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.

Hockey musical is gone, but spoofy sand-and-surf tale remains

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Chicklet (Nick Hardin) gets a lift from friends (from left) Provoloney (Andrew Trimmer), Star Cat (Jason Crase), YoYo (Luke Stewart) and Kanaka (Dan Montour) in Psycho Beach Party, one of two plays opening this week at Short North Stage (photo by Jason Allen, Second Glimpse Photography)

Chicklet (Nick Hardin) gets a lift from friends (from left) Provoloney (Andrew Trimmer), Star Cat (Jason Crase), YoYo (Luke Stewart) and Kanaka (Dan Montour) in Psycho Beach Party (photo by Jason Allen, Second Glimpse Photography)

By Richard Ades

It was one busy week at the Garden Theater.

Last Wednesday, Short North Stage opened its first original work, The Great One. Timed to complement the National Hockey League’s All-Star Game in Columbus, the musical focused on a traumatic moment in western Canadian history: the Edmonton Oilers’ 1988 trade of star player Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings.

With direction by Scott Hunt, who also co-wrote the book and lyrics, it boasted a committed cast of five and some surprisingly pretty tunes by composer James Higgins. In just about an hour, it neatly summarized the profound impact a local team’s ups and downs can have on members of its community. (That’s something you don’t have to be Canadian to understand, eh?)

Unfortunately, the show’s run was as short and sweet as its running time. Its last performance ended before Sunday’s All-Star Game.

However, last week’s other Garden Theater production will continue through this weekend. A new troupe called Columbus Immersive Theater is reviving Charles Busch’s Psycho Beach Party in the venue’s main auditorium.

That’s a big room, but director/choreographer Edward Carignan is living up to the “Immersive” moniker by cramming the audience onto the stage with the players. That makes this tale of a troubled teenage girl named Chicklet a pleasantly intimate experience.

I first saw Busch’s campy comedy nearly a quarter-century ago at the old Reality Theatre. It was pretty entertaining, even though the troupe took the unorthodox tack of having Chicklet played by an actual woman.

In Immersive’s production, thankfully, tradition reigns. A cross-dressing Nick Hardin makes such a hilarious Chicklet that you can’t help wondering why anyone would want to do it the other way. Just as funny is Doug Joseph as her protective and borderline-abusive mom, Mrs. Forrest.

Set in Malibu Beach in 1962, Psycho Beach Party spoofs both Hitchcock-style psychodramas and old sand-and-surf epics like Beach Blanket Bingo. As in the latter, everyone is G-rated innocent—on the surface. Underneath, sexual tension rears its head, sometimes even between a couple of suspiciously compatible guy friends.

Most misleading of all is Chicklet, a going-on-16 girl who spends her time hanging out with bookish friend Berdine (Vera Ryan Cremeans) and begging the local beach bums to teach her how to surf. She seems harmless, but if you make her mad, a dominatrix-like alter ego named Ann Bowman suddenly appears. And that’s only one of Chicklet’s multiple personalities, all played to a comic “T” by Hardin.

Other cast members include Dan Montour as surfing ace Kanaka, Kaitin Descutner as popular mean girl Marvel Ann, Bria Schultz as movie star Bettina Barnes, Jason Carl Crase as Star Cat, Luke Stewart as YoYo and Andrew Trimmer as Provoloney. All give likable but restrained performances, basically acting as “straight men” to Hardin and Joseph.

The result is that the show isn’t really at its funniest unless Chicklet and/or Mrs. Forrest are center stage. But when they are, it’s a spoofy blast out of the past.

Immersive Theater Company will present Psycho Beach Party through Feb. 1 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 4:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20. Contact: beachpartycolumbus.com or shortnorthstage.org.

Newspaper vendors go on strike in fleet-footed musical

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Stephanie Styles and Dan DeLuca play Katherine and Jack in the touring production of Newsies (photo by Deen van Meer)

Stephanie Styles and Dan DeLuca play Katherine and Jack in the touring production of Newsies (photo by Deen van Meer)

By Richard Ades

It was kind of odd watching Newsies Tuesday night at the Ohio Theatre.

