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.

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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.

Comedy offers horrific orgy of sex, blasphemy and puppetry

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Jason (Danny Turek), a teenager possessed by his demonic hand puppet, threatens Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam) in Short North Stage’s production of Hand to God. (Photo by Jason Allen)

Jason (Danny Turek), a teenager possessed by his demonic hand puppet, threatens Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam) in Short North Stage’s production of Hand to God. (Photos by Jason Allen)

By Richard Ades

Hand to God has moments of hilarity, along with moments of horror. It starts, though, with a moment of disorientation.

Because set designer Bill Pierson has reconfigured the Garden Theater’s Green Room to resemble a church rec room, and because guests are handed a “church bulletin” on their way in, they may be unprepared for what happens next. A puppet appears on the “stage” of a miniature theater set up on one side of the room. But rather than offer the expected Christian message, he begins talking about “extracurricular fucking” and other things that are bad but “unavoidable.”

This, we learn, is Tyrone, and he’ll be saying and doing things that are even more outrageous before the show is over. Is he the devil, or is he simply a manifestation of a teenage boy’s inner thoughts and desires? That’s one of the questions playwright Robert Askins raises in his religion-taunting comedy.

The sacrilegious fun starts in earnest when we meet the flesh-and-blood characters who come into contact with Tyrone (and lose a little flesh and blood in the process).

Jessica (Kate Lingnofski) is a recently widowed mom who is supervising a puppet-making project at the Pilgrim Lutheran Church in Cypress, Texas. Taking part in the project are teenagers Margery (Barbara Weetman) and Timothy (Chad Goodwin), along with Jessica’s son, Jason (Danny Turek). Overseeing it all is Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam), who hopes the puppets will be used to spread the Gospel.

Thanks to Tyrone, that never happens. Created by Jason and attached more or less permanently to his left hand, the puppet appears to have a mind of his own. And what a disturbing mind it is—by Texas Lutheran standards, at least. He insists on blurting out thoughts that the shy and conflicted Jason would prefer to keep private, such as his carnal feelings toward Margery. Saddled with what amounts to a dual role, Turek does an admirable job of switching back and forth between the put-upon Jason and his vicious alter ego.

Jessica (Kate Lingnofski) watches as Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam) confronts an amorous Timothy (Chad Goodwin).

Jessica (Kate Lingnofski) watches as Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam) confronts an amorous Timothy (Chad Goodwin).

Working under Edward Carignan’s exuberant direction, the other cast members perform at the same high level. Weetman makes Margery an appealing combination of sweetness and pluck, while Putnam gives Pastor Greg a believable blend of human fallibility and heroic strength. As the frustrated Jessica and the hormone-driven Timothy, Lingnofski and Goodwin create big laughs while acting out an encounter that is aggressively kinky and probably illegal.

My only quibble with Askins’s comedy is that it tries too hard to be outrageous. OK, I can buy that Bible Belt Christians have secret frustrations and desires that sometimes lead them into unspeakable acts, but would they really drop so many F-bombs in the process? That’s a minor point, though.

Overall, the show is a provocative delight. As a bonus, it even leaves viewers with a final thought from Tyrone that gives them something to mull over on the way home.

Short North Stage will present Hand to God through March 5 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday (no 3 p.m. show Feb. 25), and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $30. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

Musical mermaid yearns for love in Disney do-over

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Diana Huey as Ariel in the touring production of The Little Mermaid, presented by Broadway in Columbus and CAPA (Photo by Mark & Tracy Photography)

Diana Huey as Ariel in the touring production of The Little Mermaid, presented by Broadway in Columbus and CAPA (Photos by Mark & Tracy Photography)

By Richard Ades

In mythic lore, mermaids were seductive creatures whose haunting voices lured sailors to their deaths. In modern times, The Little Mermaid lured Disney to one of its rare stumbles: a 2008 Broadway musical that failed to reclaim the magic of the company’s 1989 animated flick. The production garnered so-so reviews and sank a year and a half later.

Now, in a salvage operation consisting of a complete overhaul, Disney has relaunched the tale in a touring show that corrects most of the original production’s faults. It’s still no Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, but it’s a likable show that should keep parents and their young princes and princesses entertained.

