Once on This Island JR. (Columbus Children’s Theatre – Columbus, OH)


What’s it about?

Once on This Island JR. is an abridged version of the acclaimed Broadway musical Once on This Island, which premiered in 1990 and ran for over a year. Based on Rosa Guy’s novel My Love, My Love, and with music by Stephen Flaherty and music and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, the musical tells the story of Ti Moune, an orphaned peasant girl on a small island in the French Antilles, who rescues Daniel, a rich planter’s son from the other side of the island, when he wrecks his car during a storm. Ti Moune falls in love with Daniel, even promising her soul to Papa Ge, a Demon of Death, if Daniel’s doesn’t die. Daniel’s life is spared, and Ti Moune works to nurse him back to health. Daniel’s family soon appears to take him back to their side of the island and to a life of privilege and wealth the complete opposite of Ti Moune’s home. Against the advice of her adoptive parents, Ti Moune sets out to return to Daniel, certain that her love for him will be returned in kind; little does she know that Papa Ge, to whom she has promised her soul, and Erzulie, the Goddess of Love, have a wager going with Ti Moune’s life to determine which is stronger: the power of love or the power of death.

Photo: David Heasley

Is it worth seeing?
Absolutely! Granted, this is a version of the show with a few songs cut and altered, but the basic story and the best, most lively songs are still intact. This production runs about an hour in length and is appropriate for ages six and up, but by no means is this a show that only children can appreciate.

I must say that, as a big fan of the original show, I went into this altered “JR.” version more than a bit concerned. The color element, an intrinsic part of the original story (the poor side of the island has dark-skinned peasants while the affluent part has light-skinned rich folks), has been surgically removed from this edition, opening up the musical to be performed by all races and ethnicities; the classism is still there, but this time around skin color isn’t a factor. The result isn’t blasphemous like say an all-white production of A Raisin in the Sun or The Color Purple might be, but important songs that serve to explain more of the plot (“The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes,” “Some Say,” and “Some Girls”) have been cut. The big love song “Forever Yours” has also been trimmed down to almost nothing; still, this adaptation (approved by the creative team) is successful in turning a show with some mature themes and concepts into one palatable for children and adults alike. This is one musical for which every track on the original cast recording is worthy; in fact, it might appeal to adults more than kids.

Director Ryan Scarlata guides his Summer Youth Performance Conservatory cast of teens and pre-teens deftly, always keeping the action moving. The cast is energetic with talent and spirit to spare, and their ensemble singing is notable for the clarity in their diction. So often ensemble numbers can sound unfocused with moments being unintelligible, but that is not the case here; in fact, the overall sound design is spot on, with the pre-recorded orchestra track at an appropriate level to allow the vocal performances to dominate. Jeffrey Gress’s multi-level set looks a bit reminiscent of Mamma Mia with its beachy coloring and bold blue sky, but it suits this story very well, as do the saturated colors and patterns of the costumes (save for those worn by the affluent side of the island, a wise choice to visually show the difference between the social classes).

Photo: David Heasley

Standouts in the cast include Sara Tuohy as Ti Moune, her voice possessing a purity that is thrilling; Amirah Joy Lomax as Asaka, Goddess of the Earth, whose performance of “Mama Will Provide” is engaging enough to inspire spontaneous dancing from the audience (they didn’t do it at the performance I attended, but I would not be surprised to learn if it happened); Kyle Channell as Tonton Julian and Megan Masciola as Mama Euralie are caring foster parents to Ms. Tuohy’s Ti Moune, their voices full of genuine affection and heart when they warn her of seeking out Daniel; Katie Wagner as Erzulie, Goddess of Love, whose rendition of “The Human Heart” is instilled with wisdom beyond her years; and Maria Dalanno as Andrea, Daniel’s betrothed (Sorry! Spoiler alert!), brings nuance to a character that can be played as just a snotty mean girl; Ms. Dalanno appears too clever to play just that one note, as here she ranges from skeptical to annoyed to concerned and finally empathetic to Ti Moune’s feelings.

The source novel derives inspiration from Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid with its sad conclusion intact, and yet the ending of Once on This Island JR. is filled with hope for the future. The message of parents needing to allow their children to explore the world and make their own mistakes is quite clear, as is the point that sometimes it takes just one person to go against the grain to change the future, no matter how many naysayers are on the sidelines.

