‘Sex Tape’ is a case of comedius interruptus

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Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel in Sex Tape

Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel in Sex Tape

By Richard Ades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)

Long-gone troupe returns with homage to Broadway belter

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

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

By Richard Ades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Richard Ades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Musical takes young lovers on ‘fantastick’ voyage

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

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

By Richard Ades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shadowbox’s best skits stand up to repeat viewings

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This original version of Slumber Party—Bloody Good Time (seen here) appeared in Shadowbox’s 2013 Halloween show. The new version again features Edelyn Parker (right) as Bloody Mary. (Studio 66 photo)

This original version of Slumber Party—Bloody Good Time (seen here) appeared in Shadowbox’s 2013 Halloween show. The new version again features Edelyn Parker (right) as Bloody Mary. (Studio 66 photo)

By Richard Ades

Catching the annual Best of Shadowbox Live show gave me the chance to cogitate on just what makes a skit (or a movie or a TV show) worth seeing more than once. My conclusion was that it’s pretty much the same kind of thing that makes it worth seeing in the first place.

If a skit bases its appeal on a single twist, chances are it won’t be as much fun when you’ve already seen it and know what’s coming. But it’s also likely that you didn’t get more than a few chuckles out of it the first time around.

I’m thinking, for example, of Coming Out and Going Home, in which college student Benjy (Jimmy Mak) visits his parents (Robbie Nance and Stacie Boord) with a secret he’s dying to get off his chest. The secret, as you might guess from the title, is that he’s gay. The revelation gets an unexpected response.

But the real twist comes after Benjy unloads a second secret that he considers less momentous and is met with the kind of response he expected from his first revelation. OK, it’s a clever idea, but that’s all it is: a single clever idea. The rest of the skit simply tries to build on that idea, and it does it in a rather formulaic way.

The skits that remain the most fun over multiple viewings are those that are entertaining for multiple reasons.

Take Horror for Kids, the latest installment of Sneak a Peek, in which two TV hosts preview films that supposedly are coming to the multiplex. It boasts the usual back-and-forth between the insipid John (David Whitehouse) and the long-suffering Shelly (Julie Klein), which is always fun. Beyond that, it also has a trio of clever scenes from horror films based on children’s TV shows. The funniest reimagines Dora the Explorer (Boord) as a murderer but retains those educational moments during which audience members are prompted to shout out answers to her questions. Example: Which of these implements is best for bashing in someone’s head?

Other welcome repeats include Slumber Party—Bloody Good Time, in which a trio of girls accidentally summon the spirit of a long-dead murderer; and Good Driver Discount, in which an insurance company tries to make a TV commercial but keeps running headlong into insulting stereotypes. Besides their clever concepts, both benefit from funny dialogue and characters. In the first, Stephanie Shull is especially amusing as an elderly woman who over-indulges in face makeup. In the second, an out-of-her-element Bloody Mary (Edelyn Parker) begins aping the “OMG”-spouting girls who brought her back to life.

The best of the repeated skits is the last, Face to Facebook, which pokes fun at all-too-common denizens of social media: the conspiracy theorist, the champion of political correctness, the mom who posts photo after photo of her newborn, and on and on. It’s sure to make you click “like” unless you’re a total “tard brain.”

Besides repeating the best of the previous year’s skits, The Best of Shadowbox Live also repeats the best musical numbers. It’s less of a mystery what makes these worth hearing again: catchy cover tunes augmented by great vocals and instrumentals. My favorite resurrections (and their lead vocalists) include Face Down (Boord), I Put a Spell on You (Shull), Father Figure (JT Walker III) and Led Zeppelin’s exotic Kashmir (Klein).

The Best of Shadowbox Live continues through Sept. 6 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday (no shows July 4, 12, 19, 25-26 or Aug. 1). Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Columbus School for Girls grad excels as melancholy Dane

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Grace Bollander, a graduating senior at Columbus School for Girls, plays the conflicted title character in Hamlet (photo by Nick Pershing)

Grace Bolander, a graduating senior at Columbus School for Girls, plays the conflicted title character in Hamlet (photo by Nick Pershing)

By Richard Ades

Can an 18-year-old high school student do justice to one of the greatest roles in the English language? When that student is Grace Bolander, yes, indeed.

