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.

One-night stands and recalcitrant cabbies

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

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

By Richard Ades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shadowbox, JAG collaborate on joyful Cocker tribute

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

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

By Richard Ades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Richard Ades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Richard Ades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Depression-era musical is far from depressing

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

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

By Richard Ades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By Richard Ades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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