Personable monarch informs new staging of ‘The King and I’

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Photo: Jeremy Daniel

The King of Siam (Jose Llana) and Anna Leonowens (Elena Shaddow) take a spin around the dance floor in The King and I. (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

By Richard Ades

When theater companies want to bring new life to a familiar work, they often rely on obvious changes. A recent example is Opera Columbus’s production of Gluck’s Orphee et Eurydice, with its surreal scenery, avant-garde instrumentation and virtual chorus. And, of course, there are any number of Shakespearean productions that move the action to a different locale, time period or both.

The Lincoln Center Theater and director Bartlett Sher take a different tack with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. The musical is still set in Siam (now Thailand) in the 1860s and still focuses on the evolving relationship between an authoritarian king and a widowed British teacher who’s hired to tutor his many children. But there’s a subtle difference from earlier productions, and certainly from the 1956 movie starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brenner.

It mainly can be found in the character of the king. As wonderfully played by Jose Llana, he is imperious and comically petulant, yet he’s also vulnerable and even sympathetic. We understand that he’s concerned for his country’s future, not wanting it to become a European protectorate like some of his neighbors. Though he has hired a British governess to teach his children, he comes to rely on her to help him modernize—basically, to Westernize—his country in order to convince Europe that Siam doesn’t need “protecting.”

As governess Anna Leonowens, Elena Shaddow is a charming mixture of politeness and stubborn determination. Though her Victorian upbringing makes it hard for her to accept the king’s polygamy, she does her best to get along with her royal employer. However, she refuses to bend on one matter: the king’s promise, which he seems to have conveniently forgotten, to provide her and her son, Louis (Rhyees Stump), with a home of their own.

The production opens with a gorgeous scene, courtesy of set designer Michael Yeargan and lighting designer Donald Holder: the sunset arrival of the ship that brings Anna and Louis to Bangkok. After that, the scenery is far more restrained, with the outline of the palace walls in the background and long curtains playing a big role in delineating the change from one location to the next. It’s what goes on in front of the scenery that makes this staging so special.

Besides Anna and the king, key characters include Prime Minister Kralahome (Brian Rivera); the king’s head wife, Lady Thiang (Jane Almedilla); and Prince Chulalongkorn (Charlie Oh), his oldest son. Adding a dark subplot is the young and beautiful Tuptim (Q Lim), a “gift” from Burma who is forced to submit to the king’s advances despite being in love with another man, Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao).

Fine voices give some of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most beloved tunes their due, including Anna’s “Hello, Young Lovers” and “Getting to Know You” and Anna and the king’s “Shall We Dance?” Panmeechao’s thin tones are a slight impediment to Lun Tha’s wistful duets with Tuptim, “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed.” On the other hand, Almedilla’s matronly voice only adds depth to the show’s most touching number, Lady Thiang’s “Something Wonderful.”

A large orchestra consisting mostly of local musicians (who, for a change, are actually named in the program) performs under Gerald Steichen’s baton. Christopher Gattelli’s adaptation of Jerome Robbins’s original choreography is especially delightful during Act 2’s prolonged ballet, a Siamese take on Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

“Delightful” is a good adjective for the show in general, along with “illuminating” and “amazing.” And, hopefully, “unmissable.”

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present The King and I April 24-29 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, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $34-$109+. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com. For information on future tour stops, visit thekinganditour.com.

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If this doesn’t raise your spirits, the Nazis win

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Scene from An American in Paris, presented by Broadway in Columbus (Photos by Matthew Murphy)

By Richard Ades

Love is more important than art, a character proclaims during a key moment from An American in Paris. While that’s undoubtedly true, it’s art that makes the musical so memorable.

Christopher Wheeldon’s direction and choreography combine with Bob Crowley’s set and costumes, Natasha Katz’s lighting and, most of all, George and Ira Gershwin’s ageless jazz tunes to create multiple gifts for the eyes and ears. As for the love story at its center, it mostly amounts to the colorless glue that holds it all together.

Based on the 1951 film about an American (Gene Kelly) who woos a reluctant Frenchwoman (Leslie Caron), the musical took an unconventional path to its 2015 Broadway premiere. It debuted in late 2014 in Paris, where it created a stir despite the language barrier. In addition to its glorious musical numbers, Parisians likely were attracted to its rejiggered plot and setting.