Once on This Island JR. is not as sterling a show as in its original version, but this children’s adaptation comes awfully close. Only those familiar with the original show will sense the changes, and judged on its own merits this is one production that I can highly recommend.

My rating: *** 1/2 out of ****

Photo: David Heasley

Where can I see it?

Once on This Island JR. continues through to August 7th in Columbus Children’s Theatre’s Park Street Theatre located at 512 Park Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.columbuschildrenstheatre.org/once-on-this-island-jr.html

Photo: David Heasley

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West Side Story (Columbus Children’s Theatre – Columbus, OH)


How lucky am I to be able to see full productions of the two biggest Broadway hits of the 1957-1958 season all in the same week? One night I get to see The Music Man at Weathervane Playhouse in Newark, and the next night I’m enjoying Columbus Children’s Theatre’s West Side Story! Both are now revered as classics, were made into very popular and faithfully adapted films, and for well over fifty years have been performed thousands of times a year all over the country from high schools to regional theatres. One can’t really be considered a fan of musicals without becoming acquainted with these evergreens; their songs pop up all the time in popular culture, and chances are you’ve heard some of them even if you didn’t know from where they originated.

Photo: David Heasley

Meredith Willson’s The Music Man was the big Tony Award winner in 1958 and the longer-running hit, but West Side Story, with a searing Leonard Bernstein score, lyrics by the up-and-coming Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents, and choreography courtesy of the legendary Jerome Robbins, has emerged as the more serious classic. Inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the action has been transplanted to the Upper West Side of New York City in the 1950s as rival gangs, the Jets (who are white) and the Sharks (who are Puerto Rican), fight for dominance. Caught in the crosshairs are Tony, a sometime member of the Jets, and Maria, the sister of the leader of the Sharks, Bernardo. Tony and Maria meet at a school dance, fall in love, and try to stop the gangs from fighting to discover things will only get worse before they begin to get better. With nearly every now song an established classic (“Maria,” “Tonight,” “Somewhere,” “I Feel Pretty,” and “America” to name but a few), West Side Story continues to capture the heart of each new generation, thanks to the 1961 film and the play’s continued popularity. This current production, featuring Columbus Children’s Theatre’s Summer Pre-Professional Company of performers ages sixteen to twenty-two, is about as engaging and rousing a production as one is likely to find, “pre-professional” or not.

Photo: David Heasley

These Jets and Sharks dance, fight, and spit with equal intensity (stage combat aided by William Goldsmith), and each performer appears fully cocked and ready to attack anyone who gets in their way. I remember some snickering from my classmates when we watched the movie in high school during the opening dance sequence; no one would dare to scoff at these Jets and Sharks, especially once they see them believably kick and punch each other to the ground! It’s interesting to note that all but two of the Jets and Sharks are wearing identical black Converse Chuck Taylor All Star shoes, a nice visual reminder that they have so much more in common than they seem to realize.

Photo: David Heasley

As sweet and innocent as Tony (Andy Simmons) and Maria (Elizabeth Blanquera) are in this production, they can’t help but appear less exciting when stacked next to the excellent supporting cast: Austin Ryan Backus as Riff exudes confidence and swagger; Matthew J. Mayer II makes an intense Bernardo; Odette Gutierrez del Arroyo is a firecracker as Anita but also heartbreaking; Will Thompson plays Doc like a wise, concerned older brother, making an impact in a part usually ignored; and Charlotte Brown should be watched closely in the small role of Rosalia, especially for her hilarious facial expressions during the dance at the gym.

Photo: David Heasley

The only serious flaw in this production occurs during the ballet (which is not in the film). This ballet leads into “Somewhere” and begins strongly with Riff and Bernardo reappearing after the violent end of the first act; then, inexplicably, a little boy climbs out of Maria’s bedroom window, down over the fence, sings “Somewhere” at Tony and Maria (now dressed in just a slip), and then scampers back up to from where he came. Though staged a bit differently, this addition of the character “Kiddo” and reassignment of the song was made by original book writer Arthur Laurents for the 2009 Broadway revival he directed; it was widely criticized then, and it’s inclusion in this production is a glaring sore spot. It has nothing to do with the ability of the kid playing Kiddo; the moment comes off as schmaltzy and like a lecture to the characters, bringing to mind this verse in Isaiah: “And a little child shall lead them.” I began to wonder why a little kid was squatting in Maria’s bedroom and if someone should let her know.

