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.

Roommate comedy launches assault on fourth wall

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Featured in The Playdaters are (from left) MaryBeth Griffith as Stephanie, Audrey Rush as Erma, Josh Kessler as Erwin and Chad Hewitt as Spencer (photo by Andy Batt)

Featured in The Playdaters are (from left) MaryBeth Griffith as Stephanie, Audrey Rush as Erma, Josh Kessler as Erwin and Chad Hewitt as Spencer (photo by Andy Batt)

By Richard Ades

Remember the big restaurant scene from When Harry Met Sally? I thought of it after attending Thursday’s preview performance of The Playdaters.

Specifically, I thought of the comment a stranger makes to her waiter after witnessing Sally’s simulated orgasm: “I’ll have what she’s having.” In my case, the line would have been “I’ll have what they’re having.”

It wasn’t so strange that the MadLab viewers laughed early and often. That’s not unusual for a first-night audience, often made up of friends of the cast who are eager to be supportive.

What set these folks apart was that they started laughing before the play even began. When the pre-curtain soundtrack included a naughty Garfunkel and Oates song about hand jobs, they burst into prolonged hysterics. They then remained in stitches for much of the play’s hour-long running time, and I suspect most of them stayed to laugh all over again when MadLab presented a second performance with a juggled cast.

Written by Neil Haven, The Playdaters is about a pair of roommates who dare each other to set up dates with strangers, then misbehave in bizarre ways when they meet. The roommates generally are portrayed by men, but MadLab is trying an interesting experiment by offering two versions: On Fridays, men play the lead roles while women play their dates; on Saturdays, the genders are switched.

At Thursday’s preview, both versions were staged in succession. Since the female version was presented first (as determined by a coin toss), that’s the one I saw.

OK, the gender switch is a cute idea, but what about the play itself? Is it as hilarious as those first-nighters thought it was? Well, not in its entirety, but director Jim Azelvandre and his cast do deliver lots of funny moments.

In the women-led version, most of them belong to Erma, who’s played by Audrey Rush with the kind of roly-poly physicality that will remind many of Melissa McCarthy. Foul-mouthed and mischievous, Erma throws herself into such first-date shenanigans as pretending to be German or drinking half a bottle of whiskey on the sly.

As Stephanie, Erma’s relatively conservative roommate, MaryBeth Griffith is far more subdued. That’s natural, but Griffith probably could land a few more laughs of her own if she played up the character’s strait-laced tendencies.

As for the men, Chad Hewitt gives a similarly low-key performance as Stephanie’s near-perfect date, but Josh Kessler finds droll humor in the men (and one woman) who are unlucky enough to end up on prank dates with Erma.

It should be noted that The Playdaters is not simply the tale of two fun-loving gagsters. Haven also throws a couple of complications into the mix.

The first concerns the relationship between the roommates, which seems to be in flux. Erma loves it and wants it to stay the same forever, and she reacts with jealousy when it becomes clear that Stephanie wants to progress from gag dates to the real thing. If you see the show’s male version, you’ll probably be reminded of movie bromances such as Superbad or 22 Jump Street.

The second complication—and the one that makes things a bit too messy for my taste—involves the characters’ tendency to break through the “fourth wall.” Erma and Stephanie constantly stop the action in order to explain things to the audience or to bicker about how the plot is proceeding. Toward the end, Erma goes so far as to accuse Stephanie of getting herself caught up in a typical romantic comedy.

Maybe Haven felt his play needed something to distinguish itself from the average rom-com, bromance or bramance. Maybe that’s why he added all the fourth-wall busting and winking self-awareness.

If you’re like me and have a low tolerance for this kind of gimmicky, you’ll wish he hadn’t imposed it on what is otherwise an agreeable comedy. But if you’re like that preview audience, you won’t mind at all.

The Playdaters continues through Sept. 13 at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Running time: 1 hour. Tickets are $12, $10 for students and seniors, $8 for members. 614-221-5418 or madlab.net.