The history-based Disney musical is basically a salute to the power of unions. As a result, it was hard to see it without remembering that a blatantly anti-union law had been passed about four years ago right across the street at the Statehouse—or that the governor who signed the law was re-inaugurated on Monday night.

All of that might have made it hard to enjoy the musical except that the anti-union law was overwhelmingly repealed thanks to a 2011 referendum. Yes, the little guys do occasionally win out in real life, as they do in Disney musicals.

Based on a 1992 movie, which was based on the Newsboys Strike of 1899, Newsies is about what happens when New York City newspapers put the screws to the young lads who eke out a living by selling their products on the street.

Joseph Pulitzer (Steve Blanchard), owner of the New York World, is the first to raise the wholesale price his “newsies” must pay, thinking that’s the easiest way to offset recent losses. He doesn’t count on the tenacity of Jack Kelly (Dan DeLuca), the paper pushers’ unofficial leader.

Jack persuades Manhattan-based newsies to go on strike, then begins seeking support from their counterparts in other New York boroughs. Backing him up are his best friend, Crutchie (Zachary Sayle), along with newcomer Davey (Jacob Kemp) and his little brother, Les (played at alternate performances by Vincent Crocella and Anthony Rosenthal).

Fighting the newspapers is a nearly impossible task, but unexpected help comes in the form of Katherine (Stephanie Styles), a society reporter who wants to write about the labor struggle to prove she’s ready to graduate to hard news.

Newsies gained several Tony nominations after opening on Broadway in 2012, but it won only for its musical score and choreography. The touring version makes it clear that these remain the show’s prime strengths.

With music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Jack Feldman, the score has several enjoyable numbers. They include The World Will Know, a defiant anthem that captures the spirit (if not the power) of Les Miz’s Do You Hear the People Sing?, and Watch What Happens, an amusing expression of Katherine’s determination in the face of self-doubt.

True, a few of the other numbers are either less memorable or less relevant, coming off as mere filler. But a worse problem on opening night was a sound system that often failed to elevate the generally fine voices above the large band conducted by James Dodgson. It sometimes was hard to pick out the lyrics, particularly in the group numbers.

Working under Jeff Calhoun’s direction, DeLuca makes Jack such a caricature of New York swagger that he’s not as compelling a hero as he might be. (Also, he seemed to suffer from subpar amplification at Tuesday’s performance.) But Styles turns Katherine into a lovable heroine, while Blanchard’s Pulitzer is such an effectively loathsome villain that you can almost imagine him twirling his mustache.

The real stars, though, are choreographer Christopher Gattelli and his spinning, leaping and somersaulting dancers. Several numbers fill Tobin Ost’s set with amazing moments of motion.

The dancing makes this musical history lesson as impressive as it is inspiring.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Newsies through Sunday (Jan. 18) at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $28-$98. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.

Struggling to grow up in the Reagan era

Newsies demonstrates that 1890s young adults could accomplish quite a lot when they put their minds to it. Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth, in contrast, shows that 1980s young adults could accomplish next to nothing, especially when their minds were clouded by drugs and immaturity.

It’s a savvy, clever portrait of an era and an age group that is entertaining until it gets bogged down in talkiness and redundancy, as it does during the second act.

In Warehouse Theatre Company’s production, the three actors give fully committed performances under Kristofer Green’s direction: John Connor as the self-absorbed Dennis, Jesse Massaro as the self-doubting Warren and Erin Mellon as the emotionally cautious Jessica.

Will Warren find a way to recover the $15,000 he stole from his hated father? And will he ever connect with Jessica, the oblivious object of his romantic obsession?

Such questions hold the viewers’ interest for a while, but Lonergan eventually overplays his dramatic cards. It’s a shame, because the actors do everything they can to keep us involved.

It’s a valiant effort, to say the least.

Warehouse Theatre Company will present This Is Our Youth at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday (Jan. 15-17) at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $22, $15 student rush. 614-371-5940 or warehousetheatre.org.

