By Richard Ades
Over the past 25 years, Shadowbox Live has settled into a comfortable role as the troupe that plies viewers with skits, food, booze and rock tunes.
It wasn’t always this way. Back in the early days, Shadowbox head honcho Stev Guyer was determined to create big, important works about big, important topics. The result was a series of original musicals such as 1995’s Evolution.
Like the others, Evolution was loud, flashy and ambitious. Sometimes, particularly in the dance sequences, it was impressive.
More often, though, it came across as a lecture set to music. How could it seem otherwise, when it methodically introduced each topic before discussing it with billboard-style dialogue and lyrics?
Now, apparently, Guyer wants to take another crack at creating important art. With help from Shadowbox head writer Jimmy Mak and musical director Matthew Hahn, he’s revisited Evolution and renamed it Evo.
Thankfully, the new version has lost more than a portion of its name. It’s also lost the pedantic attitude that made viewers of Evolution feel like they deserved college credit just for sitting through it.
Guyer and his fellow Shadowboxers have learned a lot about showmanship in the past quarter-century, and they’ve funneled it all into Evo.
The new show still addresses some of the same questions about human beings and our relationships with ourselves, each other and society: Why are we so prone to violence? Is “justice” just another word for “revenge”? And, most basically, what is the point of our existence?
Sex, love, parenting and old age also are taken up.
The most obvious change from the previous version is that all of these topics are introduced by the Ringleader, a flawed character energetically portrayed by Stacie Boord. Her presence helps to put a recognizably human face on the proceedings.
Another difference is that the show often makes effective use of humor to get its points across.
Often the humor is of the darker variety, as it is in a segment on parenting and the complications it creates in romantic relationships. When “Mr. Know It All” (Billy DePetro) and “Mrs. Don’t Tell Me What to Think” (Katy Psenicka) are asked which part each wants to play in a knife-throwing act, the latter eagerly grabs a handful of blades. It seems she has a wealth of pointed comments that she’s been dying to aim at her hubby.
As in the original Evolution, music and dance are at the center of the action.
From the first notes of Risking It All, with its ever-changing time signatures, the music is an interesting combination of melodies and intricate rhythms. The heavy percussion often carries echoes of traditional African drumming, reminding us of the continent where human evolution likely has its roots.
The dancing, choreographed by Psenicka, is as varied as the show’s many moods. Though it can be frenetic and exciting, it also can be sensitive and graceful. In a particularly lovely segment, Guyer and Boord sing a song about aging desire while JT Walker III and Nikki Fagin act it out through dance.
Throughout the show, Scott Aldridge’s dramatic lighting is a key component. So are the colorful and flowing costumes (designed by Linda Mullin, Myah Shaffer and Lyn Walker), which help to establish the circus-like atmosphere.
Occasionally, the show still carries a whiff of the classroom. One example is a section that delves into the ancient practice of taking aged tribe members out into the wilderness to die. It seems like a needless digression since society now treats its oldsters a bit more humanely.
But most of the show is entertaining and engrossing, and it’s consistently so after intermission. Even when Evo preaches, as it does in the section titled Revenge, it drains the self-righteousness from the sermon by delivering it with a comedic touch.
Shadowbox clearly has evolved for the better through the years by learning from its past mistakes. If only we could say the same for the rest of humankind.
Evo will be presented at 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 2. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 for students and seniors. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.