The Fantasticks (Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)


It’s funny how some plays can become such a part of popular culture that they can feel like you’ve seen them before even if you haven’t. The Fantasticks, the long-running 1960 Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt musical about two neighboring fathers pretending to feud in the hope that their children will rebel and fall in love, is one of those evergreens, a musical that is akin to a rite of passage as each new generation discovers and embraces its charms. The Fantasticks isn’t a great work, but its memorable score, including such standards as “Try to Remember,” “Much More,” and “Soon It’s Gonna Rain,” has done much to solidify its reputation.

Photo: Jason Allen – Emma Coniglio (Luisa) and Robert Carlton Stimmel (Matt)

Now Short North Stage presents their version of The Fantasticks, only this time director Jonathan Flom has changed its setting and locale to Oklahoma circa April 1935 during The Great Depression, more specially after a great dust storm that has left much death and destruction in its wake. Not a word or song has been changed to accommodate this interpretation, and yet what emerges in this production injects new life and relevance in the all-too-familiar story of boy meets girl/boy loses girl/boy gets girl back. Mr. Flom’s production, with a sprawling set by Jonathan Sabo complete with mounds of dirt and partially buried farm paraphernalia, is presented in the round with limited seating around the perimeter of a raised wooden platform (the room’s support beam is cleverly dressed to appear like a tower); the overall effect is one of inclusion, like the audience is a part of the action.

Photo: Jason Allen – Brian Hupp (El Gallo) and Emma Coniglio (Luisa)

The cast is uniformly excellent, exuding a kind of familial affection for one another that permeates past their roles. Brian Hupp makes an oddly dangerous and elusive El Gallo, a fresh take on this character all dressed in black; Robert Carlton Stimmel plays Matt with energy to spare, and Emma Coniglio has a way of playing a bit spoiled as Luisa that isn’t cloying; Doug Joseph and Ryan Stem, as the fathers of Matt and Louisa respectively, should be listened to carefully for their humorous ad libbing as they bicker with each other in the way that only great friends can do; Mr. Joseph and Mr. Stem both have a way of embodying the spirit of both mother and father that makes their investment in the future of their children all the more significant.

Photo: Jason Allen – (left to right) Robert Carlton Stimmel (Matt), Kate Lingnofski (Mortimer), and Alex Lanier (Henry)

Though her stage time is brief, Alex Lanier makes a dizzyingly bombastic Henry, the old actor who helps to stage an attempted abduction of Louisa to help Matt appear to be a hero; Kate Lingnofski as Mortimer, Henry’s sidekick, has a staunch posture and walk that is highly individual and comedic; her goggles, cap, and scarves conjure images of a Chaplinesque Amelia Earhart. Megan Valle plays The Mute, and she is also responsible for the choreography that feels so organic that it can be difficult to tell when it starts and ends; Ms. Valle acts silently with an expression that looks as if she’s on the cusp of saying something quite profound, the story of Matt and Luisa’s courtship playing out in front of her being the one respite from the world around her.

Photo: Jason Allen

Short North Stage’s The Fantasticks has a wistful, dreamlike quality to it, almost like recalling a memory through a haze of sheer muslin. All of the familiar songs and characters are there, but this telling has more of an urgency and relevance to it; the love and joy of the young lovers is more poignant with The Great Depression as a backdrop. This reimagining doesn’t feel forced or heavy-handed at all, and the simplicity of the story has never felt more welcome a luxury. Aside from the intimacy of experiencing this production in the round, there is an added benefit; many times I caught myself glancing at the smiling faces of other audience members on the opposite side of the performing space. I’m sure I sported an incongruous smile as well since the sweetness and hopefulness of this production is infectious. “Aren’t you glad we came out tonight?” I heard a lady ask her friends as we all exited the theatre after the play. Everyone agreed that seeing this production of The Fantasticks was time well-spent.