Actors’ Theatre has pushed the envelope with its season-opening production of Hamlet, giving the title role to an actor who is not only a teenager but a female to boot. If you suspect the casting is simply an attention-getting gimmick, you obviously haven’t seen the show. Once you do, you’ll realize that Bolander was simply the best person for the part.

Over the years, I’ve witnessed various takes on the Danish prince, all attempting to explain a puzzling man who seems eager to avenge his father’s murder, yet keeps finding excuses to delay action. Bolander quickly puts her own stamp on the character, portraying him as tearfully emotional one moment and wickedly humorous the next.

She also ups the tempo at key moments, allowing the familiar words to tumble out in a dazzling torrent. Once or twice, the words come a little too fast, rushing the dialogue, but overall her performance is remarkable.

Despite Bolander’s star-making turn, the best thing about Actors’ Theatre’s production is that every performance is remarkable. Co-directed by Nick Baldasare and John S. Kuhn and set in the late Victorian era, this Hamlet interprets each character with clarity and conviction.

John Heisel is a combination of dull-witted malice and honest remorse as King Claudius, the uncle who allegedly stole his throne by murdering Hamlet’s father. As Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother and Claudius’s new bride, Janetta Davis exhibits both wifely support and—after her distraught son shows signs of mental instability—maternal concern.

Josh Katawick is a rock as Horatio, the one friend Hamlet trusts. John Quickley and Sarah Gehring portray Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as such superficial simps that it’s clear why they’re the friends Hamlet doesn’t trust.

As the aged Polonius, John Feather is humorously doddering and sanctimonious. As Ophelia, his daughter and the object of Hamlet’s affection, Rachel Gaunce projects sweetness and innocent virtue.

More solid work is turned in by John Connor as Laertes, Greg Hoffman as the ghost of Hamlet’s father, Jordan Estose as Osric/Messenger, John Beeler as Marcellus/Lucianus, Andy Falter as the Leading Player and Christina Yoho as the acrobatic Player Queen.

Providing able technical support are designers Trent Bean (set), Emily Jeu (costumes), Jarod Wilson (lighting) and William Bragg (sound). Jason Speicher choreographed the climactic fight scene.

In recent years, Actors’ Theatre has branched out from its traditional focus on Shakespeare in an attempt to broaden its audience. And when it did take on the Bard, it sometimes did so in a way that was designed to amuse non-Shakespeare fans: for example, by mixing puppets with live actors (good idea) or by adding jokey pop-culture references and slapstick (bad idea).

Despite its unconventional casting, the current production provides welcome evidence that Actors’ remains capable of doing Shakespeare straight and putting on a great show in the process.

Actors’ Theatre will present Hamlet through June 22 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (including intermission). Admission: Pay what you will. Bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.

Special event: A memorial for Columbus actor Carl Novak, who died unexpectedly last month, will be held at 2 p.m. Friday (May 30) at the Schiller Park amphitheater.

‘Mormon’ musical isn’t just a raunchy satire

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Elder Price (Mark Evans, left) and Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill) are given a rousing sendoff as they prepare to take the Mormon message to Uganda (Broadway.com photo)

Elder Price (Mark Evans, left) and Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill) are given a rousing sendoff as they prepare to take the Mormon message to Uganda (Broadway.com photo)

By Richard Ades

The Book of Mormon has finally arrived in Columbus, and I’ve now had the chance to form a second opinion on the show I saw nearly a year ago on Broadway.

That opinion: I like it even better the second time.

Admittedly, the first act was a bit of a letdown when I attended the show Wednesday at the Ohio Theatre, partly because it had lost the element of surprise. But the second act delivered even more of a payoff, both comically and emotionally.

Emotionally? Yes. This hit musical by Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez and South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone does have some inspiring and heartfelt moments in between all the F-bombs and sexual references.

You’ve probably heard that The Book of Mormon takes a satirical look at the titular faith, including its odd belief that Jesus visited what is now upper-state New York during the brief time between his crucifixion and his resurrection. Yes, it has religious zingers aplenty, and they’re both sly and hilarious. At its core, though, this is the story of a friendship between two young missionaries.

Elder Kevin Price (Mark Evans) is the fair-haired child of his missionary class, so flawless that people assume “Heavenly Father” will grant him any wish he desires. And what Kevin desires is to be assigned to spread the Mormon message in Disney-fied Orlando, which he considers the most perfect place on earth.