Book writer Craig Lucas moves the tale back to 1945, when the City of Light is struggling to regain its spirit after the dark years of Nazi occupation. Memories of the war affect two central characters in different ways: Jewish American composer Adam Hochberg (Matthew Scott) is so traumatized that he can write only dirges that fit in with his gloomy view of life. In contrast, Frenchman Henri Baurel (Ben Michael) is determined to move beyond his own war experiences by fulfilling his lifelong dream of becoming a song-and-dance man.

Unbeknownst to them, Adam and Henri are united by their mutual love of a ballet dancer named Lise Dassin (Allison Walsh). Nor do they know that Lise has a third admirer in the form of American G.I.-turned-artist Jerry Mulligan (McGee Maddox). Complicating things even further, Jerry attracts the attention of wealthy benefactor Milo Davenport (Kirsten Scott), who clearly expects sexual favors in return for her valuable patronage.

McGee Maddox and Allison Walsh as Jerry and Lise, the characters played by Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in the original 1951 film version 

Jerry and Lise are the people we’re supposed to care about the most, so it’s disappointing that Maddox and Walsh generate so few romantic sparks. Making up for this in spades, both are lithe dancers and competent singers, as they prove over and over again throughout. (Note: Kyle Robinson fills in as Jerry on Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening, while Deanna Doyle plays Lise during the Sunday matinee.)

More interesting than the two romantic leads are the dramatic arcs undergone by Adam and Henri, particularly during Act 2. In fact, the second act surpasses its predecessor in terms of both drama and spectacle.

Two late-arriving song-and-dance numbers are alone worth the price of admission: “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” led by Henri and Adam; and “An American in Paris,” a surreally amazing piece featuring Lise, her ballet partner (Kevin A. Cosculluela) and the rest of the company. Both are complemented by set designer Crowley’s most sublime creations and the Gershwins’ most powerful melodies.

Other classic tunes include “I Got Rhythm,” “The Man I Love,” “’S Wonderful” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” All are accompanied in a full-throated style by a massive band conducted by David Andrews Rogers.

After premiering on Broadway in early 2015, An American in Paris won Tonys for its choreography, lighting, orchestration and scenic design. The touring version excels in those same areas, making it an awe-inspiring experience for anyone who ventures to the Ohio Theatre this week.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present An American in Paris through March 11 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State, 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, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $31-$104. 614-469-0939 (CAPA), 1-800-745-3000 (Ticketmaster), columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

What do ‘Waitress’ and ‘The Band’s Visit’ have in common?

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Desi Oakley, Charity Angel Dawson and Lenne Klingaman (from left) in the Broadway in Columbus presentation of Waitress (photo by Joan Marcus)

By Richard Ades

The transition from the screen to the stage is a tricky one. There have been a few triumphs, but the results are more often disappointing.

The latest film adaptation is The Band’s Visit, a musical that recently moved to Broadway after a successful off-Broadway run. Tony Shalhoub (TV’s Monk) and Katrina Lenk lead a uniformly strong cast, and David Cromer’s sensitive direction captures the cross-cultural discomfort that develops when an Egyptian police band unexpectedly shows up in a remote Israeli village. On top of that, David Yazbek’s music and lyrics are delightful.

Despite the musical’s strengths, I left the Ethel Barrymore Theatre feeling less satisfied than I was after seeing the 2007 Israeli movie on which it’s based. The stage production attempts to create dramatic arcs by playing up several elements of the story, especially the flirtation that Lenk’s restaurant owner directs toward Shalhoub’s uptight band director. It does this at the expense of the little interactions that, in the film, mark the Israelis and the Egyptians as fellow travelers on the sad, lonely journey known as life. The stage show is good, but it lacks its predecessor’s understated charm.

Would I have liked the show more if I hadn’t seen the film? Possibly. So maybe it’s good that I didn’t catch another 2007 movie, Waitress, before seeing its musical adaptation this week at the Ohio Theatre. The late Adrienne Shelly’s flick has been faulted for diluting a story of female empowerment with broad humor, and the stage production likely broadens the humor even more.