Explicitly sexual and deliriously funny

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A sampling of the characters and costumes featured in Sex at the Box (Shadowbox Live photo)

A sampling of the characters and costumes featured in Sex at the Box (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades 

Is your heart healthy enough for Sex at the Box?

This may not be Shadowbox Live’s sexiest show—that honor belongs to the midweek offering Burlesque Biographie—but it’s easily Shadowbox’s funniest show of recent memory. If you’re not sure whether your body is up to two hours’ worth of hearty guffaws, you’d better get your doctor’s approval before attending.

A few more distinctions held by the theme show:

  • Funniest Shadowbox skit in years.
  • Most explicit skit in the history of Sex at the Box.
  • Best Shadowbox cover song of all time.

Just in case you’re wondering whether you should bring your children or parents to Sex at the Box, I’ll start with the “most explicit” skit. Called Holy Hell, it stars Tom Cardinal as a priest and JT Walker III as Henry, an unmarried parishioner who seeks forgiveness for what he describes as the best sex he’s ever had. When the priest demands details, Henry provides them at length and with great specificity.

Should you bring your kids or parents to the show? Unless the former are very mature or the latter are very broadminded, absolutely not.

Most Shadowbox theme shows have at least one or two good skits like this one. What sets Sex at the Box apart is that just about every skit is top-drawer from beginning to end. Other winners include:

  • In a Bar: A squeaky-voiced would-be Lothario (Brandon Anderson) has no luck attracting the opposite sex until he’s aided by the “In a world…” tones of a movie-trailer announcer (Walker).
  • The Friend Zone: The Twilight Zone’s Rod Sterling (Robbie Nance) narrates the spooky tale of a man (Jimmy Mak) whose amorous feelings are strangely invisible to the woman he desires (Amy Lay).
  • Life Duet: Mak and Lay silently portray a couple whose changing relationship is defined by the music they play on the car radio.
  • Sneak a Peak—Dirty Movies: In the funniest episode yet of the faux movie-review show, hosts Shelly and John (Julie Klein and David Whitehouse) look at various porno scenes that invariably climax in the appearance of the heroine’s sexy sister.

As it plans to do throughout its 25th-anniversary season, Shadowbox also brings back a vintage skit. The Pyramid Game, a TV-style competition pitting a geeky Upper Arlington couple (Mak and Katy Psenicka) against a pair of South Siders (Whitehouse and Lay), is cute, but it’s not as consistently funny as some of the newer sketches.

And nothing is as funny as Funk Daddy Love, in which the titular soul singer is put on trial for the “crime” of being too sexy. Anderson gives a hilarious portrayal of Love, who breaks into one of his down-and-dirty ballads whenever the mood hits him.

Musically, Sex at the Box offers an embarrassment of riches. The best covers and their lead singers include Just Like Heaven (Anderson), Sex and Candy (Walker) and Glorybox (Lay). The BillWho? band provides its usual spot-on accompaniment, as when it backs up Lay’s vocals with unmistakably Portishead-like sounds.

The most surprising cover is the last: Queen’s gospel-style Somebody to Love, sung by an eight-person chorus. The most familiar is The Way You Make Me Feel, which finds Noelle Grandison returning to Michael Jackson mode while lithe dancer Nick Wilson accompanies her with Jackson-like moves.

What’s the best cover of all—in fact, perhaps the best cover tune ever heard on a Shadowbox stage? No contest. It’s Klein’s flawless and passionate take on Janis Joplin’s Ball and Chain.

Even if your heart is healthy enough for Sex at the Box, your voice might not survive the hootin’ and hollerin’ you’ll want to do once this gem is finished.

Sex at the Box continues through March 21 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday (no shows March 6, 7 or 14). Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

2014: A brilliant ‘Hamlet’ and a sad departure

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

By Richard Ades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Richard Ades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portrait of an artist as a Hasidic young man

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

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

By Richard Ades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CATCO and Gallery Players will present My Name Is Asher Lev through Nov. 9 in Studio Two, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 95 minutes. Tickets are $11.50 for Wednesday matinees, $30 Thursday, $45 Friday-Saturday and $41 Sunday. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.

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