Carole King musical is a tapestry of nostalgic sights and sounds

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Julia Knitel as Carole King in the Broadway in Columbus/CAPA presentation of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Photos by Joan Marcus)

By Richard Ades

Pop memories mix with Broadway pizzazz in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.

The titular singer-songwriter won multiple Grammys in 1971 with Tapestry, an album that voiced the joys, fears and regrets of an entire generation. Beautiful, a jukebox musical written by Douglas McGrath, explains how King became the person who created the iconic work.

The journey begins when King (winningly played by Julia Knitel) is a precocious 16-year-old who’s determined to forge a career writing pop songs. Despite multiple rejections, she persuades her mom (Alaina Mills) to let her try one more time by taking her latest tune to a recording studio on Times Square.

There she meets two men who will play crucial roles in her career: record producer Don Kirshner (James Clow), who is won over by her pop lament It Might as Well Rain Until September; and Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin), a lyricist who quickly becomes her partner in music and in life.

In most jukebox musicals, the plot exists only to tie together a slew of popular songs. In Beautiful, the plot exists to explain how those songs came to be. Because King’s tunes have so much emotional resonance for those who grew up with them, the story has built-in appeal. We want to know what turned this nerdy, self-effacing teen into the older but wiser, sadder but stronger talent who poured her aching heart out in Tapestry.

In the touring show, that appeal helps to make up for a central relationship that seems iffy from the start because Tobin’s Goffin comes across as someone who is as self-absorbed as he is brilliant. King may think he’s worth the effort, but viewers are apt to be less convinced.

Gathered around the piano (from left): Curt Bouril as Don Kirshner, Liam Tobin as Gerry Goffin, Julia Knitel as Carole King, Ben Fankhauser as Barry Mann and Erika Olson as Cynthia Weil

Oddly, it’s easier to root for another songwriting couple who become friendly competitors to King and Goffin. Lyricist Cynthia Weil (Erika Olson) is sassy and sarcastic, while composer Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser) is a lovable hypochondriac. The two create both laughs and romantic sparks whenever they’re onstage.

Under Marc Bruni’s direction, the show flows smoothly and efficiently from one scene or song to the next. Derek McLane’s scenery, Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting and Alejo Vietti’s costumes combine to create stage pictures that are both glitzy and elegant. The production numbers are particularly gorgeous and benefit from Josh Prince’s choreography, which often parodies moves favored by early groups such as the Shirelles and the Drifters (both of which make guest “appearances”).

My personal favorite among the production numbers: the Drifters’ rendition of On Broadway, one of the Weil-Mann hits. But there are many other musical moments, both big and intimate, that will tempt viewers to sing along. (But don’t, please—you’ll get your chance during the curtain call.)

My only musical complaint is that Knitel sometimes strays from the well-known King melodies, as if trying to make them her own. Since she’s playing King, she really ought to stick to the original notes. Overall, though, she vocalizes beautifully, often capturing the singer’s timbre without doing an outright impersonation. The rest of the cast sings equally well and is expertly backed up by conductor Susan Draus and her band.

Beautiful may not hit as many emotional moments as it could, but it lives up to its name both visually and aurally while delivering a nutritious serving of nostalgia.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Beautiful: The Carole King Musical through Sunday (June 11) at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. 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, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $39-$246. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, broadway.columbus.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Teenage romance suffers from terminal niceness

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Maddy Whittier (Amandla Stenberg, right), a teenager with a rare health condition, is afraid to tell her mother (Anika Noni Rose) she’s fallen for the boy next door. (Warner Bros. Entertainment/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.)

By Richard Ades

Maddy Whittier has been diagnosed with a rare condition called severe combined immune deficiency, or SCID. As a result, the teen is never allowed to leave the sterile home her physician-mother has designed to protect her from the world.

Stella Meghie, the director of Everything, Everything, seems to think we viewers need to be similarly protected from the world—or, at least, from the ebbs and flows that make it a challenging place to live. Together with screenwriter J. Mills Goodloe, she’s adapted Nicola Yoon’s best-selling novel in a way that filters out any darkness or unpleasantness. In the process, she also filters out most of the character quirks and dramatic tension that would have brought the story to life.

All that’s left is the bland, if heavy-breathing, tale of a teenage romance that faces more than the usual number of obstacles.

When we first meet Maddy (Amandla Stenberg), she seems to have come to terms with a life that must be lived within her L.A. home’s four walls. She never sees anyone other than her widowed mother (Anika Noni Rose), her sympathetic nurse (Ana de la Reguera) and Rosa (Danube Hermosillo), a friend who will soon leave town.

