Conversion therapy’s true nature outed in ‘Boy Erased’

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BOY ERASED

Nancy Eamons (Nicole Kidman) comforts her conflicted son, Jared (Lucas Hedges), in Boy Erased. (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

By Richard Ades

Most of us know gay conversion therapy is a hoax that preys on the fears of gay people and their families, especially those whose religion rejects non-traditional sexual orientations. What most of us don’t know—unless we’ve been unlucky enough to go through it—is just how this therapy attempts to bring about its unlikely transformation.

One person who does know is Gerrard Conley, whose parents pushed him into conversion therapy and who subsequently wrote Boy Erased, a memoir about his experience. The book has been brought to the big screen in a tale that is both harrowing and illuminating.

Directed by Joel Edgerton, who also wrote the screenplay and portrays a key supporting character, the flick begins by spelling out the dilemma faced by its teenage protagonist.

Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is the son of a Baptist preacher in a conservative Arkansas community. In an early scene, the Rev. Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe) stops in the middle of a sermon to ask those who are imperfect to raise their hands. Of course, everyone does, but Jared seems to ponder the question before joining in. Maybe he’s already worried about the troubling thoughts he has hidden from others and barely acknowledges himself.

On the surface, Jared appears to be a “normal” kid. He even has a girlfriend, whom his father and mother, Nancy (Nicole Kidman), fully expect to become his future wife. They’re disappointed when Jared breaks up with her before going off to college.

But their real shock comes when they receive an anonymous phone call from someone on campus who accuses their son of homosexual leanings. Jared initially denies the charge but eventually admits it may be true. Faced with an ultimatum from his father—change or be ostracized from the family—he agrees to give conversion therapy a try.

Jared’s first days in the program seem harmless enough. Instructors led by Victor Sykes (director Edgerton in a restrained but creepy performance) try to reason the participants out of their sexual preference. You’re not born gay, they’re told, any more than athletic participant Cameron (Britton Sear) was born wanting to play football. And if you choose to be gay, the argument goes, you can choose to stop being gay.

It’s not long, though, before Jared begins noticing signs that the therapy is neither as effective nor as benign as he’d hoped. A fellow participant urges him to simply play along with the program in order to convince the instructors he’s on his way to a cure. But playing along becomes more difficult when increasingly coercive measures are used to achieve the desired results.

The film reveals Jared’s state of mind with the help of well-placed flashbacks to times when he was torn between his religious beliefs and his sexual longings. He dearly wants to change in order to remain part of his family, but his faith in the therapy falters as his experiences at the clinic become more and more nightmarish. The resulting tension builds to a wrenching climax.

This earnest tale is told with the help of a cast that is almost uniformly fine. I seldom find Kidman’s portrayals completely convincing, but she’s at least adequate as Jared’s concerned mother. Meanwhile, Hedges wins our sympathy as Jared, and Crowe does a fine job of convincing us the Rev. Eamons is a caring parent despite the hell he puts his son through.

Because the story is based on actual people, it ends by relating what eventually happens to the characters’ real-life counterparts. Some of the developments are uplifting, and at least one is surprising. Or maybe it won’t be to those who are good at reading between the lines.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Boy Erased (rated R) opened Nov. 15 at the Gateway Film Center and AMC Lennox Town Center 24.

BOY ERASED

Nancy Eamons (Nicole Kidman) comforts her conflicted son, Jared (Lucas Hedges), in Boy Erased. (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

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McCarthy pulls off against-type turn as misanthropic con-woman

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Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Photo by Mary Cybulski/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.)

By Richard Ades

Lee Israel’s abrasive and self-destructive personality is established in the first scene of Can You Ever Forgive Me? While working a late-night job, Lee (Melissa McCarthy) hits the wrong person with an F-bomb and is immediately fired.

This launches a downward spiral that threatens to expel Lee from the New York apartment she shares with her ailing cat. The spiral ends only when it’s replaced by a moral and legal spin out of control.

The fateful catalyst is a letter from a famous author that falls into Lee’s hands. Attempting to sell it to a dealer in literary ephemera, she’s told it would be worth more if only the subject matter weren’t so bland. An author herself—though one who has trouble even giving her latest books away—Lee seizes on the idea of manufacturing spicy correspondence supposedly written by luminaries such as Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward.