Photo: David Heasley

Luckily everything gets back on track when some of the Jets sing “Gee, Officer Krumpke,” far funnier with lyrics and gestures that were greatly toned down for the film. This is one of several scenes in which Jordan Feliciano as Baby John is a riot, donning a mop on his head and squeaky voice. As humorous as this sequence is, Ms. Gutierrez del Arroyo’s “A Boy Like That” that follows it is conversely serious and impassioned. Songs were moved around for the film to provide a more consistent tone for that medium, but the flow of the original play works marvelously on the stage.

Photo: David Heasley

Director David Bahgat incorporates many design elements from the film (unavoidable with its popularity) and expands upon them, the Jets costumed in blue and yellow and the Sharks in purple and red; the lighting is also used in this color motif effectively without being too obvious. Mr. Bahgat keeps everything moving at a brisk pace (save for the aforementioned break in the ballet), and he guides his cast into making each line sound like it is theirs and theirs alone. I’ve seen several productions were the actors copy each line reading as it was done in the film; that isn’t the case here at all, and many times so much more humor and character comes across because of it. He keeps his actors moving all around the audience, maintaining an immediacy that a lesser director wouldn’t bother trying to create. The marvelous set designed by Jeffrey Gress represents all of the different locations needed for the story, elements of which extend out around the audience, making this what I would consider an environmental staging; a low chain link fence separates the audience from the cast on the left and right sides, Doc’s storefront is between the center and right seating areas, actors often enter the center rows of the audience and sit alongside them, and (depending on where one is sitting) Chino (Frank Ruiz) can be seen stealthily sneaking down the alley between the center and left section of seats leading up to the intense climax.

Photo: David Heasley

The four-piece band led by Zac DelMonte kicks into high gear during the “Tonight” quintet and rumble, though the limited orchestration takes a little time to get used to at the start of the show. Nicolette Montana does a fine job of recreating iconic moments from Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, adding and changing bits here and there to suit the space and production demands; aside from a moment during the prologue when the Jets shout “Ha!” and jut their hands out into the audience, Ms. Montana’s work is commendable and adds so much to this overall splendid production.

Photo: David Heasley

Except for a few missteps (mostly minor), Columbus Children’s Theatre’s West Side Story is nearly impossibly good. With action occurring from all sides of the theatre and an energetic cast that knows this show like seasoned pros, this West Side Story is one to see no matter how many times you’ve seen the play or movie before. Most of the performers appear to be exactly in the right age range of the characters they are playing, from late teens to early twenties, but this is the exception rather than the rule when compared to the film or Broadway productions of this show. The “us verses them” struggle between the Jets and the Sharks is still relevant today; one need only to watch the daily news to see how fear of the “other” continues to incite violence and be used politically to pit people against one another. 

*** 3/4 out of ****

West Side Story continues through to July 17th at Columbus Children’s Theatre located at 512 Park Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.columbuschildrenstheatre.org/west-side-story.html

Cats (Columbus Children’s Theatre & Columbus Moving Company – Columbus, OH)

 


Cats, one of the longest-running and most popular stage musicals worldwide, has always been a bit of a puzzlement to many a theatre fan, myself included. The show doesn’t follow the usual structure of a musical or stick to any of its conventions, yet it has proven to be incredibly popular and successful. Adapted from T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats with music supplied by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cats was one of the British mega musicals that took over Broadway during the 1980s. In all the show ran for eighteen years on Broadway and has toured the country since the mid ’80s, a favorite for families long before Disney’s The Lion King appeared on the horizon in 1997.

 

Photo: David Heasley – (left to right) Grace Johnson (Jemima) and Devin Judge (Munkustrap)
 

Cats is an assemblage of various character numbers with only the barest semblance of a plot; its main assets are a catchy score, character design, and dancing. It isn’t a real musical in the traditional sense, but it has surely drawn many people to the theatre over the last thirty-five years who may now owe their initial curiosity about live theatre to this show; in that way, Cats is a force musical theatre scholars can’t deny, one that has helped to foster generations of theatregoers who perhaps moved on to more serious and deeper pastures musically. The show’s flagship song “Memory” is now a standard, one that even the staunch theatre cognoscenti (those that count Cats along with other British juggernauts like Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon as somehow inferior works) can’t discount entirely. 