Then, about the time she turns 18, Maddy notices that the family moving in next door has a teenage son, Olly (Nick Robinson). Olly also notices her and immediately starts trying to get to know her. Though Maddy’s protective mom attempts to keep them apart, the two soon succeed in exchanging phone numbers and texts. From that point, it’s only a matter of time before Maddy starts conniving ways to meet this charming young man in person, whatever health risks it might pose for herself.

I haven’t read Yoon’s novel, but I get the feeling it’s far less filtered than Meghie’s film. One clue is that we’re told Olly has dark tendencies, but he doesn’t come across that way at all other than uttering the PG-13-rated flick’s one cuss word. We also see only hints of the difficult family situation that would explain his alleged darkness: a father who is abusive toward Olly, his sister and particularly toward his mother.

As written by screenwriter Goodloe and played by Robinson, Olly is simply a nice guy. He’s the kind of boyfriend any mother would be glad to find for her daughter—unless, of course, her daughter was living with SCID.

Even blander is Stenberg’s portrayal of Maddy. Viewers who caught last year’s Loving might be reminded of a younger Mildred, the woman (played by Ruth Negga) who bravely challenged her state’s laws against interracial marriage. Not only is there a vague physical resemblance, but both possess an inner calm that survives anything life throws at them. If Mildred’s calm seemed more deep and profound than Maddy’s, it may be because she wasn’t forced to utter romantic inanities like “Love can’t kill me” and “I loved you before I knew you.”

As a teenage romance involving a girl with a serious medical problem, Everything, Everything is likely to be compared to 2014’s The Fault in Our Stars. Such comparisons collapse, however, in the face of that tear-jerker’s believable characters and complicated emotions.

The would-be lovers in Everything, Everything are as generic as the tale’s title and as sterile as the environment in which they meet. The romantic fantasy may find its share of young fans, but only if they can overlook the complete lack of depth beneath its glossy, unruffled surface.

Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)

Everything, Everything (PG-13) opens Friday (May 19) at theaters nationwide.

Ridiculous plot is only an excuse to sing ’80s rock tunes

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Drew (John Boyd), Lonny (Guillermo Jemmott) and Dennis Dupree (Brandon Anderson) hold forth in Shadowbox Live’s Rock of Ages (Photos by Tommy Feisel)

By Richard Ades

Jukebox musicals are a pretty silly invention, and Rock of Ages is sillier than most. Faced with the task of building a plot around popular rock tunes from the 1980s, book writer Chris D’Arienzo came up with a doozy:

A father-and-son team of German developers (Tom Cardinal and Billy DePetro) want to bulldoze Hollywood’s Sunset Strip and evict the rock fans who live and work there. Why? Presumably, to make money with a redevelopment scheme, but we all know the real reason is to give the cast an excuse to sing Starship’s We Built This City (on rock ’n’ roll) and a host of other ’80s classics.

Franz (Billy DePetro, left) watches as his father, Hertz (Tom Cardinal), persuades the mayor (Nikkii Davis) to back a plan to bulldoze Sunset Strip.

The plot is so ridiculous that the musical doesn’t even pretend to be anything but what it is: a musical. In the first few minutes, narrator and “sound god” Lonny (Guillermo Jemmott) admits he’s adding a romance to the proceedings simply because musicals have to have a romance.

We then meet would-be rock star Drew (John Boyd), who quickly falls in love with would-be movie star Sherrie (Amy Lay), just arrived from Kansas. Following the usual pattern, their relationship undergoes a series of hiccups and misunderstandings that keeps them apart until—well, until a host of other ’80s songs have been sung and danced to.

When I first saw Rock of Ages in 2010, I was able to embrace its silliness thanks to the touring show’s sweetly sincere portrayal of Drew and to outrageous costume designs that were like an oversexed version of what folks really wore during the Reagan decade. Shadowbox’s production, directed by Julie Klein, is only slightly more restrained on the style side, and Boyd is appealingly sincere as Drew. He also sings very well.

Drew (John Boyd) falls in love with Sherrie (Amy Lay) because, well, someone has to fall in love or it wouldn’t be a musical.

Most of the other cast members are equally in tune, musically and otherwise. Besides those already mentioned, they include Brandon Anderson as club owner Dennis Dupree, Jamie Barrow as sleazy rock star Stacee Jaxx, Ashley Pearce as protest leader Regina, Eryn Reynolds as talent agent Ja’Keith, Nikki Davis as the corrupt mayor and Noelle Anderson (alternating with Stacie Boord) as gentlemen’s club owner Justice.