Her success in this dishonest new venture is ironic. After being told by her agent (Jane Curtin) that she won’t attract readers until she finds her own literary voice, Lee learns she can pull in big bucks by aping other writers’ voices.

Directed by Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) and based on the real-life Israel’s story, Can You Ever Forgive Me? gives McCarthy the chance to prove she has something to offer beyond her usual comic shtick. She doesn’t slough off the opportunity. Other than a brief scene near the end, McCarthy totally immerses herself in the skin of a woman who is not above lying and cheating others, yet is still her own worst enemy.

Though officially a lesbian, Lee is so leery of human interaction that she undermines every relationship or potential relationship. When a bookseller and would-be author (Dolly Wells) shows obvious interest in getting to know her, she responds with caution and defensiveness. We can’t admire Lee, but McCarthy’s portrayal makes it impossible not to feel for her. Her performance is by turns funny and touching.

If McCarthy’s portrayal is impressive for its depth and deviation from her usual output, co-star Richard E. Grant’s performance is memorable for its bravura spirit. Grant plays Jack Hock, an aging loner who seems to get through life on the strength of his wit and wits. After meeting in a gay bar, Jack and Lee are drawn together by their mutual fear of commitment and love of nasty pranks and alcohol. Though they obviously aren’t good for each other, they become inseparable.

Through all this, Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s screenplay moves nimbly between acid humor and pathos. But it’s McCarthy’s sensitive performance and Heller’s equally sensitive direction that make it possible to care about Israel because we can see her moral compass is defective but not entirely beyond repair.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (rated R) opens Nov. 8 at the Drexel Theatre, Gateway Film Center, Marcus Crosswoods Cinema and AMC Lennox Town Center 24.

Flash- and joke-filled ‘Aladdin’ sweeps romance under the carpet

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A typically colorful scene from the touring production of Aladdin, presented by Broadway in Columbus and CAPA (Photos by Deen van Meer)

By Richard Ades

Great songs, fine singing and dancing, nifty special effects, beautiful scenery: What else could you ask from a Broadway musical?

Well, other than a story you actually care about. Aladdin falls short in that respect, especially compared to other Disney musicals like The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast. But for most folks who caught the touring show Thursday at the Ohio Theatre, the production’s other attributes were more than enough.

Based on the 1992 animated film and boasting catchy Alan Menken tunes such as “Friend Like Me” and “Whole New World,” Aladdin arrived on Broadway in 2014. There it was nominated for five Tony Awards but won only for James Monroe Iglehart’s performance in the showiest role, the Genie.

In the touring production, much of the attention also is grabbed by the Genie portrayer, Michael James Scott, who leaves no stone unturned in his quest for laughter and applause. Equally committed, if less showy, performances are turned in by other cast members.

Clinton Greenspan leaps agilely and sings sweetly as poverty-stricken thief Aladdin, while Lissa DeGuzman gives Princess Jasmine a feisty, no-nonsense personality. (Is it just me, or does she remind you of SNL’s Melissa Villasenor?) As her father’s scheming adviser, Jafar, and his henchman, Iago, Jonathan Weir and Jay Paranada excel in comic villainy.

The cast plies its trade against a backdrop that is often eye-poppingly gorgeous thanks to Bob Crowley’s scenery and Natasha Katz’s lighting. Particularly spectacular is the gold- and jewel-encrusted cave where an important plot development takes place.

The magical cave where Aladdin and the Genie first meet

Speaking of the plot, it all stems from Jasmine’s refusal to accept a marriage proposal from a suitably royal suitor despite pressure from her aging father, the Sultan (Jerald Vincent). Jafar hopes to take advantage of her reluctance and the Sultan’s resulting lack of a successor by usurping the throne himself. But his plans go astray when he accidentally connects Aladdin with the Genie, who can grant the young thief anything he desires. And what he desires most is the beautiful Jasmine.

Though other Disney fairy tales have succeeded in keeping the youngest viewers enthralled while offering enough emotional depth to satisfy their parents and older siblings, Aladdin remains stubbornly shallow. We’re supposed to care whether Jasmine ends up with the title character, but we don’t, maybe because we’re given no reason to think love won’t win out. She’s such a strong-willed individual, and the Sultan such a doting father, that we don’t seriously believe she’ll be forced to marry someone she doesn’t want.