  

Photo: David Heasley – William Macke (Skimbleshanks)
 


Cats has now arrived via Columbus Children’s Theatre and Columbus Moving Company at the historic Lincoln Theatre in a production that is elaborate with energy to spare. Here the cats frolic and scamp about, sometimes even through the aisles around the audience. This production replicates so many of the costumes and bits of stage business quite familiar to fans of the show while making some notable and welcome changes that aid in making it the kind of local event that commands attention. Even if you’ve seen Cats many times before, this production is still very much worth your time and attention.

 

Photo: David Heasley – (left to right) Rumpleteazer (Sara Tuohy) and Mungojerrie (Kyle Swearingen)
 
Highlights of this production include seeing Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer (Kyle Swearingen and Sara Tuohy respectively) perform their number with added acrobatic feats; William Macke shimmy his way around the stage as Skimbleshanks, The Railway Cat; Ryan Stem’s solemn and solid portrayal of Old Deuteronomy; Stewart R. Bender performing double duty as jolly Bustopher Jones and the heartbreakingly infirm Gus, The Theatre Cat; and last but far from least, Kendra Lucas as Grizabella, The Glamour Cat, eloquently delivering “Memory” as if the words are occurring to her for the first time, more than matching the best interpretations of that famous song.

 

Photo: David Heasley – Kendra Lucas (Grizabella)
 
Director Ryan Scarlata sticks close to the feel and staging of the 1998 film version produced for television and video release, which appears to have been a valuable reference. Still, some of the best moments are when Mr. Scarlata and choreographer Jeffrey Fouch (who also adeptly performs as Quaxo and Mr. Mistoffelees) veer away from what we expect from Cats, incorporating more gymnastics and acrobatics into the presentation. Michael Brewer’s decrepit circus set fits the material far better in my mind than the traditional junkyard, as the various musical sequences feel more like circus or vaudeville acts than alley performances. Brendan Michna’s layered lighting serves to enhance each scene and support the excellent craftsmanship of the many talented people working behind the scenes to make sure the makeup, costumes, and wigs are just right.

 

Photo: David Heasley – (left to right) Krista Lively Stauffer (Jellylorum) and Stewart R. Bender (Gus)
 
The only aspect of this production that is sometimes disappointing is that of the music, which is a pretty big deal for a musical. I’m sure it’s no fault of musical director Jonathan Collura as he never missteps in his accompaniment, but only so much can come across without the proper instrumentation. Many numbers sound more like elevator Muzak than what should be playing alongside the action on stage.

 

Photo: David Heasley
 
Columbus Children’s Theatre and Columbus Moving Company have done a remarkable job mounting Cats with production values that meet or exceed what we usually see from national tours when they pass through Columbus. It really says something when I find myself enjoying a production of a show of which I’m not particularly fond, but that is exactly what happened in this case. Don’t let the 150-minute running time listed on CCT’s website scare you off; it actually runs two hours including the intermission though no songs are missing or are abridged (aside from “Growltiger’s Last Stand” and perhaps longer dance sequences that pass without notice). Cats is still a show that makes many a theatre fan roll their eyes, but I found myself humming the tunes to “The Rum Tum Tugger” and “Skimbleshanks The Railway Cat” as well as the ubiquitous “Memory” for days afterwards.

***/ out of ****

Cats continues through to May 15th in the Lincoln Theatre located at 769 East Long Street, and more information can be found at http://www.columbuschildrenstheatre.org/cats.html

Jackie & Me (Columbus Children’s Theatre – Columbus, OH)

Joey is a ten-year-old with a very special gift: he can travel through time by holding a baseball card and concentrating. Joey’s adventures through time meeting various baseball players are detailed in a series of “Baseball Card Adventures” children’s novels by Dan Gutman, with titles such as Honus & Me (1997), Babe & Me (2000), and Shoeless Joe & Me (2002). Jackie & Me (1999), the second novel in the series, covers Joey traveling back to 1947 in order to meet Jackie Robinson, the first black player in the major leagues. Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, winning Rookie of the Year for the Dodgers in a time when most of the country was still quite segregated. Columbus Children’s Theatre is now presenting Jackie & Me as a play, perfectly timed to be a part of Black History Month.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – (left to right) Eric Qualls (Jackie Robinson) and Collin Grubbs (Joey)
 