Directed by Glenn Casale, the show uses cables and Kenneth Foy’s modest but attractive scenery to re-create the title character’s underwater world. The cables allow Ariel (Diana Huey) and others to “swim” through the domain ruled by her father, King Triton (Steve Blanchard). In scenes set at the surface or edge of the ocean, they allow her feathered friend Scuttle (Jamie Torcellini) to “fly.”

Though much has changed in the way the tale is told, the basic plot remains the same: Ariel is a teenage mermaid who has long been fascinated by humans despite her father’s claim that they’re barbarians who murdered her mother. Her fascination blossoms into a full-blown crush when she spies the seagoing Prince Eric (Matthew Kacergis) and subsequently saves his life when he falls overboard in a sudden storm.

Determined to meet the handsome Eric (who was unconscious when she pulled him from the sea), she makes a Faustian bargain with her evil aunt, Ursula (Jennifer Allen): Ariel will become human, but she will forfeit her soul unless she can persuade the prince to kiss her within three days. In addition, she will immediately lose her voice. That’s unfortunate for her, because Eric has fallen in love with the singing voice he heard before the storm and is determined to find and marry its owner.

Jennifer Allen as the villainous Ursula

Jennifer Allen as the villainous Ursula

Though The Little Mermaid lacks the emotional depth of the best Disney musicals, it partially makes up for it by throwing in a boatload of humor. Scuttle’s misuse of the English language is a bit forced, but Allen’s tentacled and self-amused Ursula is good for chuckles. Funnier still is a scene in which a French chef (Dane Stokinger) prepares a meal by smashing deceased sea creatures with various kitchen utensils.

As Ariel, Huey is most successful at portraying the humorous side of puppy (guppy?) love, especially after the mermaid transforms into a human. In the sea, she’s often overshadowed by the more colorful characters around her, but on land, she’s amusingly awkward as Ariel struggles to deal with an unfamiliar body and emotions. (It’s probably unnecessary to point out that the former mermaid’s struggles symbolically parallel what the average girl goes through during her teen years.)

Despite the emphasis on comedy, The Little Mermaid’s biggest strengths are the tunes penned by composer Alan Menken and lyricists Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater. Sebastian (Melvin Abston), a crab who becomes Ariel’s protector, makes the most of two popular holdovers from the movie: Under the Sea and Kiss the Girl. Huey’s lovely voice soars on Ariel solos such as Part of Your World, while Kacergis displays the production’s strongest pipes on Eric’s numbers Her Voice and One Step Closer.

One element of the plot could use further honing: The inevitable happy ending comes about thanks to a sudden development that left both me and my date scratching our heads. Otherwise, The Little Mermaid—both the title character and the revised telling of her story—offers an inspiring lesson on the value of perseverance.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Disney’s The Little Mermaid through Sunday (Feb. 5) 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 $29-$94. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, broadway.columbus.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Sexy skits remain funny through the final punchline

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Brandon Anderson as Funk Daddy Love in a skit from Body Heat (Shadowbox Live photo)

Brandon Anderson as Funk Daddy Love in a skit from Body Heat (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

Are sex and romance the best antidotes for the post-holiday blahs? Shadowbox Live seems to think so, as it always starts out the new year with the theatrical equivalent of a roll in the hay. Accordingly, the new Body Heat theme show holds forth with nearly two hours’ worth of heavy-breathing skits and songs.

Is the show sponge-worthy, as Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes might ask? Yes, thanks to three laudable attributes: (1) Some of the skits are pretty clever. (2) Some of the songs are dynamite. And (3) Funk Daddy Love is back!

For me, the last attribute may be the most important. The singer, played with satirical relish by Brandon Anderson, specializes in songs that attempt to stimulate listeners’ libidos with the help of lyrics that are to subtlety what Donald Trump is to diplomacy.

In Funk Daddy’s current skit, Funk Your Brains Out, the singer promotes such sexually explicit hits as Blew Velvet. “Velvet is the name of my penis,” he helpfully explains. Obviously, you have to have a taste for raunchy humor to appreciate this sort of thing, and apparently I do. Funk Daddy Love cracks me up.

You know what else cracks me up? Skits that are funny right up until the ultimate punchline. If you’ve been to many Shadowbox theme shows, you know the troupe doesn’t always pull that particular rabbit out of the hat, but this time it usually succeeds.