Speaking of the gentlemen’s club, Lay’s Sherrie is amusingly inept when she takes a job there and tries her hand at pole dancing. Overall, though, I wish she came across as less of a shallow hick, which makes it even harder than it otherwise would be to care about whether she and Drew hook up.

To pick another nit, I wish DePetro’s Franz were a bit less, um, swishy. I realize the portrayal is meant to set up a joke about effeminate German mannerisms (presumably the kind Craig Ferguson used to spoof to excess on The Late Late Show), but DePetro overshoots the mark. (German mark? Get it? Never mind.)

Back to the good stuff: Accompanied by a boisterous five-piece band, the cast rocks out on vintage classics like Any Way You Want It, Don’t Stop Believin’, The Final Countdown, Hit Me With Your Best Shot, Just Like Paradise and many others. Even though the plot is reasonably entertaining, especially during Act 2, cover songs like these are the real reason for buying a ticket.

In a jukebox musical, that’s as it should be.

Rock of Ages continues through Aug. 27 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times: 2 and 7 p.m. select Sundays. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets: $20-$25. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Hilariously nasty women return in tribute to guilt, embarrassment

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Maureen (Julie Klein, left) and Buffy (Katy Psenicka) intake alcohol and output insults in a sketch from Shadowbox Live’s Guilty Pleasures. (Photos by Buzz Crisafulli)

By Richard Ades

Guilty Pleasures, Shadowbox Live’s latest theme show, allows me to enjoy one of my own: insult comedy. It’s the reason I look forward to every return visit by Maureen and Buffy, the soused and acid-tongued society matrons played by Julie Klein and Katy Psenicka.

The two pals are as mean-spirited as ever in their latest escapade, The Fundraising Ball, which has them attending a political function and surreptitiously throwing barbed comments at their fellow guests. Example: Noticing a passing woman’s extensive surgical enhancement, one muses, “If those tits get any higher, they’d be shoulders.”

Both characters are as memorable as their one-liners, but for different reasons: Psenicka’s Buffy for her cackling laugh and Klein’s Maureen for the palpable air of gloom that surrounds her and helps to explain her addiction to wine and all-around nastiness.

Though the theme show lives up to its name at times like this, it could just as easily be called Embarrassing Situations. The first skit, Dream Catcher, sets the tone when Harold (Jimmy Mak) brings girlfriend Louise (Leah Haviland) back to his place and reluctantly introduces her to Aquaman and other fantastical beings who’ve taken up residence there. Louise, who majored in dream interpretation at Antioch University, quickly recognizes them as symbols of Harold’s scarred psyche. The skit is as funny as it is clever.

Other embarrassment-riddled skits (listed in descending order of effectiveness):

Bad Siri: Jim (Mak) is chagrined when the titular virtual assistant picks an inopportune moment to reveal his love of sappy movies and his unexpressed desire for a female acquaintance.

Browser History: Friends Gina and Keri (Klein and Psenicka) find evidence that Gina’s roommate (Tom Cardinal) has a creepy fixation on a certain fictional pony. You’ll see the punchline galloping toward you from a mile away.

Guilty Pleasures: The show’s final skit has a roomful of people admitting their secret vices, most of which are too mild to be really embarrassing, much less funny.

Jimmy Mak and Amy Lay in the sketch Loving Life

Additional skits include the TV spoof Perspectives, which is amusing thanks to David Whitehouse’s robust impersonation of Dr. Phil. Maybe it’s a matter of taste, but I got fewer laughs out of either the vaudeville routine Houdini Escapes Death or the vaudeville-like Loving Life, though the latter does have a nifty punchline.

As befits the show’s theme, the musical numbers include Haviland’s sexy rendition of the All-American Rejects’ Dirty Little Secret. Starting things off on the right foot, Stephanie Shull expertly sings and raps her way through Mercy, while Nikki Fagin ends things on an unrepentant note with Pink’s So What.

In between are a slew of highlights. They include the novelty number Coin-Operated Boy, the joyful Hollywood Nights and the entertaining Canned Heat, sung by Ashley Pearce, Klein and Lay, respectively.

Guilty Pleasures continues through June 3 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Running time: 1 hours, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Visual and vocal pizazz make ‘Bodyguard’ a nostalgic treat

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Deborah Cox as Rachel Marron in The Bodyguard (Photos by Joan Marcus)

Deborah Cox as Rachel Marron in The Bodyguard (Photos by Joan Marcus)

By Richard Ades

I thought I’d seen flashy theatrical shows in the past, but I now realize I was mistaken. When it comes to flashiness, The Bodyguard is in a class by itself.

