Recorded memories prove invaluable in dystopian murder mystery

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Sharing a rare moment of peace and happiness are (from left) Cloud (Stephen Woosley), Meryl (Katharine Pilcher), Charlotte (Colleen Dunne) and Mordecai (Travis Horseman) in the world premiere of Memory Fragments (photo by Andy Batt)

Sharing a rare moment of peace and happiness are (from left) Cloud (Stephen Woosley), Meryl (Katharine Pilcher), Charlotte (Colleen Dunne) and Mordecai (Travis Horseman) in the world premiere of Memory Fragments (photo by Andy Batt)

By Richard Ades

Following the world premiere of Memory Fragments last week, playwright Sam Wallin described the mystery as an example of “cyberpunk.” He explained that this is a form of science fiction that mixes a futuristic setting with elements of film noir.

Well, it’s definitely science fiction, and it’s definitely set in the future. The film-noir part isn’t quite so obvious. The scene breaks are accompanied by the kind of jazzy noodlings that would have made Sam Spade feel right at home, but the scenes themselves fail to capture the dark moodiness that characterized Spade’s world.

No matter. Memory Fragments may not be noir-ish, but it’s never boorish. As long as you don’t mind being confused for much of the running time, it’s an intriguing murder mystery.

The hero is a police detective named Cloud (Stephen Woosley) who’s assigned to investigate the death of a barista named Mordecai (Travis Horseman). Cloud’s first job is to determine whether the man was murdered or committed suicide.

In this version of the near future, people’s memories are recorded and stored so that they can be played back as needed. Ordinarily, this makes Cloud’s job pretty easy. In Mordecai’s case, however, the fatal wound destroyed all but 17 fragments of the victim’s memory. Along with Jerome (Andy Woodmansee), an annoying stranger who inserts himself into the investigation, Cloud begins watching the fragments in hopes of solving the case.

It’s through the recorded memories that we meet a number of people who played a role in Mordecai’s final days, including a new girlfriend (Colleen Dunne), a male psychiatrist (Andy Batt), a lascivious female psychiatrist (Laura Spires) and a mysterious man in a brown suit (Erik Sternberger). Cloud attempts to sift through the clues with help from his late wife, Meryl (Katharine Pilcher), whom he frequently resurrects in the virtual world where he spends most of his time.

Eventually, the mystery of Mordecai’s death is solved, but not until more people have died—and not until Cloud has followed the evidence to the upper echelons of the two huge corporations that control this future society.

Speaking after Thursday’s preview performance, Wallin and director Batt revealed that MadLab spent two years planning the play’s premiere. Part of the delay was due to the problem of portraying the work’s frequent shifts between the present and the past, and between physical reality and virtual reality.

With help from designers Brenda Michna (scenery and lighting) and Peter Graybeal (sound), Batt’s production succeeds admirably. Especially effective are the gauzy curtains that separate the present from the past, as represented by the recorded memories.

Also admirable is the large cast, which also includes Julie Ferreri and MaryBeth Griffith. The portrayals are rooted in emotional reality, which helps to ground a play that otherwise could disintegrate into a confusing mixture of sci-fi jargon and dystopian paranoia.

To be sure, Memory Fragments still challenges viewers to keep up, but MadLab keeps them so entertained that they’re happy to make the effort.

Memory Fragments will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday through Nov. 1 at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $12, $10 for students/seniors, $8 for members. 614-221-5418 or madlab.net.

Hollywood has-been seeks comeback in Webber musical

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Norma Desmond (Gina Handy) tangoes with Joe Gillis (Chris Shea) in Short North Stage’s production of Sunset Boulevard (photo by Heather Wack)

Norma Desmond (Gina Handy) tangoes with Joe Gillis (Chris Shea) in Short North Stage’s production of Sunset Boulevard (photo by Heather Wack)

By Richard Ades

One of Sunset Boulevard’s two most famous lines comes early on. When a struggling writer stumbles into Norma Desmond’s Hollywood mansion and tells her she “used to be big,” the former silent-film star replies: “I’m still big. It’s the movies that got small.”

Movies may or may not be smaller nowadays, but movie-based stage musicals are often extravaganzas. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s adaptation of Billy Wilder’s 1950 film certainly was. In fact, the 1994 Broadway production was so expensive that it ran for more than two years and still managed to lose millions.

Short North Stage’s production isn’t quite that big, but it’s still huge by Columbus standards. Michael Brewer’s two-story set effectively stands in for Norma’s grandiose mansion and other locations, with help from video segments projected on two large screens. Moreover, music director P. Tim Valentine’s offstage band is sizable enough to handle Webber’s soaring score.

If director Scott Hunt’s staging fails to consistently match the power of Wilder’s classic, it’s partly because the nourish film is tricky source material for a stage musical. Just the right touch is needed to carry off its blend of cynicism, desperation and passion.