**** out of ****

The Fantasticks continues through to August 14th in The Green Room at The Garden Theatre located at 1187 North High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.shortnorthstage.org/calendar/v/471

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Zanna, Don’t! (Evolution Theatre Company – Columbus, OH)

I don’t recommend making a drinking game out of every time the word “love” is said in Zanna, Don’t! as you’d probably need to be hospitalized shortly after the first song had been sung; that would be a shame, as then you’d miss out on seeing one of the sweetest gay-themed musical comedies in existence. As the closing show of Evolution Theatre Company’s 2015 season, Zanna, Don’t! is awash in energy, bold colors, and catchy music, just the right kind of joyful diversion to brighten up a dreary fall.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
I first saw Zanna, Don’t! during its 2003 summer run off-Broadway, and several of its songs (by Tim Acito and Alexander Dinelaris) have been on my mix CDs and playlists ever since. Though the title is a play on the campy 1980 film musical Xanadu, the similarity ends there. Zanna, Don’t! is set in a high school in Heartsville, U.S.A., where everyone is gay and “those heteros” are often ridiculed and feared. This is a campus where everyone is love-obsessed, but not sex-obsessed, which keeps the material cutely innocent and tame. The students band together to put on a play about straights being in the military (remember, this was first performed in 2002) and how they should have the right to love each other, marry, and be accepted; their world is rocked when two of their own are found to be straight and in love.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
Director Brent Ries keeps Zanna, Don’t! moving quickly, zipping along in such a way that its two hour running time feels like one. The set by Shane Cinal is deceptively simple with bold graphics and a stage that extends out when needed. Costume designer Jason Guthrie is to be congratulated for pairing so many solid separates together while also creating some wild fashions for Zanna, including a camouflage muumuu and some glitterific shoes and t-shirts. Danielle Mann’s choreography makes excellent use of the Van Fleet Theatre’s space, with the mechanical bull riding dance a particular highlight. Aside from the song “Fast” (which is almost entirely unintelligible due to its pace and the volume of the band), the sound is strong with a good balance between the music and voices, so important to a musical.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Brian C. Gray (Arvin/Bronco), Ricky Locci (Mike), Tahrea Maynard (Roberta), Alex Lanier (Karla/Necca/Loretta), and Jordan Shafer (Kate)
 
The cast includes some of the best young talent in the area, and any casual Columbus theatre fan has surely seen many of its members before in other shows (I know I have). Ricky Locci is terrific as Mike, the boy who is heartbroken when he finds out his boyfriend, Steve (the small but mighty Sean Felder) is in love with Kate (the comically and musically gifted Jordan Shafer). Mr. Locci has the best songs in the score (“I Could Write Books” and “I Think We Got Love”) and performs them beautifully, playing the kind of jilted character to which we can all relate.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Sean Felder (Steve), Tahrea Maynard (Roberta), and Ricky Locci (Mike)
 
Tahrea Maynard plays flannel-clad Roberta, Kate’s rejected girlfriend, with humor to spare and putting a capital B in butch. T. Johnpaul Adams also makes an impression as Tank, perhaps the second most vigorous part in the show as he seemed to appear and disappear all over the place.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – William Macke (Zanna)
 
The centerpiece of the show is William Macke as Zanna, the sprightly matchmaker whose flame burns loud and proud. Though miscast in a part more appropriate for a pocket-sized gay (Zanna is like Peter Pan in that respect), no one can accuse Mr. Macke of not giving the part his all – and then some! Though his turbocharged effeminate gestures and voice can become a bit grating and come off as more of a caricature than a character, Mr. Macke flies free of any restrictions in a bold, committed performance; still, he is at his best in the more restrained, quiet moments when he isn’t trying quite so hard. 

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 

Zanna, Don’t! has a spirit that is in the right place, even if some of its songs rhyme “love” with “love” a bit too much for me. It’s impossible not to find oneself smiling and laughing during this show, and every member of the cast is delivering their A game, appearing to be having as good a time as the audience. With all the glitter and colors and dancing, it’s like concentrated gayness – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

*** out of ****

Zanna, Don’t! continues through to November 21st in the Van Fleet Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://evolutiontheatre.org

Bat Boy: The Musical (Emerald City Players – Worthington, OH)

Where are all the plays inspired by outlandish stories in tabloids? I just know of one, and that’s Bat Boy: The Musical, which was inspired by a 1992 cover story in the “Weekly World News” about a boy who appeared to be part bat living in West Virginia (having lived in West Virginia before, this isn’t so shocking a claim). The cover of the tabloid became quite popular as an example of the ridiculousness of that and other tabloids, and no doubt you may have seen it before even if you haven’t read the article.

  

Taking inspiration from that photo and article, Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming wrote the book to Bat Boy: The Musical, with music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe. The play was first performed in 1997, eventually premiering off-Broadway in 2001 and garnering a cast recording before closing after nearly nine months. I remember it being popular off-Broadway at the same time as Urinetown: The Musical and there being debate on which might move to Broadway (only Urinetown: The Musical did). I first saw the play in a 2002 D.C. production that was partially environmental and quite serious in tone, so what a joy it was to see Emerald City Players present Bat Boy: The Musical in the tongue-in-cheek way as it was intended.