A stage remake of the 1992 flick starring Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston, the musical literally starts off with a bang—that is, a gunshot. After stunning viewers into rapt attention, director Thea Sharrock then holds their attention with flashy production numbers (choreographed by Karen Bruce), flashy sets and costumes (designed by Tim Hatley), flashy lighting (designed by Mark Henderson) and, most importantly of all, flashy singing. The latter is mostly provided by Deborah Cox, who does an expert job of filling in for the late and lamented Houston.

Mind you, I don’t mean to give the impression that The Bodyguard is nothing but flash. What makes the romantic thriller palatable and even enjoyable is that Sharrock knows the value of restraint. The thrills are meted out in a judicious manner that makes them all the more exciting when they arrive. That goes for the dramatic thrills, sometimes accompanied by a pleasantly startling jolt, but it particularly goes for the musical thrills.

One of the most entertaining scenes takes place in a karaoke club where disguised pop star Rachel Marron (Cox) has been persuaded to sing one of her own hit songs. After coyly understating the verse, setting off an “Is it her or isn’t it her?” chatter among a trio of college-age fans, she charges into the chorus with all the vocal power at her command. The fans squeal in delight, as does much of the audience.

Much later, Cox’s Rachel pulls off a similar trick with the Houston hit we all came to hear, I Will Always Love You. She underplays the first few verses, making us fear we’ll have to go back to the movie to hear it sung right. Then, to everyone’s delight, both Cox and director Sharrock pull out all the stops.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. There’s a love story to get through before we arrive at that spectacular moment. It’s not a very interesting love story, but the leads’ likable and unassuming performances make it diverting enough to tide us over between songs.

Rachel (Deborah Cox) and bodyguard Frank Farmer (Judson Mills) decide to give romance a try.

Rachel (Deborah Cox) and bodyguard Frank Farmer (Judson Mills) decide to give romance a try.

When Rachel’s life is threatened by a deranged stalker (Jorge Paniagua), her handlers hire bodyguard Frank Farmer (Judson Mills) to keep her safe. The two initially rub each other the wrong way, mostly because Rachel chafes against the cautious restrictions Frank tries to institute. But eventually they fall for each other and start, you know, rubbing each other the right way—until Frank realizes that their affair is compromising his ability to do his job.

Besides Rachel and Frank, the only relatable characters are Rachel’s sister, Nikki (Jasmin Richardson), and son, Fletcher (Douglas Baldeo). As Fletcher, Baldeo (replaced by Kevelin B. Jones III at alternate performances) is simply adorable. As the jealous Nikki, an aspiring singer who’s had to live her life in her famous sibling’s shadow, Richardson showcases her wide vocal range and dramatic style on the gorgeous solo Saving All My Love. (Note: Richardson will play Rachel at the Saturday matinee and Sunday evening performances.)

Supporting characters include Rachel’s press agent, Sy (Jonathan Hadley), and manager, Bill (Charles Gray), but other than Sy’s pushiness, neither is given much of a personality.

First performed in London’s West End in 2012 and featuring a book by Alexander Dinelaris, the musical simplifies the 1992 movie’s plot. No doubt, this was done to make it easier to stage, but the main motivation was probably to leave more room for the Whitney Houston songs that were the flick’s most timeless attributes.

With a star who approximates Houston’s vocal power and a production flashy enough to make up for its dramatic shortcomings, The Bodyguard should please fans of the movie and just about everyone else.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present The Bodyguard through Sunday (Feb. 19) at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. 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, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $34-$99. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Timely revue pays homage to groundbreaking artists

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Leah Haviland, Nick Wilson, Noelle Grandison, Nikki Davis and Guillermo Jemmott (from left) in Evolutionaries: The Stories and Music of David Bowie and Prince, opening this week at Shadowbox Live (Photo by Buzz Crisafulli)

Leah Haviland, Nick Wilson, Noelle Grandison, Nikki Davis and Guillermo Jemmott (from left) in Evolutionaries: The Stories and Music of David Bowie and Prince (Photo by Buzz Crisafulli)

By Richard Ades

Shadowbox Live has created a new art form of sorts with its musical tribute shows. Past efforts and the musicians they celebrated include Mad Dog and Englishman (Joe Cocker), Which One’s Pink? (Pink Floyd) and Bigger Than Jesus (the Beatles).