Elder Arnold Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill) is Kevin’s opposite, a roly-poly ne’er-do-well with a propensity for stretching the truth. Kevin is chagrined to learn that he and Arnold have been assigned to spend their two-year mission together, and he’s even more chagrined to learn that they’ll be spending it in northern Uganda.

His chagrin turns to terror when he learns that the local people are oppressed not only by poverty, AIDS and superstition, but by a warlord who threatens to “circumcise” (i.e., genitally mutilate) all the women. After the colorfully named General Butt Fucking Naked (Corey Jones) proves his ruthlessness by shooting a detractor in the face, Kevin decides his best option is to request a transfer out of this godforsaken land.

The Book of Mormon’s success depends most heavily on Arnold, an irresponsible scamp who ultimately is forced to Man Up, as he sings in the rousing number that caps off Act 1. In the touring production at the Ohio, O’Neill hits every note just right whether he’s singing or speaking. Over the show’s 2½ hours, he builds a portrayal of a lovably needy but surprisingly resourceful man-child.

Evans also hits every note just right as Kevin, revealing a sweet voice and an innate decency hiding just beneath the character’s self-important surface. He even projects a modicum of vulnerability after a guilty conscience lands Kevin in the middle of a Spooky Mormon Hell Dream. The gaudy musical number surrounds him with threatening demons, a dismissive Jesus and even dancing Starbucks cups. (Mormons, of course, are forbidden from drinking either alcohol or caffeine.)

The show’s third important character is Nabulungi (Alexandra Ncube), a young village woman who responds to the Mormon message because it offers her hope in a hopeless world. Ncube projects charming naiveté and a beautiful singing voice, particularly in her wistful solo Sal Tlay Ka Siti.

Parker co-directs the large and energetic cast with choreographer Casey Nicholaw, who fills the production numbers with clever, spirited dance steps. Justin Mendoza conducts the orchestra, which puts forth a full and satisfying sound despite relying heavily on keyboards. Scott Pask’s scenery, augmented by Brian MacDevitt’s lighting, efficiently moves the action from continent to continent and century to century as needed.

Though The Book of Mormon delights in ridiculing the most eccentric beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it can’t really be described as anti-religious. It accepts and even celebrates religion’s ability to offer hope to people who need it.

The show may not inspire to re-evaluate your beliefs the next time men in white shirts and dark ties ring your doorbell, but you probably won’t slam your door in their faces, either.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present The Book of Mormon through May 25 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $43-$145. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.

Past, politics put a damper on family gathering

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By Richard Ades

Other Desert Cities may be one of those plays that you either love or you hate.

A New York Times critic praised the family drama when it opened at Lincoln Center and subsequently moved to Broadway in 2011. But some viewers who responded to his opinions clearly hated the play, even going so far as to leave at intermission.

After seeing Gallery Players’ production, I can understand where they’re coming from. Jon Robin Baitz’s work starts with at least two strikes against it.

First, there are the characters of Lyman and Polly Wyeth, a secular Jewish couple living in Palm Springs. Lyman is a former movie star who became an ambassador during the Reagan administration, and both he and his wife have immersed themselves in right-wing politics. Trouble is, they’ve immersed themselves so totally that, when faced with a painful dilemma involving their grown children, they respond with conservative talking points. Polly, in particular, is little more than a living, breathing cliché.

Add to that Baitz’s tendency to have his characters “communicate” by making long-winded speeches at each other. In the current production, at least, that adds up to uncomfortable moments during which everyone else is reduced to standing or sitting around in stiff silence.

Faced with the play’s shortcomings, director April Olt and her cast have a tough theatrical row to hoe. Despite this, a couple of the performances do manage to bear dramatic fruit.

Jill Taylor is intense and believably agitated as Brooke Wyeth, an author who’s struggling to recover from a seven-year bout with depression. Brooke is visiting her parents on Christmas Eve, 2004, with manuscripts of her new tell-all book about Henry, a brother who apparently committed suicide after being involved in a leftist-inspired bombing. She wants her parents to approve the book even though it basically blames them for Henry’s death.

Even more energy is provided by Jay Rittberger as Brooke’s surviving brother, Trip. The producer of a TV reality show, Trip finds himself in the middle of the resulting battle between his parents and sister. Thanks to Rittberger’s hyper and earnest performance, his response results in some of the production’s most compelling moments.

