Sticks & Stones (Evolution Theatre Company & CATCO – Columbus, OH)


“There’s always a price to being included,” Janice Sanders says in Cory Skurdal’s Sticks & Stones, the final play in this year’s Local Playwright’s Festival presented by Evolution Theatre Company in partnership with CATCO. The specifics behind Ms. Sanders’ statement become clear throughout the play, a thought-provoking and honest exploration of the prejudices that exist around being true to oneself, be it openly gay, trans, or anything considered other than the norm. No, on second thought, perhaps it’s about jealousy and self-hatred. Actually, there are many different themes covered in this story of two women fighting over words, the kind used to classify as well as subjugate people.


Mr. Skurdal’s play won the 2014 CATCO/Greater Columbus Arts Council Playwriting Fellowship; this is its first full production after a reading last year. On the surface, Sticks & Stones is about the aforementioned Janice Sanders, a popular art critic, who feels she has been libeled by Kyle, a transgender blogger, after certain innuendos are made about her private life online. Janice is quite conservative and traditional, and it’s easy to see that the uninhibited Kyle is the polar opposite – or is she? Both women know what it’s like to struggle with their identity, but they deal with it in completely different ways: Janice goes inward and keeps her cards close to her chest while Kyle lets “Kylie” (the name she calls herself) out for the world to see. The action unfolds as each woman relays her interpretation of the conflict to their respective lawyers, putting the audience in the position of being the jury.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Mr. Skurdal’s writing is uncommonly rich with dialogue that flows naturally and makes a point without being preachy. “You’re sick with shame,” Kyle shouts at Janice, only to have her hurl back, “And you ought to be!” So much judgmental and prejudicial rhetoric comes from Janice that it brings to mind those impassioned but completely misguided and embarrassing Facebook rants we all see posted by former high school friends or distant cousins. The only thing constant in life is change, and that’s one point which Janice struggles to accept based largely on the feelings of her family.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Josie Merkle (Janice) and Kim Garrison Hopcraft (Susan)

Women are the stars of this piece, and it is their actions that drive the plot. Some men are on hand in the cast, but what a rare treat to see a play with so many important roles for women in a culture where being white and male is flaunted as the ultimate prize in the genetic lottery. Director Joe Bishara keeps things moving at a swift rate, incrementally increasing the pace until an inevitable emotional (and physical) confrontation occurs between Janice and Kyle; the moment is so heated and real that I had to suppress the urge to jump in to break it up.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Josie Merkle (Janice) and Frank Barnhart (Dana)

Josie Merkle is the cantankerous Janice Sanders, ostensibly the villain of this work. She has no trouble delivering her caustic remarks with relish; and yet, Ms. Merkle allows us to see Janice as sympathetic as well, a product of her environment from a time when going against the grain was not much of an option. Playing her as an unrepentant harpy would’ve been too easy with this material, and Ms. Merkle has an instinctive biting delivery that would’ve made that a walk in the park for her; instead, she chooses another path, one laced with frustration born out of years and years of paying the price for inclusion.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Staley Jophiel Munroe (Kyle) and Priyanka Shetty (Kendall)

As competent as the cast and script is, the show would not function half as well without the glorious performance of Staley Jophiel Munroe as the fearless Kyle, a trans woman who manages to push the buttons of most everyone in her vicinity, sometimes just for fun (as when she challenges the personal space of her lawyer Kendall, played by Priyanka Shetty, who squirms uncomfortably and believably at the intrusion) but more often for just being true to herself and refusing to allow the opinions of others to bring her down. I gather Ms. Munroe has a deep well of life experience that informs her portrayal; the flashback scene with her father is particularly heartbreaking, surely touching a nerve with any LGBT person who has faced hostility from their family. “He can’t be this way!” her father shouts, while Ms. Munroe’s plaintive, “I AM this way!” is so nakedly honest that I defy anyone to walk away unmoved. After the performance, I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Munroe, who was quite modest about her abilities, stating that she had never acted on stage before; what’s wonderful is what she does here doesn’t feel like acting at all – it’s simply being – and I sincerely hope this is but the first of many performances she will gift to us.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Staley Jophiel Munroe (Kyle)