The current Evolutionaries differs from its predecessors by celebrating two artists, Prince and David Bowie, both of whom were lost prematurely in 2016. Otherwise, it follows the established pattern by offering great music accompanied by dancing, vintage video footage and enlightening tidbits of information.

With two groundbreaking careers to cover, Evolutionaries could well have run much longer than its two hours and 15 minutes. One way that director Julie Klein and head writer Jimmy Mak keep it to a comfortable length is by limiting the biographical material to short statements delivered by narrator Michelle Daniels. Through these we learn, for instance, that Prince suffered from epileptic fits as a child and that young Bowie dreamed of becoming the British Elvis.

More generally, Daniels points out that Prince and Bowie shared a fluid attitude toward gender and sexuality. In Bowie’s case, his whole identity seemed to be in a continual state of flux, as reflected by Ziggy Stardust and other alter egos who emerged onstage over the years.

Another way the show avoids overstaying its welcome is by restricting itself to the songs that are considered indispensable. No doubt some fans will complain that this or that favorite was left out, but those that were included add up to an entertaining synopsis of two revolutionary careers. Among the many highlights:

When Doves Cry (Prince), sung by Stacie Boord and featuring one of several screaming guitar solos by Matthew Hahn.

Changes (Bowie), featuring honey-sweet vocals by Boord and one of several glorious saxophone solos delivered at alternate performances by Jonathan Weisbrot and Kevin O’Neill.

Ziggy Stardust (Bowie), sung by Gabriel Guyer in the guise of the strutting interplanetary traveler.

Electric Chair (Prince), with lead vocals by Noelle Grandison, a funky guitar solo by Brent Lambert and a wild finish.

Let’s Go Crazy (Prince), a gospel-style number sung by Boord and featuring orgasmic “organ” riffs pounded out by keyboardist Kevin Patrick Sweeney.

Dance moves choreographed by Katy Psenicka provide the perfect visual accompaniment to many numbers. During Bowie’s Let’s Dance, Nikki Davis and Nick Wilson sample vintage dance styles ranging from the Charleston to disco. Later, a blindfolded Guyer sings Bowie’s Lazarus while wandering through a group of graceful but equally blindfolded dancers.

In the funniest number, four preening “models” (Davis, Wilson, Guillermo Jemmott and Eryn Reynolds) vie for our approval while Guyer sings Bowie’s Fame.

Video images edited by David Whitehouse also play a prominent role. The most somber sequence assaults us with scenes from wars, riots and other acts of violence while Boord sings Prince’s Sign o’ the Times.

Timely and informative, Evolutionaries is a heartfelt gift to Bowie and Prince fans, and an opportunity for everybody else to appreciate what we’ve lost.

Evolutionaries: The Stories and Music of Prince and David Bowie continues through May 25 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. select Wednesdays and Thursdays. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (including intermission). Tickets: $25, $20 students/seniors/military. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Comedy offers horrific orgy of sex, blasphemy and puppetry

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Jason (Danny Turek), a teenager possessed by his demonic hand puppet, threatens Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam) in Short North Stage’s production of Hand to God. (Photo by Jason Allen)

Jason (Danny Turek), a teenager possessed by his demonic hand puppet, threatens Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam) in Short North Stage’s production of Hand to God. (Photos by Jason Allen)

By Richard Ades

Hand to God has moments of hilarity, along with moments of horror. It starts, though, with a moment of disorientation.

Because set designer Bill Pierson has reconfigured the Garden Theater’s Green Room to resemble a church rec room, and because guests are handed a “church bulletin” on their way in, they may be unprepared for what happens next. A puppet appears on the “stage” of a miniature theater set up on one side of the room. But rather than offer the expected Christian message, he begins talking about “extracurricular fucking” and other things that are bad but “unavoidable.”

This, we learn, is Tyrone, and he’ll be saying and doing things that are even more outrageous before the show is over. Is he the devil, or is he simply a manifestation of a teenage boy’s inner thoughts and desires? That’s one of the questions playwright Robert Askins raises in his religion-taunting comedy.

The sacrilegious fun starts in earnest when we meet the flesh-and-blood characters who come into contact with Tyrone (and lose a little flesh and blood in the process).

Jessica (Kate Lingnofski) is a recently widowed mom who is supervising a puppet-making project at the Pilgrim Lutheran Church in Cypress, Texas. Taking part in the project are teenagers Margery (Barbara Weetman) and Timothy (Chad Goodwin), along with Jessica’s son, Jason (Danny Turek). Overseeing it all is Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam), who hopes the puppets will be used to spread the Gospel.