Tom Holliday and Catherine Cryan have less success as parents Lyman and Polly. Cryan doesn’t seem monstrous enough to say some of the horrible things that come out of Polly’s mouth, while Holliday delivers his lines as if ex-actor Lyman were simply playing one of his old Hollywood roles. And neither Holliday nor Cryan manages to inspire much sympathy, an admittedly hard task but one that is probably necessary in order to keep viewers involved.

Similarly unconvincing is Cheryl Jacobs as Polly’s sister Silda. Jacobs doesn’t convey enough edge or bitterness as the alcoholic ex-screenwriter, who plays a continually developing role in the battle of wills between Brooke and her parents.

In general, what’s missing from the production is a sense of the connections and tensions that would help the characters rise above their often cliché-ridden and wordy dialogue. At least Jon Baggs’s handsome set gives viewers something to look at while they endure all the speechifying.

Baitz does look at interesting questions in Other Desert Cities, such as whether an author has the right to use her own life as subject matter regardless of its impact on those around her. He also rewards viewers’ patience with some startling revelations.

But his play presents many obstacles to both actors and viewers, and the current production hasn’t been able to overcome them.

Gallery Players will present Other Desert Cities through May 18 at the Jewish Community Center, 1125 College Ave. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20 ($15 JCC members), $18 for seniors ($13 JCC members), $10 for students and children. 614-231-2731 or www.jccgalleryplayers.org.

Great art inspires great music

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Amy Lay as one of several mutated creatures that appear in Gallery of Echoes’ take on the sculpture Bird by Aldo Casanova (Shadowbox Live photo)

Amy Lay as one of several mutated creatures that appear in Gallery of Echoes’ take on the sculpture Bird by Aldo Casanova (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

My Free Press preview of Gallery of Echoes describes it as an experiment in “art appreciation.” If that sounds dull to you, buck up. Shadowbox Live’s offbeat show does try to be educational, but it works even harder at being entertaining.

Taking a break from its usual skits and rock cover songs, the troupe spends about two hours examining 21 pieces from the Columbus Museum of Art’s permanent collection. It does this with the help of narration, dance and video projected on a 9-by-27-foot screen. Best of all, it does it with original music composed and performed by an in-house band called Light.

Seriously, no matter how impressed you are by the show in general, you can’t help being blown away by the music. Shadowbox has thrown original numbers into its shows from time to time, but these pieces are in a class by themselves. The best ones complement their respective artworks perfectly, and all are flawlessly performed by Stev Guyer, Gabriel Guyer, Jennifer Hahn, Matthew Hahn, Brandon Smith and Brent Lambert, along with occasional vocalists and a host of auxiliary players.

Other elements of the show also have their moments, sometimes even overshadowing the music. That’s the case in the first number, based on King Lake, California, an 1870s oil painting by Albert Bierstadt. Though the music for this piece is not particularly memorable, the video images allow viewers to feel like they’re exploring Bierstadt’s untamed Western landscape.

When a segment is really cooking, though, all of the elements combine to create an experience that stands on its own, regardless of how you feel about the featured artwork.

One of my favorite pieces is based on Bird, a sculpture by Ohio State-educated (and environmentally conscious) artist Aldo Casanova. While the band plays one of the show’s nicer instrumental numbers, a succession of actors pose and strut across the stage in the guise of bizarre, mutated birds. Brava to Linda Mullin for the ingenious costume designs.

Another favorite is Shadowbox’s take on The Assassination by James Ensor. As the video explores every detail of the grotesque painting, the band nimbly picks its way through appropriately shrill music with unbelievably intricate timing.

Since Shadowbox bills Gallery of Echoes as an aid to appreciating the featured art, it’s fair to ask whether it accomplishes its task. In this respect, it’s a mixed success.

The narration sometimes offers valuable background information, as when we’re told that German/Danish artist Emile Nolde created Sunflowers in the Windstorm (1943) after the Nazi Party had forbidden him from painting. But the video then goes on to insert images of marching soldiers and even Hitler himself in the midst of the swaying flowers. It seems like overkill, and it doesn’t help us to understand Nolde’s position as a Nazi whose style of art had fallen out of official favor.

Art enthusiasts may also be bothered by various segments’ attempts to interpret their respective works. One of the joys of great art is that it invites viewers to come up with their own interpretation.

Yes, Gallery of Echoes does sometimes work as an unusually lively class in art appreciation. But it’s best enjoyed as an innovative show that uses classic artworks as a jumping-off point: the inspiration for graceful dancing, colorful costumes and some really fine music.