Sticks & Stones is compact at just over an hour in length, but it has so much to say about our outside differences, deeply-held prejudices, and fear. People tend to fear the unknown, and the very nature of being trans means that there isn’t a “one size fits all” way of classifying them; they may or may not have had certain surgeries to change the anatomy with which they were born, but that’s for each trans person to know and share (or not) with whom they please. For some people it’s easier to manage fear if they have a way of categorizing things, setting apart what they do understand from what they don’t. What Sticks & Stones drives home is that all of the important characteristics of being a human are there within all of us; love, sadness, longing, betrayal – these emotions feel the same to each of us on the inside no matter what we look like on the outside.

***/ out of ****

Sticks & Stones continues through to June 12th 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

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Mothers and Sons (CATCO – Columbus, OH)

I remember Oprah quoting a guest on one of her shows dealing with forgiveness. “Forgiveness,” she said, “is letting go of the hope that the past could have been any different.” It was this quote that came to my mind after experiencing CATCO’s production of Terrance McNally’s Mothers and Sons, a touching portrait of a woman stuck in the anger phase of grief and a man who forged ahead after sifting through the ashes.

After premiering regionally in 2013, Mothers and Sons enjoyed a brief spring run in 2014 on Broadway starring Tyne Daly. McNally wrote the piece as a follow up to his 1990 television play Andre’s Mother, which was about a woman attending her son’s memorial service after he succumbed to AIDS. Katharine Gerard is Andre’s mother, and she is unable to commiserate with her son’s boyfriend Cal over the loss. Flash forward twenty years and Katharine is back in Manhattan after her husband’s death, visiting Cal unexpectedly to return Andre’s diary to him. She finds Cal living a happy family life with his husband and son. Throughout her visit she and Cal rehash the past, conjecture on what might have been, and work to find some peace with the way things are.

 

Photo: Ben Sostrom – Jacqueline Bates (Katharine)
 
Jacqueline Bates embodies Katharine Gerard as rather brittle, asking questions for which she doesn’t really want to know the answers. Ms. Bates plays her as guarded but trying to venture outside of her comfort zone, grappling with the loss of her identity as a mother and a wife. Her Katharine isn’t one generous with smiles, but she isn’t a heartless harpy either; she believes things are either black and white, right or wrong, but that’s her generation. She’s firm in her conviction that someone else is to blame for her son Andre being gay and then dying, neglecting to see the part she played in turning cold to him and being absent in his final days. Ms. Bates approaches the part without judgement, and so her evolution throughout the piece feels natural and rings true; she doesn’t mean to come off the way she does – she just doesn’t know of any other way.

 

Photo: Ben Sostrom – (left to right) Joe Dallacqua (Will), David Vargo (Cal), and Jacqueline Bates (Katharine)
 
David Vargo is Cal Porter, attempting to placate his deceased partner’s mother while also staying true to the life he has now as a married man with a child. Mr. Vargo is noticeably uncomfortable with Ms. Bates’ bouts of silence, and his trying to fill the void is quite endearing and accurate to life. The part requires Mr. Vargo to walk a fine line between appreciating his past with Andre without undermining the present, something he balances beautifully. He is able to drudge up genuine pain and heartache when talking about the AIDS crises he lived through in the 1980s, and he is able to swing back at anything callous Ms. Bates throws at him. It’s unfortunate that some of the most touching moments between Cal and Katharine have underscoring piped in over the sound system, making those sequences feel more like excerpts from a Lifetime movie; Mr. Vargo and Ms. Bates are talented enough not to need any instrumental accompaniment to get the point of their emotions across.

 

Photo: Ben Sostrom – (left to right) Joe Dallacqua (Will) and Jacqueline Bates (Katharine)
 
Joe Dallacqua plays Will Ogden, Cal’s writer husband, and a very sweet Lucas Cloran is their son, Bud (alternating in the role with Elliot Hattemer). I’ve enjoyed Mr. Dallacqua in several other productions, but unfortunately as Will he has adopted an affectation that I find off putting. Granted, the part is written with some bite, but must it be played with such a feminine demeanor? Gay doesn’t always mean fey; it was hard to imagine Cal being attracted to – let alone marry – someone with such an attitude. Mr. Dallacqua has next to no chemistry with Mr. Vargo, and it’s really a shame; had Will been played as being a doting father and a loving husband who just happened to be gay, it may have made all the difference.