 

Latest ‘Burlesque’ show has a biographical spin

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Amy Lay, Leah Haviland and Nikki Fagin put their best foot forward in Burlesque Biographie (photo by Will Shively)

Amy Lay, Leah Haviland and Nikki Fagin put their best foot forward in Burlesque Biographie (photo by Will Shively)

By Richard Ades

Semi-nudity and seminal comedy are once again on tap at Shadowbox Live.

Burlesque Biographie reunites us with a fictitious troupe that specializes in vaudeville-style skits and erotic dancing. It’s our third visit with the company, following Burlesque de la Voyage (2012) and Burlesque Behind the Curtain (2013).

Is the new show fun? Yes, though not quite as much fun as its immediate predecessor.

Burlesque Biographie is so-named because the entire show is built around a biographical interview with troupe leader Bea (Julie Klein), whose stage name is Busty. While reporter Kimberly (Michelle Daniels) quizzes Busty about her past—including a life-altering trip to Paris in her youth—flashbacks reveal early routines that helped to shape her career.

The good thing about this format is that it gives the players plenty of opportunities to be funny and/or sexy. The bad thing is that the interview proves to be a rather tedious framing device.

Busty is normally fun to be around, being just as raunchy and foul-mouthed offstage as she is on. Here, though, she seems to be in an uncharacteristically mellow mood, even remaining unfazed when a distraught troupe member locks himself in the closet just minutes before the next performance. As a result, much of the French-named show proceeds at an escargot’s pace.

The show does redeem itself during those flashbacks, however.

The comedy bits are pretty funny, though two of the most prominent suffer from over-exposure. Amy Lay does a great job of impersonating Madeline Kahn singing I’m Tired from Blazing Saddles; and Brandon Anderson, David Whitehouse and Jim Andes are decent stand-ins for the Three Stooges in the vaudeville routine “Slowly I Turned.” Still, both bits are likely to be funniest to those who haven’t seen them multiple times.

The show fares best in the sexy song-and-dance numbers, where over-exposure is hardly a drawback. Good singing and Katy Psenicka’s playfully sensual choreography combine with risqué costumes to create several memorable moments.

Klein gets things off to a sultry start with Whatever Lola Wants. Other Act 1 musical highlights include Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, featuring Andrews Sisters-style harmonies, and Hit ’Em Up Style, in which a humorously awkward male striptease is accompanied by singers Noelle Grandison, Stacie Boord, Nikki Fagin and Leah Haviland.

Haviland, by the way, is convincing as a younger version of Busty, whom she plays in flashback scenes.

Act 2’s musical highpoints include Come On-a My House, with lead vocals by Brandon Anderson; Bang Bang, sung by Haviland; and the show-closing Zoot Suit Riot, delivered by Stev Guyer. But for sheer, colorful spectacle, the winner is The Mating Game, sung by Amy Lay and featuring a bevy of dancers in pasties and exotic headdresses.

As is the norm at Shadowbox, the musicians provide first-rate accompaniment. Considering what’s going on in front of them, they also display amazing powers of concentration.

Burlesque Biographie continues through Oct. 30 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. select Wednesdays and Thursdays. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 for students, seniors and military. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Love triangle turns deadly in offbeat rock musical

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By Richard Ades

Chances are you’ve never seen a musical quite like Murder Ballad. On the other hand, chances are the show’s characters will seem very familiar.

In the first act, young New Yorkers Sara (Kaitlin Descutner) and Tom (Jason Carl Crase) begin a wild affair that appears to be based solely on physical attraction. (Well, maybe alcohol plays a supporting role.)

When they break up two years later, a drunk and lonely Sara bumps into Michael (Nick Cirillo), who is kind, decent, sensitive and, in general, everything Tom is not. They hook up and begin planning a future together.

It’s not hard to predict what will happen next. We know that Sara is attracted to “bad boys.” We know that Michael doesn’t fit that description. We know that Tom is still around—and easy to find, since he tends bar on the Lower East Side. It’s only a matter of time, it would seem, before Sara and Tom reunite.

About the only thing we don’t know is how Murder Ballad will live up to its name. Who gets murdered, and who does the murdering?