Gallery of Echoes will be presented through Sunday (May 4) at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Remaining show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Saturday, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$40, $20-$35 for students, seniors, military and Columbus Museum of Art members. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

You’ve seen the show, now see the art

Despite renovation projects now going on at the Columbus Museum of Art, 11 of the 21 pieces featured in Gallery of Echoes are currently on display. They are:
King Lake, California by Albert Bierstadt
Thunderstorm by Arthur Dove
The Assassination by James Ensor
Into the Past by Hananiah Harari
The Swimmer by Yasuo Kuniyoshi
Sunflowers in the Windstorm by Emile Nolde
Female Nude by Pablo Picasso
Bouquet of Light by Christopher Ries
Melanie, the Schoolteacher by Chaim Soutine
Cornice by George Tooker
Portrait of Andries Stilte II by Kehinde Wiley
For more information, visit columbusmuseum.org.

Pinball Wizard, Acid Queen return in pioneering rock opera

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JJ Parkey as pinball wizard Tommy (center) revels in the adulation of his dancing fans while Griffin Giannone, as his 10-year-old self, racks up a score at the pinball machine in The Who’s Tommy (photo by Heather Wack)

JJ Parkey as pinball wizard Tommy (center) revels in the adulation of his dancing fans while Griffin Giannone, as his 10-year-old self, racks up a score at the pinball machine in The Who’s Tommy (photo by Heather Wack)

By Richard Ades

Check out Short North Stage’s program for The Who’s Tommy, and you’ll see that Edward Carignan is billed as both the director and the choreographer. The jobs aren’t as distinct as you might assume.

There’s dancing, of course, but even when there isn’t, the scenes move along with such speed, precision and complexity that they feel like they’ve been choreographed rather than merely directed. As often happens during Short North Stage musicals, you can’t help sitting up and thinking, “Wow!”

JJ Parkey (formerly seen in the troupe’s Cabaret and Hedwig and the Angry Inch) stars as the adult version of the English title character, who becomes oblivious to the world after witnessing a shocking event at the age of 4: His father (David Bryant Johnson) returns from World War II and finds his wife (Emily Brockway) having an affair. A struggle ensues, and the lover (Jason Carl Crase) is killed.

Over the years, the helpless Tommy endures mistreatment at the hands of his perverted Uncle Ernie (Ryan Stem) and sadistic Cousin Kevin (Josh Houghton). He also is subjected to his parents’ endless attempts to “cure” him with the help of either science or religion. Nothing can break him out of his mental prison.

Then Tommy stumbles across a pinball machine and proves to have so much innate skill at the game—possibly because his disabilities eliminate all distractions—that he becomes a minor celebrity.

Much more happens, including Tommy’s eventual rise from a minor celebrity to a major one, but the musical reaches its high point when our hero discovers his unexpected talent to the tune of the rousing Act 1 capper, Pinball Wizard. Post-intermission developments never attain this level of emotional power.

Musically speaking, however, it’s a different matter. Composer/lyricist/co-book writer Pete Townshend, with help from bandmates John Entwistle and Keith Moon, has filled the album-based musical with songs that not only advance the plot but are memorable in their own right.

At Thursday’s preview, conductor P. Tim Valentine’s backstage band sometimes overwhelmed the singers and rendered lyrics indecipherable. Hopefully, a few tweaks on the soundboard will improve that situation.

In the leading role, Parkey’s vocals are as strong as ever, though some of his Act 2 dialogue comes off as stilted. Two young brothers, Christian and Griffin Giannone, give poised performances as Tommy at ages 4 and 10, respectively.

The rest of the cast is uniformly good, but Kendra Lynn Lucas stands out for making the most of her showy role as the drug-pushing Acid Queen. Another indelible impression is made by Tommy Batchelor (a former Billy Elliot on Broadway), who emerges from the ensemble to give an amazing balletic dance solo during the Act 2 Underture.

Rob Kuhn’s scenic and lighting designs are complementary, as the set is a series of white doors and panels that goes through chameleonic changes whenever the lighting changes hues. Director Carignan’s costume designs are inventive and colorful.

First appearing as a double album in 1969 and as a stage show in 1992, The Who’s Tommy helped to found the genre of the rock musical. In 2014, its audacity and musical sophistication still inspire awe.

Short North Stage will present The Who’s Tommy through April 27 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.

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