 

Set Design: Michael Brewer
 
The set for Cal and Will’s apartment looks ready to move into thanks to Michael Brewer’s design, though it looks a little too put together to be the home of a six-year-old (a carefully placed View-master on a table doesn’t quite cut it), and there appear to be no mirrors or television set anywhere. Perhaps these Manhattanites are too classy for a television in their living room, but wouldn’t they want a mirror to primp in front of before going out? Still, Darin Keesing’s lighting is effective in shifting from early evening to sunset, creating just the right shadows at the correct angle to match the picture window that serves as the forth wall through which the audience sees the action.

 

Photo: Ben Sostrom – (left to right) David Vargo (Cal), Lucas Cloran (Bud), Joe Dallacqua (Will) and Jacqueline Bates (Katharine)
 
Terrance McNally’s dialogue sounds natural even if some of his plot points strain credulity; are we really expected to believe that neither Cal or Katharine read Andre’s diary as it passed between them over the course of twenty years? Wouldn’t they have been just a bit curious and peeked? When Will flippantly opens it to read a passage, Cal and Katharine don’t offer any resistance to finally being privy to some of Andre’s secrets, even though that is what supposedly kept them from exploring it previously. The denouement, one in which Katharine realizes she must forge ahead with an identity made up of more than just being Andre’s mother or Mr. Gerard’s wife, is quite touching; that is until it dips quickly into icky sticky territory at the very end when Bud tells a sappy story at which even the most naive preschooler would scoff.

 

Photo: Ben Sostrom – (left to right) Joe Dallacqua (Will), David Vargo (Cal), Lucas Cloran (Bud), and Jacqueline Bates (Katharine)
 
Still, Mothers and Sons works because of its two leads and their chemistry, and the fact that even second-rate McNally is better than first-rate most anyone else. CATCO’s production is very professional, and it is ultimately a pleasing ninety-minute glimpse into the lives of two very different people and how they took separate paths dealing with the death of one they both held quite dear. 

*** out of ****

Mothers and Sons continues through to February 28th in Studio One at the Riffe Center on 77 South High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at, and more information can be found at http://catco.org/shows/2015-2016/mothers-and-sons

2015 Theatre Year in Review – My Picks for the Best in and Around Columbus

I’ve been asked by a few people to compile my picks for the best central Ohio theatre in and around Columbus in 2015, and so that’s just what I’ve done. I didn’t start writing about and trying to see as much local theatre as possible until June, so there are some reportedly very good productions that I unfortunately didn’t get to see. This list is based on what I saw for the second half of 2015 with one exception – Short North Stage’s Psycho Beach Party from January 2015. I didn’t write a review for it, but the fun I had at that production is still vivid in my mind year later.

For a thorough rundown of my thoughts on each show, I have linked my reviews to open by clicking on the title of each play.


BEST MUSICAL

Yank! The Musical (Evolution Theatre Company)

Honorable Mentions: Into the Woods (Dare to Defy), Thoroughly Modern Millie (Imagine), and Krampus, A Yuletide Tale (Short North Stage)


BEST PLAY (COMEDY)

The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? (Red Herring)

Honorable Mention: Psycho Beach Party (Short North Stage) & Skillet Tag (MadLab)


BEST PLAY (DRAMA)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Standing Room Only)

Honorable Mention: An Enemy of the People (The Ohio State University Department of Theatre)


BEST ACTOR

Dave Morgan, The Outgoing Tide (Curtain Players)

Honorable Mention: Tim Browning, The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? (Red Herring)


BEST ACTRESS

Lori Cannon, Sordid Lives (Evolution)

Honorable Mention: Jesika Siler Lehner, Yank! The Musical (Evolution)


BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

James Harper, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Standing Room Only)

Honorable Mentions: Mark Mineart and Andrew Protopapas, Peter and the Starcatcher (CATCO)


BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Susan Gellman, Brighton Beach Memoirs (Gallery Players)

Honorable Mentions: Melissa Bair, Skillet Tag (MadLab) & Vicky Welsh Bragg, Sordid Lives (Evolution)