The one character who doesn’t seem familiar in Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash’s rock musical is the Narrator (Corinne Davis). Narrators generally are neutral reporters of the action, and that’s the way this Narrator starts out. As time goes on, however, she seems to be increasingly troubled by what she sees—so troubled that at one point she picks up a bottle from Tom’s bar and begins taking deep swigs between songs.

The emotionally involved Narrator is one thing that sets Murder Ballad apart, despite its familiar plot and characters. The staging is another.

Director/production designer Edward Carignan has transformed Short North Stage’s Green Room by installing a high, rectangular “bar top” in the center, with the audience seated around the periphery. The characters often climb onto this elevated platform or other precarious perches, underlining the dangerousness of their situation. Occasionally, they wander among the viewers, making them feel like they’re in the midst of the action.

Since this is a sung-through musical (no spoken dialogue), the songs are designed to tell the story rather than stand alone. Even so, a few have catchy tunes, and all are powerfully delivered by the cast and the four-piece band led by keyboardist Matthew Ebright. The only disappointment is that the lyrics are sometimes hard to pick out on the louder numbers.

Murder Ballad premiered at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Studio at Stage II in late 2012 and reopened in 2013 at an off-Broadway venue. Though the original production reportedly sold out, the off-Broadway version closed after only two months. After seeing Short North Stage’s revival, it’s not hard to guess why. The offbeat production design is striking, but you can’t help wishing the characters were a bit less generic.

Still, it’s fun to see what caught the attention of New York theatergoers a couple of years back. Bravo to Short North Stage for bringing this still-fresh slice of the Big Apple to Columbus.

Short North Stage will present Murder Ballad through Aug. 16 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $30. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

Third time is hardly a charm for Shakespeare’s Falstaff

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Appearing in The Merry Wives of Windsor are (from left): Elizabeth Harelick as Mistress Ford, Adam Simon as Sir John Falstaff and Michelle Weiser as Mistress Page (photo by Nick Pershing)

Appearing in The Merry Wives of Windsor are (from left): Elizabeth Harelick as Mistress Ford, Adam Simon as Sir John Falstaff and Michelle Weiser as Mistress Page (photo by Nick Pershing)

By Richard Ades

Fat and vain, cowardly and conniving, Sir John Falstaff is one of Shakespeare’s greatest comic inventions. But you have to catch him in one of the Bard’s Henry IV plays to see him at his best.

In The Merry Wives of Windsor—which some believe was written because Queen Elizabeth I wanted to see more of the entertaining scamp—he’s simply the butt of the joke. The result is a comedy that’s less fun than it would have been if he were as sly and resourceful as he is in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.

On the Schiller Park stage, director Beth Kattelman and her cast try their hardest to extract laughs from his misadventures, and sometimes they succeed. More often, though, they merely succeed in raising the volume with shouted lines and over-the-top acting.

The plot starts promisingly enough. While staying at an inn in Windsor, Falstaff (Adam Simon) realizes he can no longer afford his hard-partying lifestyle. He quickly comes up with the idea of improving his finances by romancing Mistresses Ford and Page (Elizabeth Harelick and Michelle Weiser), two local married ladies.

Unfortunately for Falstaff, the ladies are close friends who share everything—including the identical love notes he sent them. Insulted, they agree to concoct a romantic trap in order to teach him a lesson.

What happens next should be a delicious case of comeuppance, and it would be if Falstaff weren’t so darn gullible. Instead, he’s such an easy mark that the wives are able to fool him over and over. What starts out amusingly soon becomes predictable and repetitious. And it doesn’t help matters that the mostly admirable Harelick and Weiser go overboard on the faux melodramatics whenever they’re conning the lascivious knight.

An added complication provides a few chuckles. After Falstaff’s disgruntled former servants tell the wives’ husbands what their ex-boss is up to, the jealous Ford (Micah Logsdon) decides to investigate. Introducing himself as a man named Brook, he tells Falstaff he has long lusted after Mistress Ford but can’t persuade her to abandon her marital vows. He invites Falstaff to compromise her integrity in order to make her more open to his advances.

The early scenes between Falstaff and the disguised Ford are nicely handled by Simon and Logsdon, but the latter eventually gives in to the production’s tendency toward over-emoting.

