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.

The fun really starts when Dorothy meets Pink Floyd

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Another Brick in the Wall, one of the many Pink Floyd numbers featured in Shadowbox Live’s Which One’s Pink? (Studio 66 photo)

Another Brick in the Wall, one of the many Pink Floyd numbers featured in Shadowbox Live’s Which One’s Pink? (Studio 66 photo)

By Richard Ades

Far out! Excuse the hippie talk, but there’s no other way to describe Shadowbox Live’s most mind-blowing musical-tribute show yet.

You may have thought the Beatles retrospective Bigger Than Jesus was great, and it was. You may have thought Joe Cocker: Mad Dog and Englishman was a treat, and you were right.

But wait till you see Which One’s Pink? What director Stev Guyer and his cast and crew have pulled off is an out-and-out marvel.

I never was a Pink Floyd fan back in the ’60s and ’70s. Nor was I into psychedelic drugs. (I’m probably being redundant there.) Now, thanks to this new tribute show, I have some idea of what I was missing.

The show starts out with a look at the life of the band’s early front man, Syd Barrett. If you appreciate Barrett, or just brilliant but tormented souls in general, you’ll find this fascinating. And even if you don’t, you still get to bask in a collection of Pink Floyd numbers that augment the biographical details.

The singers and musicians are great as always, and Katy Psenicka’s choreography is more varied and expressive than ever. But what really sets the show apart is Shadowbox’s first collaboration with the Columbus College of Art & Design, whose talented students complement the songs with eccentric and psychedelic videos.

Act 1’s many highlights include:

Happiest Days of Our Lives/Another Brick in the Wall, everyone’s favorite anthem of youthful rebellion (and the band’s only hit single);
Mother, sung by Andy Ankrom and accompanied by a huge puppet of an overprotective “mom” with glowing eyes;
Young Lust, sung by Guyer alongside video images of nubile female silhouettes in the process of stripping off their underwear; and
Comfortably Numb, sung by Guyer as a drugged-out rock star and JT Walker III as his tormenter.

My only problem with the show’s focus on Barrett is that Pink Floyd’s greatest achievements actually arrived after his brief tenure with the band (1965-68). That includes all but one of the songs presented during the Barrett-centered first act. Another Brick in the Wall, for example, was written by subsequent front man Roger Waters as part of the 1979 rock opera The Wall. Here, however, it could be misinterpreted as the product of Barrett’s difficult childhood.

That quibble aside, the first act is consistently entertaining. Yet it pales next to Act 2, which may be Shadowbox’s most intricate and innovative creation to date.

After Pink Floyd released its 1973 album The Dark Side of the Moon, many fans claimed it synchronized perfectly with the classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. These fans could well have been under the influence of mind-altering drugs, but you don’t have to be similarly impaired to appreciate Shadowbox’s take on the phenomenon.

The troupe reimagines the fabled synchronization by combining (1) footage from the film, (2) interpretive video footage provided by CCAD students, (3) live re-enactments of scenes from Oz featuring Dorothy (Amy Lay) and other characters, and (4) live performances of the Pink Floyd music. The technical prowess it took to pull this off is nothing less than breathtaking.

More importantly, the end result is a total blast. It’s an experience like none other.

I may have misspoken in the beginning. There probably are several ways to describe what Shadowbox has wrought here, including “awesome” and “glorious.” But nothing sums it up quite as well as “far out!”

Which One’s Pink? runs through Aug. 2 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday (no shows May 24, 27, 28, June 25, July 1, 2, 12, 19, 26 or 29). Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25; $20 for students, seniors (55-plus) and military. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Where’s President Bartlet when you need him?

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By Richard Ades

As a writer, Aaron Sorkin has had much success.

On TV, The West Wing was a critically praised hit. Onstage and at the cinema, A Few Good Men was a triumph.

But Sorkin also has had some failures. The most obvious was Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a much-anticipated series that didn’t outlast its first season.

Then there’s The Farnsworth Invention, originally written as a movie that never quite came to fruition. Sorkin then rewrote it as a play that opened on Broadway in late 2007 and closed three months later after receiving mixed reviews.

It’s probably unfair to label this reality-inspired drama a failure, but you can’t really call it a success. Yes, you do learn something about the invention of television, but you can’t take this history lesson too literally, as Sorkin bends the facts to suit his purposes. What’s worse, even after taking liberties with the truth, he still doesn’t manufacture enough drama to yield an absorbing story.

Director John Dranschak and a strong cast do what they can to sell the tale in Gallery Players’ production, but they fail to weave Sorkin’s straw into theatrical gold.

The play tells the life stories of David Sarnoff (Ian Short), an immigrant who becomes a top executive in America’s early broadcast industry, and Philo T. Farnsworth (Stefan Langer), an American genius who’s determined to invent television. From the beginning, it’s obvious the two are antagonistic toward each other, but it’s not until halfway through that we actually find out why.

Did I mention that the play lacks drama? Fortunately, it also has some strengths.

If you’re into science, you may learn some interesting tidbits about the challenges Farnsworth and others faced as they tried to send images through the air electronically. If you’re into broadcasting, you may learn something about the early days of radio and television.

And if you’re just generally into American history, circa the 1920s and ’30s, you’ll no doubt glean some new understanding of the era. For instance, did you know that pretty much everyone back then had a potty mouth? Or, at least, they do in Sorkin’s version of that time period.