The heroine is Jenna (the relatable Desi Oakley), a small-town waitress married to a control freak named Earl (the effectively hateful Nick Bailey). Jenna is desperate to escape from her loveless marriage, but her hopes are dashed when she learns she’s pregnant.

Ironically, her pregnancy leads her to Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart), a gynecologist who instantly falls for both her and the stellar pies she concocts for the restaurant. Taken off guard by the unfamiliar experience of being appreciated for who she is, Jenna begins an affair with the kind, though married, doctor. Meanwhile, she sets her sights on a pie-making contest whose prize money could bankroll a new life for her and her future child.

As long as the focus stays on Jenna and her miserable situation, Waitress serves as a sobering look at the serious issue of spousal abuse. However, book writer Jessie Nelson and director Diane Paulus seem determined to keep the crowds pleased by devoting much of the show’s time and energy to broad comedy populated by familiar stereotypes.

Jenna’s fellow waitresses are Becky (Charity Angel Dawson) and Dawn (Lenne Klingaman). The former is sassy (i.e., she’s black), and the latter is shy and nerdy (i.e., she wears glasses). In subplots that largely overshadow the main plot, Becky launches into an affair of her own, while Dawn attempts to end her social isolation by running a personal ad. This attracts the attention of Ogie, an oddball exuberantly played by Jeremy Morse with overtones of Paul Lynde and Henry Gibson, the poet from TV’s Laugh-In. Ogie’s comic solo number, Never Ever Getting Rid of Me, becomes the closest thing the musical has to a show stopper.

Roaming even further from Jenna’s homefront predicament, the proceedings nearly turn into a sex farce when all three waitresses and their respective beaus simultaneously engage in onstage canoodling. Diner manager Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin) and elderly owner Joe (Larry Marshall) also contribute to the show’s sexual preoccupation, though the latter does so only by sharing his erotic memories.

The mood finally turns sober again just in time for Jenna’s biggest and saddest solo, She Used to Be Mine, sung with the kind of strong and committed voice Oakley brings to all of her songs. In fact, composer/lyricist Sara Bareilles’s tunes are well served by the entire cast and by conductor/pianist Jenny Cartney and her onstage band. But none of this makes up for the fact that the pop/country melodies are mostly forgettable and the lyrics seldom rise to the level of deep poetry.

Despite its inconsistencies and weaknesses, Waitress remains on Broadway after a year and a half, suggesting that it satisfies patrons’ theatrical taste buds. And it did seem to make many people happy at the Ohio on Tuesday, despite a technical snafu that delayed the show long enough to turn it into a 3½-hour ordeal.

So if the idea of spicing up a serious social issue with broad comedy doesn’t give you acid reflux, you, too, may find Waitress to your liking.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Waitress through Sunday (Nov. 12) 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, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $34-$115. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Stylish mayhem dominates Shadowbox take on graphic novel

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Kai (JT Walker III, left) prepares to do battle with Kabuki (Amy Lay) in a scene from Circle of Blood. (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

If you want to enjoy Circle of Blood, be sure to read the printed synopsis beforehand. That will make it easier to navigate your way around its bizarre vision of Japan in the year 2057. It also will help you figure out an elaborate back story that’s explained only in occasional flashbacks and snatches of dialogue.

The good news is that the lack of explanation means director Julie Klein and her cast and crew are free to focus on the production’s true mission: entertaining us with scenes of menace and stylized mayhem cleverly combined with images from the graphic novel on which the tale is based.

The story, borrowed from David Mack’s Kabuki, centers on the young assassin of the same name (Amy Lay). Though she was raised by a now-broken man called the General (Tom Cardinal), her actual father is Kai (JT Walker III), a crime lord whose long-ago attack left her mother blind and impregnated. As if that weren’t bad enough, Kai returned years later, after Kabuki’s mother died giving birth to her, and disfigured his adolescent daughter on her mother’s grave.

The action begins several years after that, when Kabuki is a young woman pondering what to get Kai for Father’s Day. Just kidding! She’s now a hitwoman working for the Noh, a government body attempting to prevent criminal gangs from taking over the country. She’s also the star of a TV newscast that offers cryptic warnings to evildoers.

All that changes when Kai returns to Japan and begins threatening the order the Noh has worked so hard to establish.