A romantic subplot involves the Pages’ daughter, Anne (a winsome Cecelia Bellomy), who is being courted by a trio of suitors. Here, some characters stand out thanks to inspired comic performances, including the idiotic Slender (Dayton Willison), the extravagantly French Dr. Caius (Daniel Turek) and Caius’s mischievous servant, Mistress Quickly (Jennifer Feather-Youngblood). Meanwhile, Jesse Massarro shows welcome restraint as third suitor Fenton, as does Nick Baldasare as Anne’s father.

Stefan Langer also fares well as Welsh clergyman Sir Hugh Evans. He doesn’t actually display the incoherent accent that others joke about, but it’s hard to blame him for that. Apparently the Welsh accent was pretty heavy in Shakespeare’s time, but nowadays it’s far more subtle.

Thus, the Welsh jokes fall as flat as pretty much everything else in this heavy-handed comedy.

Actors’ Theatre will present The Merry Wives of Windsor through Aug. 31 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Admission is “pay what you will.” Bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.

Keeler-like lass sets out to conquer Broadway

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Ruby (Haley Jones, on floor) shows off her flexibility in Dames at Sea, which also stars (from left) Ian Taylor, Erin Ulman, Jordan Donica, Courtney Dahl and Sam Parker (photo by Andrew Beers)

Ruby (Haley Jones, on floor) shows off her flexibility in Dames at Sea, which also stars (from left) Ian Taylor, Erin Ulman, Jordan Donica, Courtney Dahl and Sam Parker (photo by Andrew Beers)

By Richard Ades

Otterbein is presenting its summer series on the stage of Cowan Hall. That is, both the audience and the actors share the stage, making for an intimate experience.

At first, it seems like an odd setup for Dames at Sea, a takeoff on 1930s movie musicals. You may find yourself wondering why they didn’t use the entire auditorium, as they do with their spring musical productions.

But it turns out the cozy surroundings work just fine for this George Haimsohn/Robin Miller/Jim Wise comedy, which is far more modest in size than the movies it spoofs. Originally opening off-Broadway in 1966, it features only seven major roles—and two of them are played by the same actor.

In Otterbein’s production, Haley Jones stars as Ruby, who’s determined to make her mark on Broadway even though she’s fresh off the bus from Utah. She’s clearly modeled after the kind of talented lass Ruby Keeler played on Depression-era movie screens, and Jones imbues her with the same kind of fresh-faced innocence and spunk. Almost as appealing is Sam Parker’s portrayal of Dick, the sailor who falls in love with Ruby after learning they both hail from the same small town.

The same town? Gee, what are the chances of that? Well, pretty good in this show, which takes none-too-subtle jabs at the amazing coincidences and strokes of luck that propelled Keeler’s heroines to instant fame and romance.

Also playing important roles are Jordan Donica as flop-prone director Hennesey, Erin Ulman as spoiled diva Mona Kent, Courtney Dahl as sarcastic hoofer Joan and Ian Taylor as Joan’s sailor-boyfriend, Lucky. In Act 2, Donica does double duty as the Captain, whose battleship is commandeered by Hennesey and his cast after their theater becomes unavailable.

Supporting roles are played by Anthony Cason, Emily Vanni, Jeff Gise and—upstaging all the rest—Tux. This pooch, who plays Mona’s lapdog, is the biggest, calmest Pomeranian you’ve ever seen.

In a show this campy, it’s a good idea not to camp up the performances, which amounts to overkill. Working under Doreen Dunn’s spirited direction, most of the cast members manage to avoid this most of the time. The biggest exception is Ulman, who makes Mona a caricature of diva-hood.

On the other hand, Ulman sings and tap-dances well, as she proves in the first musical number, Wall Street. Other cast members also get ample opportunities to show off their fine pipes and moves, with strong help from Molly Sullivan’s choreography and Dennis Davenport and Lori Kay Harvey’s keyboard accompaniment. Fittingly, no one gets more opportunities than Jones, who is especially impressive on her two ballads, The Sailor of My Dreams and Raining in My Heart.

Rob Johnson’s scenery is nearly nonexistent in Act 1, set on a largely bare stage, but the Captain’s Navy ship is amusingly depicted in Act 2.