As if to make up for the tale’s emotional flatness, director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw fills the production with colorful song-and-dance numbers marked by acrobatic moves with a vaguely Arabic flavor. On top of that, he and his cast tell the story in a relentlessly jokey manner that combines comic stereotypes with winking nods to popular culture and even to other Disney musicals. The approach reaches its zenith when the Genie and multiple dancers perform “Friend Like Me,” a huge Act 1 production number that, following a recent musical trend, is actually a parody of classic Broadway production numbers.

Needless to say, all the jokes, cultural references and parodies make it even harder to take Aladdin and Jasmine’s tale seriously. The only time the show allows us to care about their incipient romance is during the Act 2 number “A Whole New World,” which sends the pair on a breathtaking magic-carpet ride among the stars. It’s a heartfelt, if short-lived, moment.

Say this for the touring show: It spares no effort or expense in its attempt to impress and entertain. If you can get past its emotional stinginess, you’ll likely feel it succeeds.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Aladdin through Nov. 4 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $34 to $99-plus. Contacts: 614-469-0939 (CAPA), 1-800-745-3000 (Ticketmaster), columbus.broadway.com or capa.com.

Musical moments outshine remake’s tragic love story

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A STAR IS BORN

Ally (Lady Gaga) and Jackson (Bradley Cooper) share a stage for the first time in A Star Is Born. (Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.)

By Richard Ades

A Star Is Born has been made and remade so often, it must hit a chord with the American psyche. Either that, or it’s such a perfect star vehicle that Hollywood just can’t let it gather dust for long.

Whether it’s set in the movie industry (like the 1937 and 1954 versions) or the music industry (like the 1976 and current 2018 iterations), the tale centers on a couple who fall in love while her career is rising and his is drowning in a pool of alcohol. The result is a potent mix of drama, romance, histrionics and (in most versions) music, giving both of its stars a chance to shine.

Certainly Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga shine brightly in the current remake, which Cooper also co-wrote, produced and directed. The beginning is a particular joy.

The first scene throws us into the middle of a country-rock concert in which singer-songwriter Jackson Maine (Cooper) holds forth to the adoration of his fans. Afterward, in desperate need of a drink, he instructs his driver to drop him off at what turns out to be a drag bar. It’s there he first hears and marvels at the vocal talents of Ally (Gaga), the only woman in the night’s lineup.

Having recently broken up with an insensitive boyfriend, Ally is at first reluctant when Jackson introduces himself and insists on getting to know both her and her music. But, encouraged by a co-worker (Anthony Ramos) and her supportive father (Andrew Dice Clay)—who thinks the attentions of a rock star would help get her own singing career off the ground—she eventually gives in. She accepts Jackson’s invitation to an out-of-town gig, where he unexpectedly prods her into joining him in a rendition of one of her own songs. The resulting duet is one of the most powerful musical moments in recent cinematic history.

So far, so good. Cooper is likably humble as Jackson, while Gaga offers an appealing portrayal of the self-doubting Ally and puts her powerful singing voice on full display without ever succumbing to melodramatic overkill. As a director, Cooper also proves to be competent, allowing not only him and Gaga but co-stars like Sam Elliott and Dave Chappelle a chance to make their mark.

It’s only after the story begins down its preordained path toward tragedy that it loses some of its potency. Possible reasons:

1) A major part of the story is Jackson’s decline from popularity, but the singer seems to put on a good show no matter how drugged or boozed up he is. Why, exactly, are his fans turning against him?

2) Jackson urges Ally to remain true to herself rather than letting fame change her. Yet when she allows her agent, Rez (Rafi Gavron), to turn her into a glitzy singer of shallow anthems, he says nothing. It thus becomes unclear whether their growing relationship problems are due to Jackson’s jealousy over her success or his disappointment over how she achieved it. (The situation also raises the question of whether the movie downplays the issue of Ally’s selling out to avoid biting the hand of the industry that feeds Lady Gaga in real life.)

The upshot of these weaknesses is that the tale’s tragic ending seems less organic and inevitable than it should. It’s certainly less organic and inevitable than it was in 1954’s blockbuster remake, which also benefited from Judy Garland’s best-ever performance as a rising movie star and James Mason’s depiction of the fading matinee idol who becomes her mentor.

As a tale of blossoming romance, the latest version of A Star Is Born strikes gold. As a musical, it strikes platinum. It’s only when the flick reaches for tragedy that it fails to find the mother lode.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

A Star Is Born (rated R) opens Oct. 5 in theaters nationwide.

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.

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.