Shadowbox Live’s last foray into Japanese-inspired storytelling was 2015’s The Tenshu, an elaborate production marred by a scattershot story and a leaden pace (though I’ve been told the tempo was speeded up in later performances). While not quite as elaborate, Circle of Blood is far more watchable thanks to Jimmy Mak’s spare script and a brisk pace that wraps things up in less than 90 minutes. The show is not exactly deep and it’s hardly uplifting—the body count rivals that of Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedies—but it efficiently moves us along from one set piece to the next.

All of the characters are deftly portrayed, from Lay’s methodically lethal Kabuki to Cardinal’s morose General, Walker’s evil Kai and a raft of eccentric henchmen. But the biggest attraction is the nifty interplay between the live action and images from the graphic novel, which are displayed on five large video screens. An additional boon is the accompanying music, composed and performed by Matt Hahn, Stev Guyer, Kevin Patrick Sweeney and Brandon Smith. Occasional vocals are beautifully supplied by Summit J. Starr.

Circle of Blood may favor style over substance, but the style is something to behold.

Circle of Blood runs through Nov. 5 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. most Wednesdays-Thursdays (beginning Oct. 11). Running time: about 1 hour, 25 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 students/seniors/military. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Shadowbox finds horrific humor in zombies, political correctness

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Stephanie Shull (left) and Julie Klein perform Divas Do Hard Rock in Shadowbox Live’s The Rocking Dead. (Photos by Buzz Crisafulli)

By Richard Ades

Halloween is the season devoted to the scary side of life. So it’s appropriate that Shadowbox Live’s Halloween-season show, The Rocking Dead, has a skit devoted to one of the scarier developments of modern life.

Killer Correctness shows what happens when two cops (Jimmy Mak and Guillermo Jemmott) try to solve a string of murders whose only witness (Katy Psenicka) lives her life according to politically correct principles. The upshot is that she would rather let a killer go free than answer the most basic questions about race, gender, height and so forth, explaining that she doesn’t want to make assumptions based on mere physical appearance.

At its best, political correctness means simply treating everyone with respect. At its worst, it’s the fear that someone, somewhere, somehow will be offended if you don’t constantly monitor and censure everything you and the rest of society say or do. Killer Correctness hilariously faces this debilitating illness head on.

Not quite as funny but even more politically minded is President Frank, featuring an Igor-like press secretary (John Boyd) who struggles to explain a monstrous commander-in-chief (Billy DePetro) who’s determined to build a “border moat” and seems to enjoy throwing women in the lake. Shadowbox seldom delves into national politics, but let’s face it: The current occupant of the White House is an irresistible target.

The rest of the skits seldom reach this level of level of originality, and some are rehashes of bits from earlier shows. Taken altogether, though, they add up to an enjoyable evening. They include:

World War Spazoids: Kirby (Jimmy Mak) warns his familiar group of nerdy friends that some of their classmates are turning into zombies.

Divas Do Hard Rock: Reprising a well-worn but clever bit, a pair of divas (Julie Klein and Stephanie Shull) put an operatic spin on hits by Ozzy Osbourne, AC/DC and the like.

Hellchild: A harried teacher (Klein) struggles to convince a doting mom (Psenicka) that her son (DePetro) is possessed.

Important Stuff News: A pair of juvenile journalists (Mak and Michelle Daniels) anchor a newscast that looks at Halloween from a kid’s viewpoint.

Who’s Your Daddy?: A Maury Povich-like TV host (Boyd) talks to a woman (Psenicka) who believes her daughter was fathered by a werewolf (Brandon Anderson).

Hang in There: In perhaps the weakest skit, an incipient zombie attack sets off a generational conflict between an office worker (Mak) and a millennial intern (Boyd).

Billy DePetro sings Psycho Killer by Talking Heads.

If the comedic bits include both hills and valleys, the musical portions of the show exist on a consistently high plateau. Setting the proper tone from the outset, Ashley Pearce sings Single File’s Zombies Ate My Neighbors while a group of vigilantes erect a barricade to fight off an expected attack. A little later, DePetro does a lively David Byrne tribute with Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer.