Plot-wise, Dames at Sea is little more than a string of self-consciously absurd developments. Music-wise, it’s marked by tunes that are pleasant but mostly unmemorable. It’s a slight pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless.

Otterbein Summer Theatre will present Dames at Sea at 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday (July 23-26), plus 2 p.m. Friday, in Cowan Hall, 30 S. Grove St., Westerville. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25. 614-823-1109 or www.otterbein.edu/drama.

‘Sex Tape’ is a case of comedius interruptus

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Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel in Sex Tape

Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel in Sex Tape

By Richard Ades

Sex Tape actually isn’t terrible until they decide to do it doggie-style. Comedy, I mean.

It all starts promisingly enough. Like many longtime couples, Jay and Annie (Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz) have seen their sex life whittled away by familiarity and the demands of parenthood.

The solution they come up with is to record their lovemaking on Jay’s iPad. The resulting three-hour marathon has its desired effect on their libido, after which Annie feels it’s served its purpose and orders Jay to erase the evidence.

Unfortunately, Jay doesn’t. Instead, he accidentally shares the video with previous iPads that he’s given to family members and acquaintances. They include Annie’s mom and Hank (Rob Lowe), a corporate executive who could become Annie’s new boss. Panicked, the couple set out to recover the devices.

The real trouble—for them and for us, the viewers—begins when they arrive unannounced at Hank’s mansion. Rather than thinking of a logical excuse for getting their hands on the iPad, they come up with the most absurd plan imaginable: Hank asks to use the bathroom so he can search the house while Annie keeps their host engaged in conversation.

That’s when the canine antics get under way. A vicious guard dog begins chasing Jay from room to room, taking a bite out of him whenever he catches up. Meanwhile, Annie reluctantly accepts Hank’s invitation to indulge in a little cocaine.

The concurrent chasing and snorting do result in a few laughs. In the process, though, they completely derail the flick’s original premise. What had been a lighthearted look at a racy anecdote to marital boredom becomes a scattershot affair that misses its target because it can’t decide just what that target is.

Director Jake Kasdan (Bad Teacher) has a game cast, especially in his butt-baring leads. But they’re all stymied by the three-person writing team, which consists of Kate Angelo (The Back-up Plan), Segel and Nicholas Stoller (co-writers of The Muppets).

Like a stereotypical committee, they’ve concocted a mess that lacks a unifying structure. Rather than building on the theme of marital ennui, they’ve thrown together a hodgepodge of unlikely and unfunny developments.

They can’t even decide on a proper tone, ricocheting from The Hangover-style raunchiness to pure mush. At its mushiest, Sex Tape actually has the head of a porn website preaching to Jay and Annie on the importance of remembering the love that drew them together in the first place. Good grief.

Great title, great premise, likable cast and enough nudity and sexual shenanigans to justify its “R” rating. It’s just too bad the script didn’t rise to the occasion.

Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)

Long-gone troupe returns with homage to Broadway belter

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Heather Carvel as the title performer in Big Voice: The Ethel Merman Experience (photo courtesy of Warehouse Theatre Company)

Heather Carvel as the title performer in Big Voice: The Ethel Merman Experience (photo courtesy of Warehouse Theatre Company)

By Richard Ades

It’s been about a decade since the Warehouse Theatre Company made a brief but impressive appearance on the Columbus theater scene. Now it’s returned with Big Voice: The Ethel Merman Experience, written and directed by artistic director Kristofer Green.

Part biography and part musical revue, the original work is a bold choice for a comeback. But it’s also a risky choice, as it relies on viewers’ fond memories of the belter who was known as the “first lady” of musical comedy. Since Merman reached her peak long before her death in 1984, only older viewers will have such memories.

Those who do will realize that leading lady Heather Carvel is doing a pretty good imitation of Merman’s brassy vocal style. My maim complaint is that Carvel’s portrayal often comes off as a caricature rather than an impersonation. She’s at her best on the more dramatic songs, such as the Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim number Rose’s Turn from Gypsy.

If Carvel’s voice is the show’s greatest strength, its biggest weakness may be the choice of material.

