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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Die, Mommie, Die! (Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)

“It should all be bigger than life,” Bette Davis once said about acting and Hollywood; the “bigger than life” description certainly applies to Short North Stage’s production of Charles Busch’s Die, Mommie, Die!, a rollicking homage to the thrillers of the sixties starring female stars of yesteryear. Like most of Busch’s works, this one also features a strong leading woman played by a man in drag; as he did in The Divine Sister in 2014 and Psycho Beach Party in 2015 (both at Short North Stage), Doug Joseph dons drag once again to hilarious effect as Angela Arden, the devilish woman at the heart of this show.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Doug Joseph (Angela)
 

Die, Mommie, Die! premiered in Los Angeles in 1999, was adapted into a film in 2003, and then opened off-Broadway for a limited run in 2007, all starring Charles Busch as Angela Arden. You see, Angela is a former musical star who is down on her luck; ever since her sister Barbara’s suicide fifteen years earlier, her career has floundered, her marriage to film producer Sol Sussman has filled with acrimony, her daughter Edith has grown to hate her, and her illicit affairs have become a matter of public record. Seeking the help of her latest conquest, well endowed TV actor Tony Parker, Angela is determined to make a comeback, and she isn’t above murdering anyone who stands in her way.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Ralph E. Scott (Sol) and Doug Joseph (Angela)
 
Doug Joseph’s starring turn as Angela Arden has more heart than one might expect, and he brings a likability to the part that works to his advantage; the audience (myself included) forgives Mr. Joseph for most anything, including murder, adultery, and an outlandish wardrobe (his costume changes are greeted with applause). When Mr. Joseph isn’t on the stage, his character is still the center of attention, and the audience is held in suspense awaiting his return. His facial straps (used by the likes of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Lana Turner in the days before Botox and plastic surgery) are slightly visible below his ears, disappearing under his wig, a funny touch to those of us in the know to discover.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Nick Lingnofski (Tony) and Doug Joseph (Angela)
 
Mr. Joseph is surrounded by some very talented scene-stealers, including Ralph E. Scott as husband Sol Sussman; Josie Merkle as Bootsie, the maid; and Nick Lingnofski as boyfriend Tony Parker. Mr. Scott has a grimace and bird-like squeal (representing his character’s chronic constipation) that never fails to elicit laughter. Ms. Merkle is spry and pushy as the maid secretly in love with the man of the house, and who has more than Lysol in her bag of tricks. Mr. Lingnofski is perhaps the biggest threat as he prances around and sneers, performing with a kind of direct intensity that is perfect in keeping with the mood while also being oddly sexy. The cast is rounded out by the capable Erin Mellon as daughter Ethel, who is queasingly solicitous with her father Sol, jumping into his arms and humping him as he arrives in the doorway, and who has probably the best line in the play while canoodling with Mr. Lingnofski: “I will pet your dingle, but I intend to remain intact!” Johnny Robison is also on hand as Lance, Angela’s gay, idiot son.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Johnny Robison (Lance) and Erin Mellon (Ethel)
 
Director Edward Carignan certainly seems to understand the inherent comedy of this material and is adept at allowing it to breathe; a lesser director would’ve pushed things too far into forceful farce, limiting its audience to only the gay cognescenti. What’s great about this production is that it can be enjoyed by anyone open for some raunchy fun, no prior knowledge of Joan Crawford or Bette Davis required. Mr. Carignan is also responsible for Angela’s form-fitting dresses (my favorite is a red number that looks like a ladybug) and one notably shiny muumuu with a matching headscarf.

 

Set Design: Bill Pierson
 
Bill Pierson’s set replicates a living room circa 1967 in Hollywood as if it has remained shrinkwrapped and forgotten – until now. From the vintage spiked clock to the gray brick and stone-patterned walls and the turntable cabinet unit, everything looks a little pre-“The Brady Bunch,” which is exactly correct. There is even a small reel-to-reel deck used to record Angela’s big confession about her past, though Erin Mellon proudly holds up an empty reel as being the recording in question. It’s a small but notable flaw when so much of the set and props are just right.

Rob Kuhn’s lighting is striking, most notably during Angela’s LSD trip when rotating bold hues often separate the actors from the background, and his technical direction involving the many sound effects and music cues are perfectly timed. Along with the rather elaborate set and limited space in The Green Room, Die, Mommie, Die! feels like a special event, the stadium seating so close to the action that there is no bad seat. There is a support beam in the middle of the viewing area, but even it didn’t prove to be a problem as it was easy to see past from where we were seated.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Doug Joseph (Angela) and Erin Mellon (Edith)
 

Die, Mommie, Die! is just the kind of irreverent, hilarious play that is the perfect counterpoint to anyone who thinks seeing plays is boring or corny; this is two hours of in-your-face fun, sometimes so “wrong” that I found myself laughing and looking away in embarrassment. One doesn’t have to be familiar with films like Dead Ringer (1964) or The Big Cube (1969), both of which are obvious inspirations, for Die, Mommie, Die! to be wildly entertaining, as this production stands firm and proud in flashy red pumps.