Thanks to Tyrone, that never happens. Created by Jason and attached more or less permanently to his left hand, the puppet appears to have a mind of his own. And what a disturbing mind it is—by Texas Lutheran standards, at least. He insists on blurting out thoughts that the shy and conflicted Jason would prefer to keep private, such as his carnal feelings toward Margery. Saddled with what amounts to a dual role, Turek does an admirable job of switching back and forth between the put-upon Jason and his vicious alter ego.

Jessica (Kate Lingnofski) watches as Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam) confronts an amorous Timothy (Chad Goodwin).

Jessica (Kate Lingnofski) watches as Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam) confronts an amorous Timothy (Chad Goodwin).

Working under Edward Carignan’s exuberant direction, the other cast members perform at the same high level. Weetman makes Margery an appealing combination of sweetness and pluck, while Putnam gives Pastor Greg a believable blend of human fallibility and heroic strength. As the frustrated Jessica and the hormone-driven Timothy, Lingnofski and Goodwin create big laughs while acting out an encounter that is aggressively kinky and probably illegal.

My only quibble with Askins’s comedy is that it tries too hard to be outrageous. OK, I can buy that Bible Belt Christians have secret frustrations and desires that sometimes lead them into unspeakable acts, but would they really drop so many F-bombs in the process? That’s a minor point, though.

Overall, the show is a provocative delight. As a bonus, it even leaves viewers with a final thought from Tyrone that gives them something to mull over on the way home.

Short North Stage will present Hand to God through March 5 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday (no 3 p.m. show Feb. 25), and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $30. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

Musical mermaid yearns for love in Disney do-over

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Diana Huey as Ariel in the touring production of The Little Mermaid, presented by Broadway in Columbus and CAPA (Photo by Mark & Tracy Photography)

Diana Huey as Ariel in the touring production of The Little Mermaid, presented by Broadway in Columbus and CAPA (Photos by Mark & Tracy Photography)

By Richard Ades

In mythic lore, mermaids were seductive creatures whose haunting voices lured sailors to their deaths. In modern times, The Little Mermaid lured Disney to one of its rare stumbles: a 2008 Broadway musical that failed to reclaim the magic of the company’s 1989 animated flick. The production garnered so-so reviews and sank a year and a half later.

Now, in a salvage operation consisting of a complete overhaul, Disney has relaunched the tale in a touring show that corrects most of the original production’s faults. It’s still no Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, but it’s a likable show that should keep parents and their young princes and princesses entertained.

Directed by Glenn Casale, the show uses cables and Kenneth Foy’s modest but attractive scenery to re-create the title character’s underwater world. The cables allow Ariel (Diana Huey) and others to “swim” through the domain ruled by her father, King Triton (Steve Blanchard). In scenes set at the surface or edge of the ocean, they allow her feathered friend Scuttle (Jamie Torcellini) to “fly.”

Though much has changed in the way the tale is told, the basic plot remains the same: Ariel is a teenage mermaid who has long been fascinated by humans despite her father’s claim that they’re barbarians who murdered her mother. Her fascination blossoms into a full-blown crush when she spies the seagoing Prince Eric (Matthew Kacergis) and subsequently saves his life when he falls overboard in a sudden storm.

Determined to meet the handsome Eric (who was unconscious when she pulled him from the sea), she makes a Faustian bargain with her evil aunt, Ursula (Jennifer Allen): Ariel will become human, but she will forfeit her soul unless she can persuade the prince to kiss her within three days. In addition, she will immediately lose her voice. That’s unfortunate for her, because Eric has fallen in love with the singing voice he heard before the storm and is determined to find and marry its owner.

Jennifer Allen as the villainous Ursula

Jennifer Allen as the villainous Ursula

Though The Little Mermaid lacks the emotional depth of the best Disney musicals, it partially makes up for it by throwing in a boatload of humor. Scuttle’s misuse of the English language is a bit forced, but Allen’s tentacled and self-amused Ursula is good for chuckles. Funnier still is a scene in which a French chef (Dane Stokinger) prepares a meal by smashing deceased sea creatures with various kitchen utensils.

As Ariel, Huey is most successful at portraying the humorous side of puppy (guppy?) love, especially after the mermaid transforms into a human. In the sea, she’s often overshadowed by the more colorful characters around her, but on land, she’s amusingly awkward as Ariel struggles to deal with an unfamiliar body and emotions. (It’s probably unnecessary to point out that the former mermaid’s struggles symbolically parallel what the average girl goes through during her teen years.)