Following a format similar to that of the current Broadway hit Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, Big Voice finds Merman playing a nightclub and recalling highlights of her career between renditions of her favorite tunes. The trouble is, you can take the word “highlights” literally. Though Merman’s life had its share of disappointments, they seldom make it into the show.

Warehouse says Big Voice is “based on the words of Ethel Merman,” which may explain why it’s so stubbornly upbeat. Since Green apparently was unwilling to put words into Merman’s mouth, the play is seldom more revealing or dramatic than typical nightclub patter.

Adding a little variety, each of the two acts comes with its own “guest star”: Donald O’Connor (Cody Michael Shope) in Act 1 and Mary Martin (Elisabeth Tate) in Act 2. O’Connor’s bit is enjoyable, as Shope sings and dances well. On the other hand, the Carvel/Tate duets could do more to exploit the personality differences between the bombastic Merman and the sweetly refined Martin. (For a real-life Merman/Martin duet, check out this link.)

Though Big Voice isn’t as dramatically interesting as it might have been, a show that includes tunes such as I’ve Got Rhythm, Everything’s Coming Up Roses and There’s No Business Like Show Business can’t help supplying a good deal of musical fun. Still, the best thing about the play is that it marks the return of Warehouse Theatre.

If you’re old enough to remember Warehouse productions such as 2003’s Assassins or A Piece of My Heart, its reappearance will give you cause for hope.

Warehouse Theatre Company will present Big Voice: The Ethel Merman Experience through June 28 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25; student rush tickets are available for $15. 614-371-5940 or warehousetheatre.org.

‘Jersey Boys’ fails to recapture stage show’s magic

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Playing the Four Seasons in a scene from Jersey Boys are (from left): John Lloyd Young (Frankie Valli), Erich Bergen (Bob Guadio), Vincent Piazza (Tommy DeVito) and Michael Lomenda (Nick Massi) (Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

Playing the Four Seasons in a scene from Jersey Boys are (from left): John Lloyd Young (Frankie Valli), Erich Bergen (Bob Guadio), Vincent Piazza (Tommy DeVito) and Michael Lomenda (Nick Massi) (Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

By Richard Ades

Chicago was a great movie. So were Cabaret, West Side Story and The Sound of Music.

But for every stage musical that made a successful transition to the multiplex, you can probably think of four or five that didn’t. So it’s not really surprising that the movie version of Jersey Boys isn’t half as much fun as its live predecessor.

Director Clint Eastwood made some good choices and some bad choices when he went about adapting Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s biographical tribute to the Four Seasons. One of the good choices was casting people who’d already proved themselves in the stage version, rather than following the usual practice of hiring film stars. That guaranteed that the actors playing the 1960s rock group could actually sing (unlike, say, Russell Crowe in the big-screen version of Les Miz).

One of Eastwood’s questionable choices was hiring Brickman and Elice to adapt their own hit musical. You’d think that would be a plus, as it would encourage the movie to stay true to the original, but staying true to the original isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Not to belabor the obvious, but a movie and a stage musical are two entirely different animals. On the stage, we can put up with dramatic developments being delivered in a kind of shorthand, as their main purpose is to propel us toward the next tune. In a movie, we generally need more realism.

We don’t get that in Eastwood’s Jersey Boys. Not only do many of the characters come off as Italian-American stereotypes, but the dramatic developments often hit us without warning, depriving them of their potential power. That’s especially true of lead singer Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young), who’s faced with one emotional setback after another involving the women in his life—none of whom we’ve really gotten to know.

Compounding the problem, Young gives a rather unemotional performance in the role he originated on Broadway, though he makes up for it every time he launches into his dead-on impersonation of Valli’s falsetto warbling.

The actors playing the other members of the group—Vincent Piazza as unscrupulous control freak Tommy DiVito, Erich Bergen as songwriter Bob Guadio and Michael Lomenda as bass-voiced Nick Massi—are all fine. Even so, the movie seldom gives us a feel for what drives them other than their egos. And economic necessity: In an early voice-over, Tommy says the only ways to escape from their blue-collar New Jersey neighborhood are the Army, the mob and fame.