If I had to pick my favorite vocalization of the night, it would have to be band member Brent Lambert’s gruff-voiced interpretation of Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun, augmented with a tasty riff from fellow guitarist Aaron Joseph. But it would be a close call, given the classy vocal work from Brandon Anderson (Bullet With Butterfly Wings), Noelle Anderson (Born Under a Bad Sign), Klein (Ghost in My Machine) and others.

Additional cover songs that deserve mention: Concrete Blonde’s Bloodletting, sung by Eryn Reynolds in a way that manages to be both creepy and sexy; and Muse’s Psycho, sung by Jemmott. The latter number seems to go on forever, but it’s so much fun that even non-headbangers won’t mind at all.

The Rocking Dead continues through Nov. 11 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Fridays and 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Saturdays. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. A one-hour “Nightcap” version will be presented at 10:30 p.m. select Fridays; tickets are $20-$25. 614-416-7625 or www.shadowboxlive.org.

Offbeat ‘Tempest’ cuts scenes, reassigns genders and adds politics

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Prospera (Susan Wismar, left) tells daughter Miranda (Hannah Roth) how they arrived at a mysterious island in Actors’ Theatre’s production of The Tempest. (Photos by Richard Ades)

By Richard Ades

The Tempest is thought to be Shakespeare’s last play, which has led to the theory that its protagonist, Prospero, is a stand-in for the Bard himself. When the aging sorcerer gives up his magic at the end, it’s interpreted as symbolic of the playwright’s decision to stop favoring us with the literary magic that flowed from his pen.

Less favorably, some have viewed The Tempest as a reflection of Britain’s centuries of colonialism. This criticism stems from Prospero’s domination of Ariel and Caliban, inhabitants of the island he fled to after being cheated out of his rightful position as duke of Milan.

In the “director’s statement” for the current Actors’ Theatre production, David Harewood makes it clear he’s inspired by the latter interpretation, though he’s broadened the focus to touch on our own society’s faults. Sample critique: “A profit-driven justice system routinely robs men and boys younger than Caliban of their dignity, their lives, or both…”

Harewood’s determination to bend the text to address such political concerns helps to explain why what’s going on in Schiller Park seems unfamiliar even to those who’ve seen The Tempest multiple times. Harewood even goes so far as to deep-six the happy ending by reinterpreting the final speech.

There are other reasons the work seems unfamiliar, including the fact that scenes have been cut, one character has been eliminated and others have been given gender reassignments. To wit: Prospero is now Prospera (Susan Wismar), usurping brother Antonio is now usurping sister Antonia (Kasey Meininger), and royal councilor Gonzalo is now the sword-wielding Gonzala (Wilma Hatton).

The changes work particularly well in the case of Prospera, as Wismar makes her a forceful presence even when she’s being a devoted mom to naïve daughter Miranda (Hannah Roth). The only jarring aspect of Wismar’s performance is that she’s meaner than the sorcerer normally is, especially when she’s torturing the monstrous Caliban (Christopher “Casanova” Jones). The apparent reason: to underscore her identity as a colonizing presence on the island.

Trying to survive a storm conjured up by Prospera are (from left) King Alonso (Michael Neff); Gonzala (Wilma Hatton) and Antonia (Kasey Meininger).

The other changes also work well except that they add occasional confusion about the identities of various characters and their relationships with others. But the confusion mainly arises from other factors, including sound effects that drown out much of the dialogue during the storm Prospera conjures up to bring King Alonso (Michael Neff) and his entourage to the island in an attempt to right old wrongs. As a result, many viewers will struggle to figure out who’s who when Alonso and others reappear on the shore.

About the only shipwreck survivor whose identity is clear from the start is the one the others fear has drowned: Ferdinand (Tom Murdock), the king’s son, who soon justifies Prospera’s hopes by awakening the libido of the long-sheltered Miranda. (Note: Ferdinand and several other roles have been recast since the printed program was compiled.)

Another alteration from the original is the division of the spirit Ariel into three individuals, played by the sweet-singing Dakota Thorn and Shanelle Marie and the balletically lithe Christina Yoho. This is an interesting experiment whose only drawback is that the three can be hard to understand when they speak in unison, especially since they, like Jones’s Caliban, display Jamaican accents.