Despite the emphasis on comedy, The Little Mermaid’s biggest strengths are the tunes penned by composer Alan Menken and lyricists Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater. Sebastian (Melvin Abston), a crab who becomes Ariel’s protector, makes the most of two popular holdovers from the movie: Under the Sea and Kiss the Girl. Huey’s lovely voice soars on Ariel solos such as Part of Your World, while Kacergis displays the production’s strongest pipes on Eric’s numbers Her Voice and One Step Closer.

One element of the plot could use further honing: The inevitable happy ending comes about thanks to a sudden development that left both me and my date scratching our heads. Otherwise, The Little Mermaid—both the title character and the revised telling of her story—offers an inspiring lesson on the value of perseverance.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Disney’s The Little Mermaid through Sunday (Feb. 5) at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. 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, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $29-$94. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, broadway.columbus.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Sexy skits remain funny through the final punchline

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Brandon Anderson as Funk Daddy Love in a skit from Body Heat (Shadowbox Live photo)

Brandon Anderson as Funk Daddy Love in a skit from Body Heat (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

Are sex and romance the best antidotes for the post-holiday blahs? Shadowbox Live seems to think so, as it always starts out the new year with the theatrical equivalent of a roll in the hay. Accordingly, the new Body Heat theme show holds forth with nearly two hours’ worth of heavy-breathing skits and songs.

Is the show sponge-worthy, as Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes might ask? Yes, thanks to three laudable attributes: (1) Some of the skits are pretty clever. (2) Some of the songs are dynamite. And (3) Funk Daddy Love is back!

For me, the last attribute may be the most important. The singer, played with satirical relish by Brandon Anderson, specializes in songs that attempt to stimulate listeners’ libidos with the help of lyrics that are to subtlety what Donald Trump is to diplomacy.

In Funk Daddy’s current skit, Funk Your Brains Out, the singer promotes such sexually explicit hits as Blew Velvet. “Velvet is the name of my penis,” he helpfully explains. Obviously, you have to have a taste for raunchy humor to appreciate this sort of thing, and apparently I do. Funk Daddy Love cracks me up.

You know what else cracks me up? Skits that are funny right up until the ultimate punchline. If you’ve been to many Shadowbox theme shows, you know the troupe doesn’t always pull that particular rabbit out of the hat, but this time it usually succeeds.

A few skits even have final twists that are as surprising as they are amusing. One of the best is Win Her Back, in which a teacher (Nikki Fagin) wraps up a “Romance 101” course by instructing her male students on how to save their relationship when they inevitably screw up. Another is Promposal, a cute piece about a high-schooler (Jimmy Mak) who’s sure he’ll never land a date to the prom unless he spends big bucks on an extravagantly creative invitation.

Also boasting a twist of sorts, but funnier for what happens before it, is Pro Pickup. It features Tom Cardinal and Amy Lay as sports-style commentators describing the interpersonal action during Ladies Night at a popular meat market. Key characters include the hapless Trent (Jamie Barrow), the out-for-a-good-time Krista (Nikki Davis) and the late-arriving Bill “The Bullet” (Guillermo Jemmott), a former player who’s returning to the singles scene after being “released from his contract.”

In between the winners, there are the usual misfires. They include Office Romance, in which recurring character Johnson (Julie Klein) tries to find out what secret admirer sent her flowers. This one has a twist, too, but it’s as so-so as the rest of the piece.

As for the night’s final skit, Shake Your Whole, it could be described as DOA—that is, Depends on Alcohol. If you’ve had a few drinks, you’ll have a better chance of enjoying this latest confrontation between suburbanites Dick and Betsy Anderson (Mak and Katy Psenicka) and South Siders Puck Ducky and Misty Duck (David Whitehouse and Lay). Besides a few provocative variations on yoga positions, there’s not a lot going on.

Music-wise, the show gets off to an appropriate start with Do You Wanna Touch Me. It’s lustily sung by Fagin, who also handles the lead vocals on an even sexier later number, I Get Off. A sultrier kind of sexiness comes across in Strange Face of Love, sung by Klein with her usual consummate skill.

One of the biggest musical surprises—and not in a good way—is the Robert Palmer hit Addicted to Love. Lead vocalist Cardinal and the house band usually excel at cover songs, but their rendition this classic is, well, less than classic. Not helping is the decision to spoof the iconic Palmer video by having two of the robotic backup dancers played by men in drag. Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching a lot of Transparent lately, but this kind of humor is starting to seem passé.

Much funnier is Shadowbox’s take on the Lonely Island/Saturday Night Live music video I Just Had Sex. The rapped and sung lyrics are performed with nerdy awkwardness by Lay, Barrow, David Whitehouse and Joey Ahern.