Peter and the Starcatcher (CATCO/CATCO is Kids! – Columbus, OH)

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
Remakes, sequels, and adaptations of James M. Barrie’s Peter Pan have steadily grown in popularity since the original play premiered in 1904. There have been animated films, Broadway musicals, and many feature films about the “boy who wouldn’t grow up,” with a live television broadcast of the 1954 musical, a new Broadway musical (Finding Neverland), and a sci-fi film (Pan) all arriving on the scene within the past year alone! CATCO and CATCO is Kids! now present Peter and the Starcatcher, a prequel that relays just where Peter Pan came from and how he first encountered his nemesis, the future Captain Hook.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 

Peter and the Starcatcher ran for nearly a full season on Broadway from 2012 to 2013; written by Rick Elise with music by Wayne Baxter, it is based on a 2006 young adult novel written by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, the first in a series of prequel books about Peter Pan. The story concerns two ships, the Wasp and the Neverland, both bound for Rundoon; Lord Aster is on the Wasp with special cargo for the queen, and his daughter Molly and her nanny are on the Neverland, where three orphans (the future Peter Pan being one of them) have been hidden as stowaways to be sold. The cargo between the ships is swapped, and it isn’t long before the orphans emerge from hiding on the Neverland and befriend Molly, and a pirate named Black Stache hijacks the Wasp looking for the mystical treasure bound for the queen. What follows includes a shipwreck, mermaids, a hungry crocodile, a magic amulet, and “starstuff.” 

   

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
The cast is extremely likable, with the standouts being Emma Cordray as Molly, Colby Tarrh as Prentiss, Mark Mineart as Black Stache, and Andrew Protopapas as Alf. Ms. Cordray has a way of being a know-it-all as Molly while also being totally correct in her pitch, rising at the end of sentences in a sing-song kind of way that fit perfectly (it annoyed the friend I attended with, but I thought it was just right); Mr. Tarrh is adorably bossy as Prentiss with a lot to do in the first act as the leader of the boys; Mr. Mineart has a booming voice and intimidating look at Black Stache, but can just as quickly turn fey and flippant, a textbook example of how to play that part; and Mr. Protopapas leaves all worry of appearing foolish behind as Alf, performing with a signature walk and carriage that could summon laughter from the audience without even really doing much of anything. His mermaid drag in the second act is particularly cute, as is that of Mr. Mineart. These four performers understand the tone of the piece the most, and they help set it for the rest of the cast to follow.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
Honorable mentions are due for Danny Turek as Peter, Andrew Levitt as Betty Bumbake, and Jonathan Collura as Bill Slank. Mr. Turek may have the title role of Peter, but his character has to grow quite a bit emotionally through the piece from the backward and shy youth simply called “boy” at the beginning of the story. Having seen Mr. Turek in other plays, I can now appreciate how he holds back his natural inclination to be quite animated for the first half of the story so that he can serve the path of the character. Even when he shows more strength and aggression in the second act, Mr. Turek nicely holds back a bit so he seems more a part of the ensemble. Mr. Levitt hams it up nicely as Betty Bumbake, his flirting scenes with Mr. Protopapas a particular comedic highlight, though I do think his character would be better represented with more of a wig and costume than the slight apron and lace headpiece provided. Mr. Collura looks like Jake from “Jake and the Never Land Pirates” with his red bandana, and it’s a most amusing moment when he gets right up into Mr. Levitt’s face in a brief scene they share. Mr. Collura’s part is small, but he is also the musical director of the show, seen off to the side playing the musical accompaniment before rushing back on stage; he wears many hats comfortably and with great skill.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
There is a lack of whimsy to this production that seems odd to me. There are plenty of funny moments (mostly in the second act), but the kind of wide-eyed wonder one would expect from a story about Peter Pan is absent; the sum is less than its individual parts. The show comes off as underproduced overall, lacking enough props and scenic elements to tell the story effectively, especially at the beginning and ending of the first act; the setup with the two ships and cargo, and when the two ships collide and passengers cross from one ship to another, is muddled and difficult to pinpoint exactly what is going on. I’ve seen the show before and know the story, and yet I found myself second guessing a few moments as they seemed to differ greatly from the production I saw in Dayton last June (that production had its own set of problems, but getting the story across was not one of them).