Ariel times three, played by (from left) Dakota Thorn, Shanelle Marie and Christina Yoho

How, you might ask, did Jamaicans end up on an island off the coast of Italy? And why does one of them (Caliban) make an entrance while singing an American spiritual? Such questions are overshadowed after the comically drunk Stefano (Tony Ludovico) and the clownish Trincula (Heather Gorby) show up, as both speak with an Appalachian twang. Their repartee is funny, but the unexpected accent is a jarring distraction.

Though nearly everyone from Wismar on down performs well, and though some of the innovations are interesting, the overall impression is that political posturing has taken much of the fun out of what should have been a magical night at the theater.

You’ve heard of “director’s cuts” that rob films of their popular appeal? This is a like a director’s cut of The Tempest.

Actors’ Theatre will present The Tempest through Sept. 3 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are pay what you will. Bring a blanket or lawn chair; reservations for seats or keepsake blankets are available for $20. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.

Frantic search for amore (and laughs)

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Though Catholic, Domenico Nesci is not above donning a yarmulke for a romantic encounter arranged through JDate. (Photo courtesy of Random Media)

By Richard Ades

The Lonely Italian is being marketed as the “Borat of online dating.” I doubt many fans of that raunchy 2006 comedy will think it measures up, but there are a couple of similarities.

First, the star (L.A.-based TV and radio host Domenico Nesci) has an accent, though in this case it’s an actual accent. And second, most of the folks who meet Nesci in the documentary-style film are apparently unaware they’re being used as comic foils.

Directed by Lee Farber, the flick’s premise is that Nesci is frustrated over his inability to find female companionship. His explanation is that modern women have their noses buried so deep in their computers that it’s impossible to strike up a conversation with them.

Figuring the only way to meet them is through those computers, Nesci throws himself into the online dating scene with a vengeance. Once he finds Tinder, for example, he figures he’s hit the motherlode and “swipes right” on every profile he finds.

Other sampled sites include the old staple, Match.com, as well as more specialized offerings such as JDate. The latter is a stretch for Nesci because he’s Catholic rather than Jewish, but he doesn’t seem to care. After landing a date, he simply dons a yarmulke and fakes it until he thinks the woman is sufficiently charmed to overlook his duplicity. (She isn’t.)

In another stretch, Nesci tries DateMeDateMyPet.net and scores an impromptu meetup for which he’s forced to borrow a dog from a reluctant friend. This leads to a somewhat amusing encounter during which Nesci tells the woman his pooch is a 26-year-old female, only to be informed that 26 is improbably old and that the dog clearly has a penis.

Several of the dates fall into the “somewhat amusing” category because it’s all too obvious Nesci is doing a comic shtick by being either impossibly dense or willfully coarse. For the most part, the women react with smiling indulgence, though it’s not clear whether they give him a pass because (1) he’s an immigrant and they figure he doesn’t know better, or (2) they suspect it’s all a joke.

One date in which a woman doesn’t react with smiling indulgence is also one of the funnier episodes. When Nesci offers the woman a meat-and-cheese sandwich, she reminds him that she clearly told him she’s vegan and eats no animal products. The encounter goes downhill after the hungry Nesci tries to sneak a piece of meat himself.

Though the dates are hit or miss in terms of laughs and credibility, they generally fare better than staged scenes that feature Nesci and a concerned friend named Marquesa (Mark Chuakay). Especially unwelcome is a belated attempt at drama that sees Nesci supposedly having an attack of conscience over the self-centered way he’s been pursuing romance.

Yeah, right. Nesci clearly has been pursuing laughs rather than love, making this development about as convincing as the average online dating profile.

Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5)

The Lonely Italian was released Aug. 15 through VOD outlets.

Supernatural steed leads motherless kids on a flight from the law

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By Richard Ades

A magical horse is helping Tantrum Theater continue its tradition of ending the summer with a work that complements the annual Dublin Irish Festival.

In 2016 (the troupe’s debut season), the selection was a beautifully staged production of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa. This year, it’s Into the West, adapted by Greg Banks from a 1992 film about two Irish youths who go on a dangerous journey with a mysterious white steed.