***/ out of ****

Die, Mommie, Die! continues through to February 21st 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/468

Yank! The Musical (Evolution Theatre Company – Columbus, OH)

All I knew of Yank! The Musical before seeing the Evolution Theatre Company production of it (twice) this past week was that it was about gay men in the military during WWII. And, yes, very generally it is about that, but it is also so much more. Written by David & Joseph Zellnik (brothers, not lovers) and first publicly performed in 2005, the show ran off-Broadway in early 2010 (as Yank! A WWII Love Story) for just over a month. That cast was reunited for the belated 2013 recording of a cast album, and now here we have the Midwest theatrical premiere of this notable and important show.

The show opens with a millennial talking about an old, abandoned journal that he found in a thrift shop, and from there the history of the journal plays out from when it was first given to Stu (Nick Hardin) as he heads off to basic training. Stu just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the guys, the kind that trash talk and are vulgar and seem at home in the military, but he is quickly befriended by Mitch (William Macke), a guy everyone in the squad likes. In between drills and polishing shoes, Stu develops feelings for Mitch, and it appears that to some extent Mitch does the same for Stu, but neither knows what to do about it. Ah, this was the ’40s, when being “light in the loafers” was synonymous with “faggot,” and you’d better lust after Betty Grable or otherwise face ridicule. Fortunately, Stu meets Artie (Brent Fabian), a photographer for “Yank Magazine” (published for servicemen) and who is also gay (but has embraced it on the sly). Artie gets Stu a journalist position with the magazine, and they leave to cover stories, with Artie showing Stu all the tricks to finding men and being convert. When Stu and Mitch meet up again after some time has passed and the war has started to take its toll on them both, they find that their feelings are still there and decide to explore them in secret.

As long as there have been people there have been gay people, and yet I never thought anything about gays being in the military and what that was like especially during WWII until this play. I had heard about men meeting in public restrooms and various tapping and hand gestures meant to signal to those in the know, but that is all of a different generation. I think it is hard for younger people to understand just how far society has come in regards to gay people when it is now largely acceptable to be out, so plays like this are doubly important. Yank! The Musical is smart, sensitive, and realistic, and the music perfectly captures the era while also moving the plot forward. Stu isn’t a gay stereotype, and Mitch isn’t your typical closeted man either. As in real life, the truth is so much more complicated than that.

I’m consistently surprised by the quality of productions by the Evolution Theatre Company of Columbus, Ohio, and Yank! The Musical is my favorite production of theirs yet in the two years I’ve been attending their shows at the Columbus Performing Arts Center. Director Jimmy Bohr has taken a rather small performing space in the Van Fleet Theater, where the audience is so very close and seated on bleachers in the front and on the sides, and used it as an advantage in telling this story. The show moves and changes locales easily with minimal props or set pieces needed, and the actors often appear from behind the audience and walk between the bleachers to the front.

I’ve been to enough local shows in the past few years to recognize some of the actors, and it always tickles me to see them tackle such different roles seemingly effortlessly. I was glad to see Doug Joseph ham it up again (albeit in several smaller roles here) after hilarious turns in The Divine Sister (Short North Stage) and Psycho Beach Party (Immersive Theater), and it took me a while to recognize Nick Hardin as being the moody and rambunctious Chicklet from Psycho Beach Party I wouldn’t have thought the same person did such utterly different roles had the program not tipped me off; as well as the expression of disgust Nick gives at one point, reminding me of Chicklet’s constant expression. Special attention should be paid to Jesika Siler Lehner playing all six female roles, seamlessly transitioning between each and making them feel like completely different people, many with a different posture and gait, all with different costumes and hair. She goes from sexy torch singer to butch lesbian to wholesome mom with ease, believable as always. I had not seen Brent Fabian in anything before, but man can he tap! His Artie is knowing and sly while also being sympathetic. I look forward to seeing him again. William Mackle and Nick Hardin have genuine chemistry, though on the surface they don’t look like two people that would necessarily be drawn to each other, but that’s kind’ve the point.

Somehow they found actors with “period” faces and bodies, all looking at home in the setting of the story. Take a picture of any scene in the play in black and white and it would pass for a photo from seventy years ago, no question. There is a brief nude scene at the beginning showing seven of the guys from behind and to the side, all looking so different and comfortable, and it’s a credit to this production that such a titillating moment (for me anyway) is far from the best reason to see this show – it’s a highlight, to be sure, in a show of many.

I only wish there were more chances to see this terrific production again. I saw the preview performance on Wednesday as well as the Sunday matinee, all performed like the cast had been doing the show for months and enjoying it.

**** out of ****

Yank! The Musical continues through to June 6th, and more information can be found at http://evolutiontheatre.org/#2828