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
Still, CATCO’s Peter and the Starcatcher is enjoyable and ultimately rewarding to a degree, though the first act is at times difficult to get through and there doesn’t appear to be enough to look at for the kids (or adults) in the audience. When the show works, it really works; when it doesn’t, there is a pall that falls over the proceedings from which it takes some time to recover. There are some very good performances on display from an amiable cast, and this production is far from being poor; it just feels like a bit of a missed opportunity considering the source material.

**/ out of ****

Peter and the Starcatcher continues through to December 20th in Studio One at the Riffe Center on 77 South High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://catco.org/shows/2015-2016/peter-and-the-starcatcher

The Elephant Man (CATCO – Columbus, OH)

“If your mercy is so cruel, what do you have for justice?”

The most important part of a play is whether or not the story is being told. Don’t get me wrong – I love big sets and lots of production values – but at the end of the day it all boils down to the story, and if the acting, set, and direction support the telling of it or not. CATCO’s production of Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man is a brilliant example of a play that works, beautifully written with challenging and touching scenes that need no more than to be performed by capable actors. This production has talented performers on board, so it is disheartening when the staging and set get in the way of the story being told.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Connor McClellan (Merrick)
 

The Elephant Man premiered in London in 1978 before opening to acclaim on Broadway in 1979, garnering Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Direction of a Play; an Emmy-winning television adaptation was broadcast in 1982; a theatrical film directed by David Lynch was released in 1980, but it was not based on the play; and Broadway revivals in 2002 and 2014 starred Billy Crudup and Bradley Cooper, respectively. It is about the true story of Joseph (“John”) Merrick, a severely deformed man who was a side show attraction in the late 1800s in England. He suffered much abuse and ostracism before being rescued in a sense by Dr. Frederick Treves, who studied and made a home for him at The London Hospital. He experienced being a part of high society and receiving compassion for a time before his death in 1890 at the age of twenty-seven.

The Elephant Man is widely recognized as a classic; a tearjerker in the best sense of the word, and a grand challenge for any actor as the deformity of Merrick is suggested rather than presented realistically with prosthetics. I was fully prepared for an emotional experience upon attending this Steven C. Anderson production, and yet I was unmoved. Thinking perhaps I was suffering from a foul mood, I saw it again later in the week and again was emotionally dry. Staged in a three-quarter thrust setting, I saw it from the left and then the right with different elements catching my attention both times.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
Each scene is introduced with a title projected on a backdrop comprised of a line of dialogue from the forthcoming scene. The support beams in the octagonal raised platform obscure parts of these titles from being read from nearly every seat save for the extreme angles on the far left and right sides. A printed list of these scene titles is included in the program, and an announcement is made before the production commences about the issue. But here’s the thing – they aren’t necessary. They telegraph the action, break up transitions unnecessarily, cause a lot of leaning on the part of the audience to see them around the support beams, and are the cause of audible shuffling of the paper inserts throughout the show.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Sarah Dandridge (Mrs. Kendal)
 
The first time I saw this production was to the left of the action, and the performances that stood out to me were by Ben Gorman as Dr. Frederick Treves and Sarah Dandridge as Mrs. Kendal, an actress who befriends Merrick. Mr. Gorman is adept at projecting concern and, ultimately, paternal feelings for Merrick, while Ms. Dandridge is especially touching when her countenance melts as Merrick says, “Sometimes I think my head is so large because it is filled with dreams.” She understands fully the layers of her part (she is an actress playing an actress playing a friend), and during that scene I could see as her eyes began to tear that Merrick’s words were slicing through those walls to get to her core. From that point on, Ms. Dandridge adjusted her performance to be consistent with her emotional awakening, and it was a beautiful sight to behold. And yet, Connor McClellan as John Merrick, the key to the play, struck me as distant and cold, partly because I mostly just saw his back.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Ben Gorman (Dr. Treves) and Christopher Moore Griffin (Ross)
 