So much of the success of the show rests on the shoulders of Colin Grubbs as Joey, the time traveler who begins as a Polish white boy dealing with anger issues and awakens as a black boy in 1947! That little plot twist of changing skin colors reminded me of the musical Finian’s Rainbow (1947), but what better way to illustrate how black people (referred to as “colored” or “negroes” in the play) were treated than to have a red-headed white boy be treated as a black boy by the cast? Mr. Grubbs is in every scene, and all of the action revolves around him; he controls so much of the pacing by how and when he chooses to respond, and his excellent timing is quite startling. A key scene requires Mr. Grubbs to say the “N word,” and he doesn’t take the task lightly; the moment feels genuine because of the way he handles it.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – (left to right) Ken Erney (Flip) and Collin Grubbs (Joey)
 
Mr. Grubbs is surrounded by some terrific stage veterans, many playing several roles; these are the kind of people who are so good that they make their younger, less experienced co-stars rise to the occasion. Ken Erney is Flip, the kind sports memorabilia store owner who supplies the rare Jackie Robinson card needed for time travel; Brent Alan Burington plays Branch Rickey, the sharp Dodgers owner who gives Jackie Robinson his chance in the major league; Mitchell Spiro plays a spirited coach and manager, a bundle of nerves and energy akin to Mickey Rooney; Catherine Cryan is Mrs. Herskowitz, the sweet shopkeeper who hands out promotional baseball cards, but she also plays a woman on the street who spits at poor Joey when he forgets to tow the “whites only” line; Jenna Lee Shively is caring but stern as Joey’s mom; and Eric Qualls plays a calm and controlled Jackie Robinson.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – (left to right) Chris Curran, Louis Weiss, and Jack Carson
 
Standouts in the young ensemble include Jacob Cohen as Ant, a fellow batboy from the past who taunts Joey; and Louis Weiss, playing a student and a kid in Brooklyn. Mr. Cohen has to say and do some despicable things to Joey without being so awful that he throws the show off balance; he performs intelligently while also embracing his inner bully. Mr. Weiss doesn’t have a great deal of lines to say, but his expressions throughout the play are quite funny and say more than enough; at any point he can be counted on to be responding with an array of funny facial expressions to what is going on around him.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – (left to right) Mitchell Spiro (Coach), Jack Carson, Collin Grubb (Joey), Devin Lapp, and Jacob Cohen
 
Ray Zupp’s set, complete with ramps and a raised platform behind a baseball diamond on the stage floor, is an excellent setting for the action; it’s one of those sets that is best appreciated from the middle on back in the audience so the full breadth of it can be taken in. Director William Goldsmith is successful in keeping the energy of the cast up between the scenes involving the baseball games, only faltering with the storytelling in a few notable places; a scene between Joey and Ant in the locker room where Joey scares Ant with his revelation about time travel plays out awkwardly, and the first act closing where Joey reads a letter signed by much of the team requesting to be traded rather than play on the field “with a negro” is treated as a throwaway moment without the proper reverence and buildup.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – (left to right) Brent Alan Burington (Eddie Stanky) and Eric Qualls (Jackie Robinson)
 
With any adaptation there will be changes made for one reason or another; while overall the stage adaptation of Jackie & Me by Steven Dietz (he is credited with the stage script along with the writer of the novel, Dan Gutman) is solid, there were a few changes that didn’t make sense to me. For example, in the play Flip lets Joey borrow his rare Jackie Robinson card for $20; in the novel he lends it to him for free, which makes a heck of a lot more sense. Who would someone charge a little boy to “rent” a baseball card? The aforementioned scene involving several Dodgers signing a petition against Jackie Robinson only to have one of them balk and tear it up has been weakened, and the use of racial slurs has been greatly tamed (most of which is understandable – the “N word” doesn’t need to be shouted all the time to get the point across). Ant calls Joey the “N word” in the novel, but in the play Joey reads a letter that contains the word. It’s an odd shift to have Joey, now a black boy when he appears in 1947, to be the one character that says that word; it changes the impact to have the message soft pedaled in that way. There is a lot more to the novel that wouldn’t have fit into this ninety-minute, two-act play, and I recommend reading it; I just think a few of the changes were unnecessary in the transition from page to stage.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – Collin Grubbs (Joey)
 
Still, Jackie & Me is that rare children’s show that doesn’t talk down to its young target audience. A serious message about prejudice and fear is mixed in delicately with all of the fun and humor, and yet it doesn’t come off as heavy-handed or too simple. The suggested age of seven and up seems right, though kids aren’t required to enjoy this production. No prior knowledge of baseball is needed either as this is more a human story than anything else.

*** out of ****

Jackie & Me continues through to February 28th in The Garden Theatre located at 1187 North High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.columbuschildrenstheatre.org/jackie–me.html