Cursing or otherwise, the supporting cast does a decent job of portraying the people who played major and minor roles in the development of television. Particularly prominent is Robyn Rae Stype as Farnsworth’s loving wife, Pem. Their sturdy efforts, along with those of Short and Langer, help to keep us from tuning out entirely as the play follows its anemic dramatic arc.

One more problem with the play: One gets the feeling that Sorkin is going out of his way to put Sarnoff’s actions in the best possible light—even when he uses questionable means to get what he wants, and even when Farnsworth gets screwed over as a result.

But don’t worry too much about Farnsworth. He actually came out better in real life than he does here, both during and after his run-in with Sarnoff.

To sum up: good production, bad history, bad drama.

Gallery Players will present The Farnsworth Invention through May 17 at the Jewish Community Center, 1125 College Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Thursday (May 14 only). Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20 ($15 JCC members), $18 for ages 60-plus ($13 JCC members), $10 for students and children. 614-231-2731 or www.jccgalleryplayers.org.

Up-and-coming playwright is both depressing and hysterical

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Taylor Moss and Susie Gerald in The Bully Composition, one of four Will Eno plays featured in Over the Edge (photo by Allan Burkman)

Taylor Moss and Susie Gerald in The Bully Composition, one of four Will Eno plays featured in Over the Edge (photo by Allan Burkman)

By Richard Ades

Back in March, Wild Women Writing presented a collection of pieces about people On the Edge. This month, it’s offering plays about people who’ve gone Over the Edge.

What’s the difference? Rick Gore of Short North Stage (which is co-presenting the production) offered an explanation during a post-performance talkback. He pointed out that the characters in the earlier show often pushed their relationships to the brink of separation but then pulled back, whereas in this show, relationships are more likely to be doomed.

Both shows feature one piece by Samuel Beckett and several short works by another playwright. In On the Edge, the second playwright was Britain’s Harold Pinter; in Over the Edge, it’s contemporary American playwright Will Eno.

Given the contrast between the two shows, could it be that Eno has an even bleaker view of life than Pinter? Maybe so, but he sometimes leavens that bleakness with a sly sense of humor.

This comes out most clearly in Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rain, in which a man and a woman (John Hawk and Heather Caldwell) are shown recording videos for a dating website. The recording sessions seem to be going on in separate locations, as there’s no connection between the man and the woman. And judging from the way they describe themselves, neither of them is likely to forge a connection with anyone else, either.

Delivered with droll matter-of-factness by Hawk and Caldwell under Katherine Burkman’s direction, their comments are hilariously banal and random. “I’m good at grocery shopping,” the man says, while the woman admits she’s never understood why breaking the sound barrier has to create so much racket. Both are desperate to share their lives with someone, but neither has any idea how to bring that about. Their situations are at once laughable and pitiable.

The other Eno pieces have a similarly downbeat viewpoint, though it’s delivered more straightforwardly.

In The Bully Composition, two people (Taylor Moss and Susie Gerald) set out to re-create a classic photo of soldiers posing between battles during the Spanish-American War. Treating the audience as their models, they urge viewers to imagine they’re in a time and place where life could take a turn for the worse at any moment. The comparison between war and our everyday reality is hard to miss.

In Behold the Coach, in a Blazer, Uninsured, the title character (David Fawcett) holds a press conference to explain why he failed to lead his team to victory during the past season. “It was a building year,” he starts out, but his defenses eventually crumble—much as his team’s defenses undoubtedly crumbled on the playing field. Before it’s over, he’s revealed way too much about the insecurities that plague every aspect of his life.

The piece has resonance, particularly in a football-obsessed town like Columbus, and is my second-favorite Eno playlet (after Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rain). However, Fawcett could give it even more resonance, along with a few more chuckles, if he threw himself into the part a bit more.

Speaking of Columbus, the show’s one Beckett work is called Ohio Impromptu. Its name notwithstanding, it has nothing to do with the Buckeye State except that it was first performed here.

The play features a white-bearded Richard Green reading from an apparently personal essay while an identically bearded Fawcett listens and occasionally raps on the table when he wants Green to stop or repeat something. Basically, it’s a stylish and macabre rumination on death, much like Beckett’s Rockaby from the March show.

Wrapping up the evening is the most unvarnished expression of Eno’s dark outlook, Oh, the Humanity. It begins with a bickering couple (Gerald and a particularly convincing Green) attempting to drive somewhere in a car, which is represented by two chairs. Strangely, they can’t agree on whether they’re going to a funeral or a christening, but this becomes a moot point when the man realizes that they can’t go anywhere because their “car” is—you guessed it—two chairs.

Adding to the piece’s self-conscious theatricality, a third character (Hawk) introduces himself as “The Beauty of Things.” He mostly just observes the couple’s troubles, but at one point he turns to the audience and tells us he knows we expect him to say something reassuring. The line probably would work better if we hadn’t just seen enough Eno to realize that reassurance is not what the playwright is about.

My first take on Eno is that he’s a serious artist who can be hysterically funny when he’s not being annoyingly pretentious. Clearly, though, he’s worth paying attention to, since he’s an up-and-comer who had plays both on and off-Broadway in 2014. Many thanks to Wild Women Writing for giving Columbus a chance to meet him.

Wild Women Writing and Short North Stage will present Over the Edge With Beckett and Eno through May 10 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $20. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

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

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

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

By Richard Ades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gallery Players will present Les Miserables through March 29 at the Jewish Community Center, 1125 College Ave., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 3 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $25 ($20 JCC members), $20 ages 60-plus ($18 JCC members), $15 students and children. 614-231-2731 or www.jccgalleryplayers.org.

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