My second viewing of this work was on the right side, and this time I was more responsive to Mr. McClellan’s performance while also being impressed by Christopher Moore Griffin as Ross, Merrick’s abusive manager, who eventually robs and leaves Merrick for dead. Mr. Griffin is gruff and distinct with a hint of Alfred P. Doolittle in him, a biting embodiment of the cruelty to which Merrick has become accustomed. Mr. Griffin then appears solemn and pious as Bishop Walsham How, so opposite his role as Ross that I wasn’t entirely sure he was the same actor. And as for Mr. McClellan’s performance as John Merrick…

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Connor McClellan (Merrick)
 
“Merrick’s face was so deformed he could not express any emotion at all,” states Mr. Pomerance in the introduction to his published play. “His speech was very difficult to understand without practice. Any attempt to reproduce his appearance and his speech naturalistically – if it were possible – would seem to me not only counterproductive, but, the more remarkably successful, the more distracting from the play.” Mr. McClellan appears to be working very hard to emulate Merrick’s posture and frozen visage, so much so that a lot of the emotion doesn’t come through. It doesn’t help that the set and staging works to make nearly every seat in the theatre partial view for extended periods of time, even the center section. Mr. McClellan comes off as so focused and technically accomplished that at times I was acutely aware that it was a performance in a play, impressive as hell, but with invisible barriers. Perhaps some of this is intentional, as he seems to relax his tight grasp as the play goes on, and it helped to see so much more of his face when I saw the play for the second time from the right. And yet, when I finally was experiencing more of Mr. McClellan’s effort, I missed out on what touched me so in Ms. Dandridge’s performance when I viewed the play the first time from the left. It was almost as if I had to cut between both performances I saw from different angles in my mind to get the most out of the play; no doubt seeing it for a third time from the center would reveal even more that the work has to offer, but why should that be necessary if it is staged and presented so that everyone has a clear view of the pertinent action? The answer: it isn’t.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Connor McClellan (Merrick) and Sarah Dandridge (Mrs. Kendal)
 
There is only one scene that I found to be poorly played; it is when Mrs. Kendal “exposes” herself to Merrick. In the 1982 television version of the play, the scene implies nudity by showing her slowly unbuttoning and unlacing her blouse and corset, her bare back to the camera. Her gaze stays fixed on Merrick, and her warning, “If you tell anyone, I shall not see you again,” is said with weight. It is a tense, sexually charged moment in that production, but here it comes off as comical as Mrs. Kendal merely shows a bit of her corset to Merrick, smiling as if it is a game. I don’t think bare breasts need to be shown, but without any skin on display the reaction of Dr. Treves upon entering the room made little sense.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
CATCO’s production of The Elephant Man is ultimately a mixed bag. There are some extremely good performances, but design and staging elements work against the storytelling. I saw the play twice and had a different reaction each time, but both experiences fell short of reaching the potential of the material. There is still a lot to admire here, and it is a very handsome production overall, but I walked away feeling less affected than I had expected.

** out of ****

The Elephant Man continues through to November 8th in Studio Two at the Riffe Center on 77 South High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://catco.org/shows/2015-2016/the-elephant-man

[title of show] (CATCO – Columbus, OH)

[title of show] chronicles the writing of an original musical – itself. Starting with an idea from book writer Hunter Bell and composer/lyricist Jeff Bowen to write a musical about creating the actual musical they are writing (it’s very meta) to submit for the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2004, Hunter and Jeff bring in their friends Heidi and Susan to be a part of the creative process. The play covers their discussions about their everyday lives in, out, and around the New York theatre scene while also examining the creative process and the struggle of creating art. After playing the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival, [title of show] enjoyed two runs off Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre in 2006 (where I saw Avenue Q begin its life in 2003) before jogging uptown to Broadway in the fall of 2008.

I knew of but completely missed out on seeing the play in New York, but perhaps that was for the best; I doubt it could’ve been as engagingly performed or staged as CATCO’s production. Though [title of show] seems designed for a small performance space, it can’t be easy to keep things moving and visually interesting in the cabaret-like Studio Three at the Riffe Center, but director Joe Bishara does just that. Choreographer Liz Wheeler finds inventive ways to use the small space to her advantage, making the dancing and movement seem to be a natural extension of the moment, and lighting designer Curtis “Nitz” Brown’s lighting cues are spot-on and brilliant at separating the stage to evoke different locations while also using many different colors to reflect the mood. I wasn’t expecting as much real production when I entered this space (it’s my first time being in it), and I am impressed. I sat to the right of the stage, and I often found myself looking to the mirror along the wall behind the audience to see a different vantage point of the performers directly in front of me; it was like having two points of view from one seat, both valid and thrilling.