Though not quite as sophisticated or rewarding as Lughnasa, it was an apt choice for any families who made it over to the Abbey Theater from last weekend’s festival. In both subject matter and length, it’s eminently kid-friendly.

Director Jen Wineman and her cast of three spin the lively tale with crucial help from onstage musician and sound designer Robertson Witmer. Each actor plays a leading role in addition to multiple supporting roles.

Turna Mete and Blake Segal portray Ally and Finn, Dublin youths who still grieve for the mother they lost years earlier. Greg Jackson plays their father, whose own reaction to his wife’s death has been to dilute his sorrow with booze. First, though, Jackson plays the grandfather who encounters a white horse and decides to leave it with his grandkids.

Ally and Finn are determined to keep the horse even though they live in a high-rise apartment building. Once their father sobers up enough to realize he has a new four-legged roommate, he naturally demands that they get rid of it. He relents after realizing the horse seems to help Ally’s asthma, but by then the animal has caught the eye of a police official who is determined to make a profit by putting it up for auction.

Desperate, the siblings steal the horse and take off on a cross-country journey with the law on their trail. What they don’t know is that the horse is a supernatural being who will ultimately lead them back into the sea from whence it came.

Into the West’s mixture of loss and Irish mythology may remind some of Song of the Sea, a wondrous 2014 animated film that also centers on motherless siblings. The play can’t match the film’s immersive power, but it’s entertaining, often humorous, and concludes on a note that will leave few viewers with dry eyes.

Mete and Jackson are particularly affecting as the fragile Ally and her repentant father, but Segal also is solid as the stalwart Finn. Deb O’s scenic design complements the production’s minimalist nature by depicting the tale’s multiple settings with the help of a few wooden pallets and barrels and yards of wrinkled, translucent plastic.

Dublin’s Irish Festival may be over, but Into the West gives families a good reason to return to the suburb with the Irish name.

Tantrum Theater will present Into the West through Aug. 19 in the Abbey Theater, Dublin Recreation Center, 5600 Post Road, Dublin. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday (except Aug. 13), 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes. Tickets are $28, $26 seniors (65-plus), $10 students with a valid ID. 614-793-5700 or tantrumtheater.org.

Summer camp, with togas

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Cleopatra (Nick Hardin) gets acquainted with Julius Caesar (Doug Joseph) in Charles Busch’s Cleopatra, running through Sunday at Short North Stage’s Garden Theater. (Photos by Jason Allen)

By Richard Ades

Charles Busch’s Cleopatra could be called a funnier take on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Then again, the one time I saw the Bard’s original, it seemed pretty funny.

That’s because the lead actors overplayed the title roles so thoroughly that each seemed to be trying to upstage the other. What’s worse, Antony did his emoting in such a juicy fashion that while the audience was being bathed in pathos, poor Cleo was being showered with spit. Needless to say, the tragic ending failed to move anyone to tears.

The situation is entirely different in Columbus Immersive Theater’s intentionally humorous production of Cleopatra. Though Busch’s approach to comedy could never be called dry, at least the spit spraying is kept to a minimum. That’s fortunate, because the stage runs across the middle of the intimate Green Room, which means no viewer is far from the action.

Working under Edward Carignan’s direction (and in the colorful costumes he designed), the actors stay true to the work’s campy sense of humor.

Seeking friends in high places: Nick Hardin as Cleopatra

In the title role, Nick Hardin is spectacularly on target as the Egyptian queen who must curry favor with her country’s Roman conquerors. Hardin’s Cleo is a mixture of innocence and ruthless cunning, with occasional winking references to the 1940s movie stars who are a favorite camp inspiration.

The two Romans who become her love interests, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, are played with surprising restraint by Doug Joseph and Rob Philpott, respectively. Fans of Joseph’s drag performances will be happy to know he later gets the opportunity to appear as Caesar’s justifiably jealous wife, Calpurnia. Though all too brief, it’s one of the show’s more hilarious moments.

In another dual role, Kate Lingnofski is a convincingly naïve as Octavia, but on opening night she was less successful as Octavia’s brother, Octavian. That may be a reflection of this fundraising production’s speeded-up rehearsal schedule and isn’t necessarily indicative of how Lingnofski will do in remaining performances.

