex kind.

With a book and lyrics by David Zellnik and music by Joseph Zellnik, it follows the adventures of Stu, a young man who joins the Army during World War II. Stu tries his best to fit in with the ragtag group of guys he trains with, but he can’t help noticing that he stands out. One clue is that he doesn’t share the others’ lascivious fascination with pinup photos of Betty Grable.

The other soldiers seem to sense Stu’s nonconforming nature and kid him mercilessly—or they would if a nice guy named Mitch didn’t stop them. Stu is grateful, but it turns out his feelings for Mitch go far beyond that. One night, when the squad is finally on its way to the war, he acts on those feelings, setting off on a dangerous sequence of events.

Beyond its gay theme, Yank! The Musical is pretty traditional. Stu and Mitch’s squad is geographically and ethnically diverse, just like squads always are in wartime fiction. The songs are pleasant but unmemorable, sounding much like any number of vintage romantic ballads.

Somehow, though, none of this matters. To the contrary, it seems fitting that a gay love story is treated much like its “straight” predecessors. It underscores the fact that gay Americans were fighting for their country right along with the heterosexuals usually depicted in wartime musicals.

Evolution Theatre’s production tells Stu’s story well, thanks to Jimmy Bohr’s beautiful direction and cast of actors who act and sing with equal skill.

Nick Hardin is conflicted but courageous as Stu; William Macke is kind but even more conflicted as Mitch. Other major players include choreographer Brent Fabian as Artie Goldberg and Jesika Siler Lehner as a bevy of show-biz crooners and assorted other women.

Though the musical tackles the serious issue of discrimination against gay soldiers, it doesn’t always do it in a serious way. Particularly funny is the trio of steno-pool workers (Jeb Bigelow, Doug Joseph and Scott Clay) who express their otherness by taking on the characters of Southern belles from Gone With the Wind. Add the lighthearted songs and dance numbers, and you have a show that’s far more pleasant than you’d expect.

Shane Cinal’s scenic design is simple, leaning heavily on patriotic colors, and is bolstered by Nitz (Curtis) Brown’s dramatic lighting. Jason Guthrie’s costumes are similarly simple but place the action in the proper era.

Led by Michael L. Medvidik, the onstage band plays with spirit, even if it hits the occasional sour note. The vocal harmonizing also has its pitchy moments, though the singers do fine when they’re on their own.

A final caveat is that the musical goes on longer that it really needs to, thanks to extraneous numbers like the silly Your Squad Is Your Squad. But the story is so overdue, and it’s told in such a good-natured manner, that you probably won’t mind at all.

Evolution Theatre Company will present Yank! The Musical through June 6 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 students/seniors. 1-800-838-3006 or evolutiontheatre.org.

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