What I like about [title of show] is what it has to say about the creative process. The show reminds me of Sondheim’s song “Putting It Together” from Sunday in the Park With George, examining the struggle to be true to oneself while also taking financial aspects into consideration while creating art. Songs like “Die, Vampire, Die!” and “Change It, Don’t Change It” can speak not only to people in the theatre but to anyone in any field be it architecture or the culinary arts; we all have self doubt to fight against and that nagging insecurity that can derail our mission if we let it. I also enjoyed the deep catalog references to flop musicals like Henry, Sweet Henry and Hot September, and I encourage anyone interested in musicals that have gone awry to pick up a copy of Ken Mandlebaum’s Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops, a book that I’m positive the writers of [title of show] have on their shelves.

Jonathan Collura, who plays composer and lyricist Jeff Bowen, makes his CATCO debut here, but I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him perform around Columbus previously in tick, tick…BOOM! (Evolution) and Young Frankenstein (Imagine), and we often seem to attend the same performances of other shows. It’s interesting that Jonathan was in tick, tick…BOOM! as that show and [title of show] are cousins in that they both deal with the art of creating music for the theatre (covering the territory in very different ways); he played a composer in both plays, so is Amadeus in Jonathan’s future? I’m convinced he can pretty much do anything given the opportunity and the right team of co-stars. Every time I’ve seen him perform he disappears into his part and is completely believable, be it as an anguished aspiring songwriter turning thirty or as a mad (but musical) scientist. He has a character actor’s recognizable face combined with the stage presence and command of a lead. Jonathan could play a table or a couch and elicit applause, and I look forward to seeing where he pops up next.

Bradley Johnson as book writer Hunter Bell is sweet without being cloying, and he is adept at gathering up many of the laughs from the audience. When he is called a “procrastibator” (a word that I hope works its way into popular usage), he makes this “What – me?” expression that spreads into a knowing smile. The moment could be sleazy or distasteful with the wrong timing and approach, but Bradley doesn’t let that happen.

Annie Huckaba as Susan balances her role’s brattiness with being likable, and she can always be depended on to find the right tone in a pointed line to get the audience to laugh. Her initial mistrust of Heidi is explored humorously and honestly in the duet “What Kind of Girl Is She?,” a song to which I’m sure many women in the audience could relate, and her commanding lead in what becomes the ensemble number “Die, Vampire, Die!” brings the right energy at exactly the right time.

Elisabeth Zimmerman as Heidi is pretty without being obnoxious, and humble about her Broadway work without being too self deprecating. Though underwritten, Elisabeth finds a sweet spot to prance within and her affectionate nature feels real. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Quinton Jones as Larry, a role with few lines but demanding as he supplies all of the musical accompaniment for the show. Though the volume of his keyboard is set about three to six decibels too high in a few places and obscures a few lyrics, Quinton’s playing is professional without being sterile, his timing perfectly matching the cast. Or is it their singing that matches up with his playing? Well, whichever it is, it’s all done seamlessly.

It’s interesting to note the use of “tranny” and show titles that are topical to the time period of the play (2004-2008), and I’m glad no attempt has been made to update them. Though we now know “tranny” is not politically correct, and I doubt many people remember the short-lived Broadway musical Brooklyn (I saw it – and forgot it), for [title of show] to work it needs to remain as it is, representative of a specific time and place, even if some of the language may make us wince now or the references be too obscure for all but the hardened show queen to nod at in recognition. Whoops, is “show queen” wrong to say too? Well, I think I am one, so I’m giving myself a pass.