A few skits even have final twists that are as surprising as they are amusing. One of the best is Win Her Back, in which a teacher (Nikki Fagin) wraps up a “Romance 101” course by instructing her male students on how to save their relationship when they inevitably screw up. Another is Promposal, a cute piece about a high-schooler (Jimmy Mak) who’s sure he’ll never land a date to the prom unless he spends big bucks on an extravagantly creative invitation.

Also boasting a twist of sorts, but funnier for what happens before it, is Pro Pickup. It features Tom Cardinal and Amy Lay as sports-style commentators describing the interpersonal action during Ladies Night at a popular meat market. Key characters include the hapless Trent (Jamie Barrow), the out-for-a-good-time Krista (Nikki Davis) and the late-arriving Bill “The Bullet” (Guillermo Jemmott), a former player who’s returning to the singles scene after being “released from his contract.”

In between the winners, there are the usual misfires. They include Office Romance, in which recurring character Johnson (Julie Klein) tries to find out what secret admirer sent her flowers. This one has a twist, too, but it’s as so-so as the rest of the piece.

As for the night’s final skit, Shake Your Whole, it could be described as DOA—that is, Depends on Alcohol. If you’ve had a few drinks, you’ll have a better chance of enjoying this latest confrontation between suburbanites Dick and Betsy Anderson (Mak and Katy Psenicka) and South Siders Puck Ducky and Misty Duck (David Whitehouse and Lay). Besides a few provocative variations on yoga positions, there’s not a lot going on.

Music-wise, the show gets off to an appropriate start with Do You Wanna Touch Me. It’s lustily sung by Fagin, who also handles the lead vocals on an even sexier later number, I Get Off. A sultrier kind of sexiness comes across in Strange Face of Love, sung by Klein with her usual consummate skill.

One of the biggest musical surprises—and not in a good way—is the Robert Palmer hit Addicted to Love. Lead vocalist Cardinal and the house band usually excel at cover songs, but their rendition this classic is, well, less than classic. Not helping is the decision to spoof the iconic Palmer video by having two of the robotic backup dancers played by men in drag. Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching a lot of Transparent lately, but this kind of humor is starting to seem passé.

Much funnier is Shadowbox’s take on the Lonely Island/Saturday Night Live music video I Just Had Sex. The rapped and sung lyrics are performed with nerdy awkwardness by Lay, Barrow, David Whitehouse and Joey Ahern.

Wrapping up both the first and second acts, Anderson sets aside his Funk Daddy Love character to deliver the lead vocals on Bruno Mars’s 24K Magic and James Brown’s Sex Machine. Both are great.

Body Heat continues through March 18 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Holiday show enhanced by ASL interpretation

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By Richard Ades

Stephanie Shull, Julie Klein and Stacie Boord (from left) return as the Santa Babies in Holiday Hoopla, opening Thursday at Shadowbox Live (Shadowbox Live photo)

Stephanie Shull, Julie Klein and Stacie Boord (from left) return as the Santa Babies in Holiday Hoopla. (Shadowbox Live photo)

I lucked out. When I finally had time to catch Holiday Hoopla 2016, I arrived on a night when talented Columbus State students were offering American Sign Language interpretation.

It was beautiful effort. Not content to have a single interpreter gesticulate from the side of the stage, Shadowbox Live and Columbus State had worked out something far more elaborate. During the sketches, nearly every character was represented by a separate interpreter who took on that person’s personality while signing his or her lines. During the songs, interpreters swayed gracefully with the music while signing lyrics that even hearing patrons sometimes had trouble picking out.

If you want to see what Hoopla is like with sign interpretation, the service will be offered again at 7:30 Wednesday, Dec. 14. (Hearing-impaired patrons receive a $10 discount.)

Obviously, sign interpretation is most valuable for those who rely on it to understand the action, but I enjoyed it as a variation on a show that has been sticking to the same format for most of the past quarter century. Even without the interpretation, though, this Hoopla has much to recommend it.

Yes, most of the songs have been repeated annually for years, but they’ve become such an integral part of this local tradition that leaving them out would be unthinkable. A jazzy Merry Christmas Baby (sung by Stacie Boord), a bleak Hounds of Winter (sung by Leah Haviland), a forlorn The Old Man (sung by Stev Guyer): All are as gorgeous as they are indispensable.