Cleopatra’s underlings are entertainingly played by Ricky Locci as Apollodorus (AKA “Dorus”), Kelsey Hopkins as Charmion and Laura Falb as Iras, a new hire who at first foments Charmion’s ire and later arouses another emotion entirely. Perhaps the actor who makes the most of his role’s potential is Nick Lingnofski, who’s a hoot as the anxiety-inducing (and anxiety-prone) Soothsayer.

It should be noted that all of the actors are performing gratis to support the work of Short North Stage.

If Cleopatra isn’t quite as funny as some of Busch’s other creations—for instance, Die, Mommie, Die!, a Short North Stage hit in 2016—it may be because the playwright was shackled by characters he didn’t invent. But the comedy is still fun, thanks to a cast and director who know how to make the most of its campy take on an iconic romance.

Columbus Immersive Theater will present Cleopatra through Aug. 6 at Short North Stage’s Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday, 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

Romance takes back seat to social satire in charming Austen adaptation

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Mr. Darcy (Justin King) busies himself writing a letter while the woman he pines after, Elizabeth Bennet (Elizabeth Harelik, in yellow dress), visits her sister Jane (Beth Josephsen) in Actors’ Theatre’s production of Pride & Prejudice. (Photos by Richard Ades)

By Richard Ades

In his printed “Director’s Statement,” Mark Mann complains that some of us—and by “us,” I mean men—tend to dismiss Pride & Prejudice as a “chick flick.”

Technically, what’s going on in Schiller Park isn’t any kind of flick because it’s live theater, but we take his point. Jane Austen’s original novel was more interested in critiquing society than in giving her readers a soggy love story. And that comes through in Jon Jory’s stage adaptation and in Mann’s production of that adaptation.

Set in early 19th century England, the tale revolves around the Bennet household, which consists of a father (David Jon Krohn), a mother (Danielle Mann) and their five daughters. Because Mr. Bennet is not allowed to leave his estate to a female heir, Mrs. Bennet is determined to secure their daughters’ fortunes by finding them well-off husbands. Hence, she’s excited when the wealthy Mr. Bingley (Trenton Weaver) moves into the neighborhood.

Mrs. Bennet’s hope is buoyed when this financially worthy gentleman seems taken with her eldest daughter, Jane (Beth Josephsen). However, things go less smoothly when Bingley’s even wealthier friend Mr. Darcy (Justin King) meets second-oldest daughter Elizabeth (Elizabeth Harelik). Darcy seems fascinated by the outspoken young woman, but he’s so haughty and untactful that he immediately puts her off.

Mr. Bingley (Trenton Weaver, left) and Mr. Darcy (Justin King) are both attracted to Bennet sisters, but the former does a better job of showing it.

That sets up a romantic dance as nuanced and delicate as the period-appropriate choreography Meghan Western provides for the play’s party scenes.

Elizabeth’s opinion of Darcy sinks lower and lower, especially after she meets his estranged childhood friend, Wickham (JT Walker III). As for Darcy, he finds Elizabeth increasingly attractive, but he’s so stiff and socially inept that she doesn’t have an inkling of his true feelings. Meanwhile, others conspire to keep the two apart, including the smitten Miss Bingley (Natalia White) and the regal Lady Catherine (Cate Blair Wilhelm).

Andrew Weibel’s pastel scenery and Pam Bloom’s costumes help to define a formal era when even Elizabeth’s long-married parents still address each other as “Mr. Bennet” and “Mrs. Bennet.”

Director Mann occasionally allows his cast to farce things up for comedic effect. This is particularly true of Douglas Gustafson’s Mr. Collins, whose high-pitched cackle make it immediately clear that his suit to make Elizabeth his wife will be rejected with extreme prejudice. But the production’s real charm stems from subtle portrayals—such as Walker’s Wickham—that prevent us from predicting just how it will arrive at a suitably happy ending.

Most of all, its charm stems from Harelik’s heroic but gullible Elizabeth and King’s excruciating awkward Darcy. We suspect the two are destined to be together, but the actors turn them into such an odd couple that it’s hard to believe they’re ever going to get there.

Actors’ Theatre will present Pride & Prejudice through July 16 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are pay what you will; bring a blanket or lawn chair. Reservations for seats or keepsake blankets are available for $20. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.