Wrapping up both the first and second acts, Anderson sets aside his Funk Daddy Love character to deliver the lead vocals on Bruno Mars’s 24K Magic and James Brown’s Sex Machine. Both are great.

Body Heat continues through March 18 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Holiday show enhanced by ASL interpretation

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By Richard Ades

Stephanie Shull, Julie Klein and Stacie Boord (from left) return as the Santa Babies in Holiday Hoopla, opening Thursday at Shadowbox Live (Shadowbox Live photo)

Stephanie Shull, Julie Klein and Stacie Boord (from left) return as the Santa Babies in Holiday Hoopla. (Shadowbox Live photo)

I lucked out. When I finally had time to catch Holiday Hoopla 2016, I arrived on a night when talented Columbus State students were offering American Sign Language interpretation.

It was beautiful effort. Not content to have a single interpreter gesticulate from the side of the stage, Shadowbox Live and Columbus State had worked out something far more elaborate. During the sketches, nearly every character was represented by a separate interpreter who took on that person’s personality while signing his or her lines. During the songs, interpreters swayed gracefully with the music while signing lyrics that even hearing patrons sometimes had trouble picking out.

If you want to see what Hoopla is like with sign interpretation, the service will be offered again at 7:30 Wednesday, Dec. 14. (Hearing-impaired patrons receive a $10 discount.)

Obviously, sign interpretation is most valuable for those who rely on it to understand the action, but I enjoyed it as a variation on a show that has been sticking to the same format for most of the past quarter century. Even without the interpretation, though, this Hoopla has much to recommend it.

Yes, most of the songs have been repeated annually for years, but they’ve become such an integral part of this local tradition that leaving them out would be unthinkable. A jazzy Merry Christmas Baby (sung by Stacie Boord), a bleak Hounds of Winter (sung by Leah Haviland), a forlorn The Old Man (sung by Stev Guyer): All are as gorgeous as they are indispensable.

Most important of all are the rousing instrumental Christmas in Sarajevo and the gospel-like Children Go Where I Send Thee. My only comment on the latter is that this year’s version could be even bigger, with still more singers added as it builds to its soul-stirring finale.

A TV host (Guillermo Jemmott, left) is shocked to hear a guest (Jimmy Mak) expound on why he believes Santa is an alien. (Shadowbox Live photo)

A TV host (Guillermo Jemmott, left) is shocked to hear a guest (Jimmy Mak) expound on why he believes Santa is an alien. (Shadowbox Live photo)

Among the skits, there are the expected duds and near-duds. One of them is the first, Your Own Personal Santa, in which a neighborhood meeting turns into a gripe session on parents’ odd Christmas traditions. Better is the following skit, Ancient Aliens, in which an eccentrically coifed Jimmy Mak shares his theory that Santa Claus is capable of superhuman feats because he actually hails from another planet.

In general, the sketches get better as the show goes on, particularly after intermission.

The Firstest Christmas, in which elementary-school kids present a musical depiction of the holiday’s roots, improves on a familiar Shadowbox theme by adding a satirical edge. Because they’re students at a Montessori school that refuses to rein in children’s creativity, teacher Mrs. Boddington (Katy Psenicka) is helpless to object when the kids stray from biblical accuracy. For instance, they have Mary (Haviland) arrive at the stable riding a certain red-nosed reindeer rather than a donkey. And, oh yes, the stable is located, not in Bethlehem, but at the North Pole.

More satire is invoked in Xmas Do Not Play List, about a radio disc jockey (David Whitehouse) who’s ordered to stop playing a slew of familiar Christmas tunes for fear they’ll offend viewers with precariously thin skins.

A series of short skits is built around a fictitious line of Hallmark “Honesty” cards that replace generic greetings with messages tailored to very specific—and very unpleasant—situations. Like the show as a whole, these get better as they go along.

As always, the Santa Babies (Julie Klein, Stephanie Shull and Boord) finish things off with their kitschy lounge act. Highlights include a seasonally adjusted and beautifully harmonized version of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, a dry-land synchronized swimming routine and the It’s Raining Men finale.

Then there’s the inevitable moment when they drag a male customer onstage in a suggestive routine that’s been repeated with nary a variation for the last 25 years. Watching this has long since become a tedious ordeal for me, but everyone else at the performance I attended seemed to be busting a gut.

One more tradition we can expect to return in Holiday Hoopla 2017.

Holiday Hoopla continues through Dec. 30 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. select Mondays-Thursdays, 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. select Fridays-Saturdays. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.