Most important of all are the rousing instrumental Christmas in Sarajevo and the gospel-like Children Go Where I Send Thee. My only comment on the latter is that this year’s version could be even bigger, with still more singers added as it builds to its soul-stirring finale.

A TV host (Guillermo Jemmott, left) is shocked to hear a guest (Jimmy Mak) expound on why he believes Santa is an alien. (Shadowbox Live photo)

A TV host (Guillermo Jemmott, left) is shocked to hear a guest (Jimmy Mak) expound on why he believes Santa is an alien. (Shadowbox Live photo)

Among the skits, there are the expected duds and near-duds. One of them is the first, Your Own Personal Santa, in which a neighborhood meeting turns into a gripe session on parents’ odd Christmas traditions. Better is the following skit, Ancient Aliens, in which an eccentrically coifed Jimmy Mak shares his theory that Santa Claus is capable of superhuman feats because he actually hails from another planet.

In general, the sketches get better as the show goes on, particularly after intermission.

The Firstest Christmas, in which elementary-school kids present a musical depiction of the holiday’s roots, improves on a familiar Shadowbox theme by adding a satirical edge. Because they’re students at a Montessori school that refuses to rein in children’s creativity, teacher Mrs. Boddington (Katy Psenicka) is helpless to object when the kids stray from biblical accuracy. For instance, they have Mary (Haviland) arrive at the stable riding a certain red-nosed reindeer rather than a donkey. And, oh yes, the stable is located, not in Bethlehem, but at the North Pole.

More satire is invoked in Xmas Do Not Play List, about a radio disc jockey (David Whitehouse) who’s ordered to stop playing a slew of familiar Christmas tunes for fear they’ll offend viewers with precariously thin skins.

A series of short skits is built around a fictitious line of Hallmark “Honesty” cards that replace generic greetings with messages tailored to very specific—and very unpleasant—situations. Like the show as a whole, these get better as they go along.

As always, the Santa Babies (Julie Klein, Stephanie Shull and Boord) finish things off with their kitschy lounge act. Highlights include a seasonally adjusted and beautifully harmonized version of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, a dry-land synchronized swimming routine and the It’s Raining Men finale.

Then there’s the inevitable moment when they drag a male customer onstage in a suggestive routine that’s been repeated with nary a variation for the last 25 years. Watching this has long since become a tedious ordeal for me, but everyone else at the performance I attended seemed to be busting a gut.

One more tradition we can expect to return in Holiday Hoopla 2017.

Holiday Hoopla continues through Dec. 30 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. select Mondays-Thursdays, 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. select Fridays-Saturdays. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Beatty’s return to the silver screen is as eccentric as his subject

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By Richard Ades

Rules Don’t Apply is Warren Beatty’s first appearance in front of a camera since 2001’s Town & Country—and his first appearance behind a camera since 1998’s Bulworth. That probably explains why the flick is filled with so many familiar faces.

Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich, left) listens as Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty) testifies before Congress in Rules Don’t Apply.

Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich, left) listens as Howard Hughes (Warren Beatty) testifies before Congress in Rules Don’t Apply.

Paul Sorvino, Matthew Broderick, Candice Bergen, Martin Sheen, Oliver Platt, Ed Harris, Dabney Coleman and Annette Bening (aka Mrs. Beatty) are among the veteran A-listers who apparently were eager to take part in the actor/director’s return to the silver screen. That makes it ironic that two of the younger cast members emerge as the best reasons to see a tale based on a late chapter in the life of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes.

Lily Collins and Alden Ehrenreich have appealing chemistry as two people in Hughes’s employ: Marla Mabrey, a would-be starlet, and Frank Forbes, a driver who’s assigned to chauffer her around. Because both Marla and Frank are devout Christians—and more particularly because Hughes forbids them to have anything but a professional relationship—that chemistry has plenty of time to percolate as the two are forced to sublimate their growing attraction for each other.

Beyond this budding romance, the film offers Beatty fans the pleasure of seeing the ex-matinee idol’s take on the secretive and exceedingly bizarre Hughes. But beyond that, it offers very little.

Set primarily in Hollywood in 1959, Rules Don’t Apply reveals Hughes’s odd penchant for signing contracts with young actresses who are given sumptuous housing but little opportunity to launch a film career. When Marla arrives along with her equally Christian mom (Bening), she’s said to be one of perhaps 26 such women who wait around for an opportunity that almost never comes.