One problem is that leading lady Gina Handy only occasionally projects the brittle mixture of grandiosity and insecurity that marks Norma Desmond, an ex-celeb who clings to the belief that the world is eager for her return. At Thursday’s preview performance, Handy also was decidedly pitchy on her first big solo (Surrender), though her voice was better on later, quieter numbers.

Jarod Wilson’s bland lighting design is another disappointment. This tale of a woman lost in the caverns of her ego-driven delusions cries out for uber-dramatic lighting effects, and it seldom gets them.

Most of the cast does strike the right chords, beginning with Chris Shea as Joe Gillis, the struggling screenwriter who wanders into Norma’s abode and ends up falling under her dangerous spell. Perhaps Shea could project a bit more world-weariness as Joe, who has become tired of the ass-kissing it takes to prosper in Hollywood, but he has no trouble earning our attention and concern.

As Max, Norma’s mysterious butler, Christopher Moore Griffin is appropriately reserved and sings with the show’s deepest, richest voice. The only drawback is that Max’s lyrics sometimes get buried under a droning German accent, so a little more enunciation would be helpful.

The fourth major character, script editor Betty Schaeffer, is played by Cassie Rae. The perky blonde proved in Short North Stage’s early-2014 production of A Grand Night for Singing that she’s a charismatic performer with an irresistible voice. She proves it again here, to the extent that Betty’s growing affection for Joe becomes one of the show’s strongest threads.

Smaller parts are divided among a group of worthy actors who each play multiple roles. Doug Joseph, for example, portrays “Finance Man #1” in addition to legendary director Cecil B. DeMille.

Of the nearly sung-through musical’s two acts, Act 2 is stronger, as it contains several dramatic payoffs. They include the show’s other famous line, Norma’s surreal announcement that she’s ready for her close-up.

Surprisingly, this is the first time we see clearly just how many years separate Norma from the glamorous, youthful image she carries around in her head. Up until then, she’s appeared to be little older than the writer who’s joined her household.

If only she’d posed for that close-up a couple of hours earlier, the depths of her delusion would have been easier to understand.

Short North Stage will present Sunset Boulevard through Oct. 19 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$40. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

Revised musical drops its pedantic personality

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Stacie Boord as the Ringmaster in Evo (Shadowbox Live photo)

Stacie Boord as the Ringleader in Evo (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

Over the past 25 years, Shadowbox Live has settled into a comfortable role as the troupe that plies viewers with skits, food, booze and rock tunes.

It wasn’t always this way. Back in the early days, Shadowbox head honcho Stev Guyer was determined to create big, important works about big, important topics. The result was a series of original musicals such as 1995’s Evolution.

Like the others, Evolution was loud, flashy and ambitious. Sometimes, particularly in the dance sequences, it was impressive.

More often, though, it came across as a lecture set to music. How could it seem otherwise, when it methodically introduced each topic before discussing it with billboard-style dialogue and lyrics?

Now, apparently, Guyer wants to take another crack at creating important art. With help from Shadowbox head writer Jimmy Mak and musical director Matthew Hahn, he’s revisited Evolution and renamed it Evo.

Thankfully, the new version has lost more than a portion of its name. It’s also lost the pedantic attitude that made viewers of Evolution feel like they deserved college credit just for sitting through it.

Guyer and his fellow Shadowboxers have learned a lot about showmanship in the past quarter-century, and they’ve funneled it all into Evo.

The new show still addresses some of the same questions about human beings and our relationships with ourselves, each other and society: Why are we so prone to violence? Is “justice” just another word for “revenge”? And, most basically, what is the point of our existence?

Sex, love, parenting and old age also are taken up.

The most obvious change from the previous version is that all of these topics are introduced by the Ringleader, a flawed character energetically portrayed by Stacie Boord. Her presence helps to put a recognizably human face on the proceedings.

Another difference is that the show often makes effective use of humor to get its points across.

Often the humor is of the darker variety, as it is in a segment on parenting and the complications it creates in romantic relationships. When “Mr. Know It All” (Billy DePetro) and “Mrs. Don’t Tell Me What to Think” (Katy Psenicka) are asked which part each wants to play in a knife-throwing act, the latter eagerly grabs a handful of blades. It seems she has a wealth of pointed comments that she’s been dying to aim at her hubby.

As in the original Evolution, music and dance are at the center of the action.

From the first notes of Risking It All, with its ever-changing time signatures, the music is an interesting combination of melodies and intricate rhythms. The heavy percussion often carries echoes of traditional African drumming, reminding us of the continent where human evolution likely has its roots.

The dancing, choreographed by Psenicka, is as varied as the show’s many moods. Though it can be frenetic and exciting, it also can be sensitive and graceful. In a particularly lovely segment, Guyer and Boord sing a song about aging desire while JT Walker III and Nikki Fagin act it out through dance.

Throughout the show, Scott Aldridge’s dramatic lighting is a key component. So are the colorful and flowing costumes (designed by Linda Mullin, Myah Shaffer and Lyn Walker), which help to establish the circus-like atmosphere.

