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.

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.