It’s a fascinating situation, whether or not it’s entirely accurate. (The movie begins with a Hughes quotation advising us to “Never check an interesting fact.”) But the film built around that situation is frankly a mess. Early scenes end so abruptly and pointlessly that you have to wonder what the editors were thinking. Later, after Hughes emerges from the shadows, the film takes a long detour into his chaotic life that is as frustrating for us as it seems to be for the underlings who are forced to share it.

Lily Collins as aspiring movie star Marla Mabrey

Lily Collins as aspiring movie star Marla Mabrey

Throughout, consistent tone is conspicuously absent. Early developments and sumptuous visuals, including fleets of shiny vintage cars, help to establish a mood of affectionate nostalgia. But the script (co-written by Beatty) has no qualms about switching to broad comedy when chauffer Frank finally lets Marla take the wheel, only to watch her morph from a cautious and conservative young woman to a highway terror.

Collins’s character undergoes another transformation for the sake of a later plot point. Though a demure teetotaler, Marla turns into a booze-guzzling vamp the first time alcohol passes her lips. Despite being every parent’s worst nightmare, the scene just doesn’t ring true.

Like his many co-stars, Beatty’s fans will no doubt be glad to see him back after so many years of absence. But they might wish he’d taken a refresher course in filmmaking before attempting his return.

Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5)

Rules Don’t Apply (PG-13) opens Wednesday (Nov. 23) at theaters nationwide.

Terrified prisoner seeks help from cinematic heroine

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Molina (Scott Hunt, left) has an uneasy relationship with cellmate Valentin (Joe Joseph), a leftist revolutionary, in Short North Stage’s production of Kiss of the Spider Woman (photo by Jason Allen)

By Richard Ades

Molina prefers fantasy to reality. Small wonder: As a gay man living in a South American dictatorship in the 1970s, he’s too shy and scared to act on his romantic desires.

One of his fantasies involves his fevered friendship with Gabriel, a straight man who can’t give him the love he craves. Mostly, though, his fantasies revolve around Aurora, a movie star who embodies the feminine grace and beauty he tries to re-create in his job as a department-store window dresser.

Then Molina is thrown into prison on the trumped-up charge of making advances on an underage male. It soon becomes evident he’s being pressured by the warden to glean information out of Valentin, the leftist revolutionary who shares his cell. After avoiding reality all his life, Molina suddenly finds himself in a horrifying dilemma that not even fantasies of his beloved Aurora can block out.

Kiss of the Spider Woman is based on a novel by Manuel Puig that previously inspired a 1983 stage play and a 1985 movie starring William Hurt and Raul Julia. The stage musical—with book by Terrence McNally, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb—opened on Broadway in 1993 and won that year’s Tony for best musical.

After seeing the film, the play and the musical, I still find the film the most moving interpretation of the story. But Short North Stage’s production of the musical, directed by Michael Licata (who also helmed 2015’s wonderful A Little Night Music), is impressive on several levels.

Scott Hunt gives a relatable portrayal of the in-over-his-head Molina and backs it up with a beautiful singing voice. Joe Joseph is macho but vulnerable as Valentin and also displays strong pipes, especially in an Act 1 lament about Marta, the woman he loves.

As Aurora, the movie star who dominates Molina’s fantasies, Eli Brickey often is required to sing while swinging (upside down, even) from a suspended sash. Though she aces this dizzying task, at other times her breathy voice seems stretched by the role’s vocal demands. She also projects less glamour than one would expect from such a fantasy figure, though she has no trouble projecting a satirical take on glamour, as she does during a Betty Boop-style number in Act 2.

Movie queen Aurora (Eli Brickey) performs with dancers (from left) Edgar Lopez, James Schoppe, Kevin Ferguson and Patrick Carmichael. (photo by Jason Allen)

Movie queen Aurora (Eli Brickey) performs with dancers (from left) Edgar Lopez, James Schoppe, Kevin Ferguson and Patrick Carmichael. (photo by Jason Allen)

Key supporting roles are nicely handled by Todd Covert as the manipulative warden; Alex Armesto and Amari Ingram as the abusive prison guards; James Schoppe as Molina’s friend, Gabriel; Danielle Grays as the sexy but unreliable Marta; and Linda Kinnison Roth as Molina’s loving mother.