Occasionally, the show still carries a whiff of the classroom. One example is a section that delves into the ancient practice of taking aged tribe members out into the wilderness to die. It seems like a needless digression since society now treats its oldsters a bit more humanely.

But most of the show is entertaining and engrossing, and it’s consistently so after intermission. Even when Evo preaches, as it does in the section titled Revenge, it drains the self-righteousness from the sermon by delivering it with a comedic touch.

Shadowbox clearly has evolved for the better through the years by learning from its past mistakes. If only we could say the same for the rest of humankind.

Evo will be presented at 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 2. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 for students and seniors. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Shadowbox gets anniversary season off to a freaky start

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By Richard Ades

Fabulous costumes, a smokin’ guitar solo and a very funny Jack Hanna. These are some of the highlights of Shadowbox Live’s Freak Show.

More generally, the show offers some really smart comedy, including a vintage skit that’s being repeated as part of the troupe’s 25th anniversary celebration.

Let’s start with Jack Hanna. The Columbus Zoo’s director emeritus has demonstrated his deadpan sense of humor over the years during his many appearances on The Late Show With David Letterman, but he’s never been funnier than he is here.

In a video segment, Shadowbox executive producer Stev Guyer seeks out Hanna’s advice on how to keep the troupe going for another 25 years. Instead, Jungle Jack begins paddling down a stream of consciousness that carries us into areas that are hilariously personal.

As for the guitar solo, it takes place in a cover of Van Halen’s House of Pain and features the nimble fingers of Brent Lambert. Amy Lay ably handles the vocals, but make no mistake: Lambert’s screaming guitar is the tune’s reason for being.

And the costumes? Designed by Linda Mullin, Nick Wilson and Lyn Walker, they accentuate the show’s spooky theme while turning several musical numbers into visual as well as aural treats. My favorites include the colorful tutus lead vocalist Anita McFarren and her backup singers don for Mz. Hyde.

Comedy-wise, Shadowbox theme shows easily beat the success ratio of Saturday Night Live, but that’s really damning with faint praise. For Freak Show, director Guyer, head writer Jimmy Mak and the cast actually approach the success ratio of Modern Family.

Not everything inspires big laughs. Jason’s Scary Poem, a narrated and mimed homage to Dr. Seuss, is more apt to inspire appreciative nods and chuckles. And Zombie or Not to Be?, a faux TV show about the undead, is mostly unfunny. But an astounding number of skits are ingeniously written and brilliantly performed. Some of the standouts:

Modern Day Freaks: A carnival barker (JT Walker III) introduces such contemporary oddities as a 6-year-old girl who hates Frozen and a tea partier who’s down with gay marriage.

Literal Wizard: A substitute teacher (Tom Cardinal) uses his wizardly skills to instruct his students on the proper use of the word “literally.” (English majors will love this one!)

The Line: Disney makes a horror film inspired by Disneyland’s scariest attraction of all: those endless lines.

Haunted House Training: The socially inept Gary (Mak) thinks he knows how to scare people at a Halloween haunted house because he’s so good at inadvertently scaring them in real life.

Captain’s Kirk’s Advice: Office worker Herb (Jamie Barrow) is too shy to ask out co-worker Lisa (Carrie Lynn McDonald) until he’s goaded on by video clips of that planet-hopping Lothario himself, James T. Kirk.

Incidentally, McDonald is a former Shadowbox regular who’s making a return visit for this show, probably in honor of the anniversary season. Other welcome returnees include the final skit, The Exorsister, and the spectacular final tune, Thriller, featuring vocals by Leah Laviland and a stageful of creepy dancers.

There’s much more of worth in Freak Show, including such musical numbers as Save Me (sung by a gruff-voiced Walker) and the familiar Mama Told Me Not to Come (talk-sung by Brandon Anderson).

Even the video segments, which normally function as semi-cute fillers, are great. Besides the Jungle Jack interview, my favorite is Flashback, in which a prophetic spirit tells young Shadowbox founder Steve Guyer to postpone his ambitious dream of staging original rock operas and concentrate on sketch comedy. And, oh yes, he’s advised to change his first name to Stev.

Sure, it’s self-referential and maybe even self-indulgent. But after 25 years, Shadowbox is entitled.

Freak Show continues through Nov. 1 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Roommate comedy launches assault on fourth wall

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

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

By Richard Ades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Latest ‘Burlesque’ show has a biographical spin

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

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

By Richard Ades

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

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

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

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

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

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

The show does redeem itself during those flashbacks, however.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love triangle turns deadly in offbeat rock musical

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By Richard Ades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third time is hardly a charm for Shakespeare’s Falstaff

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

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

By Richard Ades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeler-like lass sets out to conquer Broadway

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

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

By Richard Ades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Sex Tape’ is a case of comedius interruptus

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Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel in Sex Tape

Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel in Sex Tape

By Richard Ades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)

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