By Richard Ades
The annual Best of Shadowbox show basically amounts to summer reruns, consisting of selected songs and skits from previous shows. As a result, it isn’t always something I look forward to.
But this year’s version was different. So much of the material was awesome the first time around that I couldn’t wait to see it again.
Last Friday, I finally got the chance. It turned out to be just as good as I expected.
Lots of people deserve credit for the show’s success, but let’s start by acknowledging the contributions of Brandon Anderson. Not only does he bookend the first act by handling lead vocals on two of the most entertaining songs—Mama Told Me Not to Come and Bruno Mars’s catchy Uptown Funk—but he portrays the central character in the funniest Shadowbox skit in recent memory.
In Funk Daddy Love, Anderson plays a soul singer who’s on trial for the “crime” of being too sexy. As one witness after another explains how his crooning has affected them, Love repeatedly pulls out a microphone and launches into his unbelievably raunchy ballads.
Anderson is great in the role, but it’s all the little touches that really sell the comedy: the nightclub-style lighting that accompanies his warbling, Katy Psenicka’s turn as the uptight prosecutor, Robbie Nance’s portrayal of the awkward defense attorney, Tom Cardinal’s high-pitched attempts to keep order as the judge. In this and every other featured skit, directors Stev Guyer and Julie Klein make sure everything is honed to perfection.
Other welcome returnees include:
• Life Duet: The night’s most romantic skit stars Jimmy Mak and Nikki Fagin as a couple whose decades-long relationship is defined by the songs they listen to on the radio.
• Sneak a Peek—Dirty Movies: The best episode yet of the faux movie-review series finds hosts Klein and David Whitehouse sampling adult-rated flicks such as Saving Ryan’s Privates and the badly dubbed Samurai Frog Proctologist. The running joke is that the horny heroine inevitably has an equally horny sister who shows up at an opportune moment.
• The Friend Zone: The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling (Nance) narrates the horrifying tale of a hapless guy (Mak) who can’t get to first base because his favorite girl (Fagin) doesn’t even know he’s suited up and ready to play.
• Holy Hell: A parishioner (Gabriel Guyer) goes to his priest (Cardinal) to confess a night of debauchery. The piece would be even funnier if the priest’s insistence on details weren’t so unlikely, but it deserves recognition as Shadowbox’s most explicitly sexual skit of all time.
Of the comedy bits I missed the first time around, my favorite is Gymnauseum, in which a substitute gym teacher (Whitehouse) is shocked to learn that dodgeball is considered too taxing for today’s mollycoddled students. Also appealing—at least, up until the weak ending—is Elephant in the Room. It’s about what happens when two gay fathers (Cardinal and a particularly funny Mak) are shocked to learn their daughter (Fagin) may be a closet Republican.
In honor of its 25th anniversary, Shadowbox is bringing back highlights from the troupe’s early years. In this show, the highlight is Steven Lynch’s Lullaby, a song last heard in 2006 at the now-defunct 2Co’s Cabaret. Cardinal again favors the piece with his sweet voice, setting the audience up for a humorous jolt when the lyrics take an unexpected turn.
Other musical selections of note include the two that bookend the second act: Portishead’s All Mine, sung by Stephanie Shull and accompanied by suitably spooky dancing featuring Nance, Fagin and Psenicka; and Queen’s Somebody to Love, harmonized by a gospel-like choir. Sandwiched between these two is the most notable number of all: Klein’s fervent re-creation of Janis Joplin’s Ball and Chain, complete with an extended a cappella section.
As if the show’s live entertainment weren’t enough, it’s punctuated by a collection of often-clever videos. The best is the last: Stev Guyer’s interview with the Columbus Zoo’s Jungle Jack Hanna. Hanna is such a treasure trove of unpredictable drollness that he inspires laughs without even trying.
Presumably, Shadowbox’s regular performers have to work at being as funny and tuneful as they are. Luckily for us, they made the effort.
Best of Shadowbox continues through Aug. 22 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday ( no shows July 3-4). Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.