Visually, the production boasts a weathered-looking two-story set designed by Jason Bolen. Though not lit as dramatically as it might be by Adam Zeek, it allows the action to skip effortlessly between terrifying reality and the musical fantasy sequences that represent the inner workings of Molina’s troubled mind.

Speaking of those fantasy sequences, they benefit from Edward Carignan’s playful and sometimes kitschy choreography and are ably accompanied by musical director Philip Brown Dupont and his mighty backstage band.

As a final bonus, every word of dialogue and lyrics comes through clearly, not the easiest feat in the Garden Theater’s acoustically challenging auditorium.

Add all this to the fact that this is the area premiere of Kander and Ebb’s award-winning work, and the show becomes a top priority for fans of musical theater.

Short North Stage will present Kiss of the Spider Woman through Nov. 20 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$42. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

Like a less curmudgeonly, more Scandinavian version of Doc Martin

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Rolf Lassgard as the gruff title character in A Man Called Ove

Rolf Lassgard as the gruff title character in A Man Called Ove

By Richard Ades

Fans of the British TV series Doc Martin know grumpy heroes can be both endearing and entertaining. Now we have a Swedish movie, A Man Called Ove, that aims to prove they can be just as endearing and entertaining in a country that drives on the opposite side of the road.

If the flick doesn’t succeed quite as brilliantly, it’s because director/screenwriter Hannes Holm doesn’t have the series’ knack for tickling us with quirky comedy before surprising us with heart-stopping suspense or heartwarming drama. The film, adapted from Fredrik Backman’s bestselling novel, takes a more direct route to our emotions.

We first meet Ove (Rolf Lassgard) when he’s haggling with a store clerk over the price of a bouquet of flowers. He comes off as an unreasonable, disagreeable curmudgeon. Then, in the next scene, we realize he bought the flowers to take to his late wife’s grave. Oops. I guess we should give the old guy a break.

Another reason for pitying him arrives when his young bosses call him into their office and pretend they’re doing him a favor by laying him off from the company where he’s worked for 43 years. Little wonder that Ove—wifeless, friendless and now jobless—is soon attempting suicide. The only thing that stops him is the arrival of a new family of neighbors led by Parvanah (Bahar Pars), a pregnant Iranian immigrant who immediately begins inserting herself into Ove’s lonely existence.

From this point on, the film revolves on the question of whether the friendly Parvanah will succeed in renewing Ove’s interest in the world and those who share it. Though he continues trying to join his wife in the great beyond, the film gives us little reason for pessimism. For one thing, Parvanah is such a bubbly force of nature that it’s impossible to believe he can resist her for long. For another, numerous episodes reveal that Ove is far less misanthropic than he pretends to be.

One such incident involves another Doc Martin parallel: Just as Martin is bedeviled by a homeless dog that refuses to leave him alone, Ove is bedeviled by a fluffy homeless cat. Yet as soon as the cat is threatened, he comes to its rescue.

Other scenes depict Ove as downright heroic. At times, when he alone steps forward to prevent a tragedy, he appears to be the only heroic person in Sweden.

Through much of the film, incidents from Ove’s current life are interspersed with flashbacks to his childhood and young adulthood. The most charming of these depict how he met Sonja (Ida Engvoll), the outgoing woman who became his wife. The most puzzling involves an encounter with one of the dictatorial officials he refers to as “whiteshirts.”

The flashbacks show the developments that helped to turn Ove into the sad individual he’s become, but in the process they give the film an episodic structure. They also reinforce the flick’s tendency toward heavy-handed melodrama.

Though flawed, A Man Called Ove paints a warm portrait of an aging individual who’s given a well-deserved second chance at life. As a popular example of modern Swedish cinema—it’s the country’s nominee for a Foreign Language Film Oscar—it may come as a pleasant surprise to those more familiar with the dour works of Ingmar Bergman.

As for fans of Doc Martin who are looking for an emergency dose of curmudgeonhood, they’ll probably be less satisfied. Fortunately for them, an eighth (and supposedly last) season is set to air next year.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

A Man Called Ove, rated PG-13, opens Friday (Oct. 21) at the Drexel Theatre, 2254 E. Main St., Bexley.