Speaking of the mob, it’s well represented by Christopher Walken as “Gyp” DeCarlo, a paternal gangster with a soft spot for the group’s music.

The film does manage to open the story up a bit in the first act, as when Frankie is roped into an attempt to rob a jewelry store. The heist goes humorously wrong when the would-be crooks attempt to load a huge safe into the trunk of an old Studebaker, with disastrous results.

Mostly, though, Eastwood sticks to the stage musical’s arc, which allows the members of the group to take turns narrating the Four Seasons’ rise from obscurity to Top 40 success, even as the quartet is wracked by jealousies and financial problems.

Like the original, the movie is at its best when it re-creates the band’s big hits, like Sherry, Walk Like a Man and, best of all, the Valli solo Can’t Take My Eyes Off You. Unfortunately, there aren’t nearly enough moments when the musicians are allowed to set aside their problems and just rock out.

As if to make up for this dearth, the closing credits are projected over a Bollywood-style song-and-dance number involving the whole cast, belatedly capturing the kind of energy that made the stage production a Broadway hit.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Musical takes young lovers on ‘fantastick’ voyage

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Appearing in The Fantasticks are (clockwise from top): Ian Taylor (the Mute), Alex Huffman (Hucklebee), Preston Pounds (Matt), Natalie Szczerba (Luisa) and Kyle Hansen (Bellomy) (photo by Andrew Beers)

Appearing in The Fantasticks are (clockwise from top): Ian Taylor (the Mute), Alex Huffman (Hucklebee), Preston Pounds (Matt), Natalie Szczerba (Luisa) and Kyle Hansen (Bellomy) (photo by Andrew Beers)

By Richard Ades

The Fantasticks is a subtle, tricky work that deals in mood and feeling rather than plot. When you think about it, it’s kind of amazing that the original off-Broadway production made it the world’s longest-running musical.

How did it happen? The biggest factor is likely Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s gorgeous music, beginning with the show-opening Try to Remember. It establishes a sad, wistful tone that colors everything that follows—that is, unless the actors break the spell by mishandling the subsequent forays into silliness and cynicism.

At Otterbein, director David Caldwell leads a production that gets just about everything right.

Sam Parker speaks simply and sings beautifully as El Gallo, the narrator who comes to play a pivotal role in the lives of the young central characters, Matt and Luisa.

Growing up next to each other but separated by a wall erected by their fathers, the two have fallen in love. Or have they simply fallen in love with the idea of falling in love? Truthfully, Matt and Luisa are so filled with youthful optimism and romantic notions that they have little understanding of how the world really works.

Before El Gallo is done with them, that will all change.

Natalie Szczerba imbues the teenaged Luisa with an exalted sense of her own specialness and an operatically soaring voice. As Matt, Preston Pounds is slightly more limited vocally, but he sells us on the young man’s passionate approach to Luisa and everything else.

Alex Huffman and Kyle Hansen give lightly comic turns as the pair’s fathers, who are not as opposed to the developing romance as they’ve let on. In fact, they conspire with El Gallo and itinerant actors Henry and Mortimer to concoct a way to push them together.

As Henry, Jeff Gise at first struggles to give a believable impersonation of old age, but he grows more effective as the show goes on. As Mortimer, a faux Native American who specializes in death scenes, Anthony Cason gives the show’s funniest performance.

Oddly, one of the production’s most expressive performances is delivered by Ian Taylor as the aptly named Mute, who silently portrays the wall and otherwise makes himself useful throughout.

Rob Johnson’s scenery is minimal, as is traditional. Andy Baker’s lighting design is handsome and dramatic.

Accompanying the singers from positions on opposite sides of the stage are music director/pianist Dennis Davenport and harpist James Predovich. Predovich’s playing is lovely, while Davenport’s keyboard work is extraordinary.

How did The Fantasticks attain its legendary popularity? Now that I’ve seen Otterbein’s production, the feat is a bit easier to understand.

Otterbein Summer Theatre will present The Fantasticks through June 21 in the Fritsche Theatre, Cowan Hall, 30 S. Grove St., Westerville. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, plus 2 p.m. this Friday (June 13). Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25. 614-823-1109 or www.otterbein.edu/drama.

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