CATCO’s [title of show] is only limited by the source material, which at its best is insightful and witty, and at its worst is overlong and repetitive. I’m not sure if its expansion from a ninety-minute one act-er to a two act-er with intermission occurred when it finally moved to Broadway for its brief run in 2008, but I think it was an unfortunate misstep. While my friend and I felt the first act ran along nicely, the second act started to meander and not know when or how to end. I get how the show was constantly being updated as it went along to incorporate the Broadway transfer, but some tightening throughout would’ve helped quite a bit. Still, it’s an admirable piece with some memorable songs and an original message about the creative process. If at the end of the day it is a **/ star show with a ***/ star cast and production, that means that it’s still more than worth the visit and your time.

*** out of ****

[title of show] continues through to July 12th in Columbus, and more information can be found at http://catco.org/shows/2014-2015/title-of-show

My friend Jocelyn Nevel and I at the play.
 

Buyer & Cellar (CATCO – Columbus, OH)

I’m a Barbra Streisand fan. We share the same birthday (April 24th – different years), I have all of her albums on LP and most on CD, and I own many of her films, but that doesn’t mean I don’t also fully recognize her obsessive ridiculousness. I giggled listening to her go on and on about having a pillow dyed to match a blouse her character was wearing in The Prince of Tides Criterion Laserdisc commentary (yep, I’m one of those – no apologies) not because it wasn’t a valid point but because it was disproportionately important to her, too precious for the rest of us to appreciate or understand.

It was only a matter of time before her hefty picture book My Passion for Design was parodied, but instead of an SNL skit we have a one-act, one-man play insightfully written by Jonathan Tolins that playfully pokes some fun at the takes-herself-way-too-seriously Streisand while also praising her. Only someone who enjoys and appreciates Streisand – the good and the bad – could have written something so funny and playful without resorting to being mean spirited or vulgar.

Buyer & Cellar ran for over a year from 2013-2014 off-Broadway and has toured, a rare and special feat for an off-Broadway play. I didn’t get a chance to see it on any of my New York theatre trips during that period, but I was delighted to catch the mid-Ohio premiere by CATCO during a matinee preview performance this past Wednesday, May 27th.

The story concerns how actor Alex More, boisterously played by local drag legend Andrew Levitt (“Nina West”), is hired to work in the “mall” Streisand has constructed in the basement of her property in Malibu housing all of her collectables and costumes. It is so outlandish a concept that it doesn’t seem too far outside the realm of possibility, especially for La Streisand. Alex interacts with Barbra in improvised sessions between clerk and shopper, eventually befriending her and developing a kind of relationship that he likes to thing is two-sided when it most definitely is not. One doesn’t need to be knowledgable about Streisand for the play to be very funny as it isn’t so much about her as the idea of her, of the eccentricities of celebrity. There are plenty of quick asides that will give Barbra fans a giggle, but there is plenty else to feast on for any fan of popular culture.

Andrew Levitt gets every laugh he is supposed to like a seasoned pro, which he certainly is as “Nina West,” even if he starts out playing the part of Alex a little too forcefully for such a small performance space in the round. At my performance he seemed to speed along and project mightily until he found his rhythm, relaxing into the part about a third of the way in and tempering his performance more in response to the audience. I also saw one of the earliest previews, so I’m sure people seeing it now will see an even better performance than I did, which was very good. As directed by Steven C. Anderson in a challenging space, Andrew makes sure there isn’t a bad seat in the house, moving about naturally in all directions and really working the room. So skilled is he that after the performance I saw an audience member bend down to touch the floor, stating “I just have to see how this feels.” What looked like a multi-colored carpet was in fact painted onto the floor, yet Andrew somehow walked about on it in such a way that he convinced many of us in the audience (myself included) that it was carpet! How a performer does that, I don’t know, but I had the instinct to touch the painted floor as well.

The play runs around ninety minutes without an intermission, the perfect length for this type of piece – long enough to be substantial and short enough not to outstay its welcome. So skilled is Andrew that it doesn’t feel like he’s in the show by himself – suddenly he is Streisand or her assistant or James Brolin – and then just as quickly he is back to being Alex. It doesn’t feel contrived or dishonest, and no matter how funny and clever the writing, a real performer is needed to put it over with aplomb – and Andrew Levitt does just that.

***/****

Buyer & Cellar continues through to June 14th, and more information can be found at http://catco.org/shows/2014-2015/buyer-and-cellar