Bat Boy: The Musical takes place in Hope Falls, West Virginia, where cattle are dying at an alarming rate and a mysterious wild boy resembling a bat has been discovered. Could he be the cause of the cattle deaths? He is taken to the home of Dr. Parker, the local vet, with the thought that he will be disposed of; instead he is adopted by the family, learns English, and gets his GED! Still, the community doesn’t trust him, and it is only a manner of time before his true background is revealed.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Nick Beecroft
 
Nick Beecroft plays “Bat Boy” Edgar (Ms. Parker names him that) with wild abandon, completely unafraid of looking foolish. Sure, his bald cap is makeshift and shoddy, but that’s in keeping with the tone of this piece; if it was done too well it wouldn’t have fit in at all. It’s theatre of the absurd, so when Beecroft goes from moaning to communicate to speaking English with a British accent in a matter of days, the line of demarcation from where his forehead ends and the bald cap begins is the least of one’s concerns. He first appears nearly nude with confidence and is a total team player, jumping around and slobbering with his fake chompers.
 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Denae Sullivan and Nick Beecroft

Denae Sullivan as Meredith Parker is another standout as the matriarch of the Parker family. Her singing voice is pure and clear, which is good because she has the most challenging notes to hit in the score. There was a moment in last night’s performance where she slipped on some stage blood and fell so gracefully that I wasn’t sure it wasn’t planned. She held her note and stayed in character during it all, though she appeared in the second act with some bandages around her ankle. She persevered in the spirit of “the show must go on” and disguised her limp while in character extremely well. Only at the curtain call did it appear that she was in some distress, but her performance didn’t suffer at all – in fact, it seemed to get better, as if she now had something more to fight against along with her husband and the townsfolk in the play! Is she getting stunt pay? I hope she recovers quickly and they make sure to clean up the blood to help prevent mishaps in the future.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Nick Beecroft and Alexa Rybinski
 
Alexa Rybinski is Shelley Parker, playing her with sarcasm and sass to spare. She has similar coloring as Sullivan playing her mom, and their scenes together are some of the best in the play as they really know how to balance and play off of that tenuous mother-daughter dynamic.

Jim Bownas as Sheriff Reynolds is interesting as he comes off as the least experienced in the cast without a real “stage voice,” but boy does he fit the part! He has a swagger and a speech pattern that reminds of the good old boys in West Virginia, and the way he speaks rather than sings his lyrics (a la Rex Harrison) works as well. 

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Jill Jess, Meghan Russell, Jim Bownas, Jonathan March, Sophia Osman, and Alex Lanier
 
Jonathan March plays a variety of roles, most notably as Rick, Shelly’s gruff and flanneled boyfriend. Personally, I got the biggest kick out of seeing him in a dress and wig as Lorraine, the town busybody. Like Beecroft, March isn’t afraid at all to “go for it” and contort his strong features into many different characters for comedic effect.

Alex Lanier also plays several roles, and what a joy to finally get to hear her voice! I saw her in SRO’s The Fantasticks as the mute (!), so to hear her stirring voice and witness her spot on comedic delivery is a revelation.

Director Jody Hepp has done a marvelous job keeping the tone of the piece in check. Many of the songs veer into melodrama, but Hepp always finds some way to remind the audience, “This is a comedy.” Sudden moments of cartoon violence are surprising as well as hilarious, and they are mostly very well handled with practical effects. Performed in a makeshift performance space at the MOSSL (Mid-Ohio Select Soccer League) offices, the overall spirit is one of “let’s put on a show” reminiscent of the old Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland films where they would put on performances in a barn. That’s not meant to imply that it is shoddy at all; the sound is clear, the lighting good, and the small band doesn’t miss a beat.

There is a lovely intimacy in this space as well, with less than fifty comfortable seats spaced evenly in front of the stage. Entertainment and art can come about in sometimes the oddest of locations, but I’m an advocate for it no matter where it can be staged! Some of my best theatregoing experiences have been in funky little off-Broadway spaces in downtown Manhattan, so I’m all for the different and unique if at the end of the day I have a good time. If you liked Little Shop of Horrors, then you should give Bat Boy: The Musical a try.

*** out of ****

Bat Boy: The Musical continues through to August 14th in the Mid-Ohio Select Soccer League offices at 670 Lakeview Plaza Suite D in Worthington, OH (around 25 minutes north of Columbus), and more information can be found at http://emeraldcityplayers.com/