The Last Five Years (Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)

The Last Five Years is one of those rare musicals that has achieved major popularity without hitting Broadway, its status cemented by an excellent cast recording of its brief 2002 off-Broadway run. The show was revived off-Broadway in 2013 and adapted into a film in 2015, and it continues to have a healthy life in licensing across the country in regional and community theatres. Now it is time for Columbus’ own Short North Stage to present the show, replacing the previously announced The Flick in their season schedule. This production is a great example of how so many quite good elements can combine to result in something that just doesn’t quite deliver in a way one should expect from a show of this stature.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Melissa Hall (Catherine) and Jarrad Biron Green (Jamie)
 
Jason Robert Brown’s ode to a relationship between two people from their initial blush of attraction to the sputtering embers of their separation is reportedly autobiographical, borrowing major elements from his first marriage. It is a sung-through piece with the leads, Catherine and Jamie, singing alternating songs; Catherine’s story is told in reverse chronological order while Jamie’s starts at the beginning. Seating is arranged on The Garden Theatre stage on opposite sides of the action; this allows for the audience to be quite close to the performers, but it also drastically limits seating capacity. 

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Jarrad Biron Green (Jamie) and Melissa Hall (Catherine)
 
There is no fault to be found in the singing abilities of Melissa Hall as Catherine or Jarrad Biron Green as Jamie; these two sound terrific, especially in their one duet, “The Next Ten Minutes,” which closes the first act. Music director Andrew Willis summons clean and full-sounding instrumentals from his small ensemble, and Edward Carignan’s set helps create a certain kind of mood necessary for this piece; a rotating platform maneuvered by the cast becomes a bridge as well as many other things with a pool of standing water and some plants in the rear, and a park bench is opposite it framed by long drapes. Sophia Gersing’s animated art for “The Schmuel Song” brings to mind a similar use of animation in the film version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch; the use of limited animation was a delightful part of that film just as it is a welcome addition here. The sound design is a bit off in this environment as the voices of the actors always come from the far left or right depending on which side of the stage you are seated; this is quite disconcerting whenever the performers sing downstage as their voices are amplified coming from the opposite direction. Still, the orchestra sounds quite crisp and full, only occasionally drowning out Mr. Green’s singing. The lighting, while often quite beautiful, also appears a bit off as Mr. Green is illuminated in one scene from just his chest down; another scene shows Ms. Hall with a hard light bisecting her forehead, leaving her hair and the top of her head in darkness. 

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Jarrad Biron Green (Jamie) – Art by Sophia Gersing
 
The main issue I have with this production is that it is acted without the arc written into the material. With the structure of the show being what it is and being sung through, it could seem easy to pull off with limited means when in fact it probably puts more stress on the performers to act more in their singing. We should see Catherine go from being a broken woman (“Still Hurting”) to incredibly optimistic (“Goodbye Until Tomorrow”) as well as seeing Jamie transform from an ambitious author who just met Catherine and is excited (“Shiksa Goddess”) to a philandering husband who leaves her (“I Could Never Rescue You”). In lieu of this, director Nick Lingnofski gives us a Catherine who always looks like someone just stole her puppy and a Jamie who remains a narcissistic jerk throughout (he sneers out some of “Moving Too Fast,” making some of the words unintelligible). It’s difficult to hit any real emotional depth when neither character seems like they are playing with a full deck, making their one duet sound great but feel empty. It is difficult to believe that this Catherine would ever have found anything to like in this Jamie, who from his entrance appears like he wants to flip off the audience. 

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Melissa Hall (Catherine)
 

The Last Five Years is alternately depressing as well as hopeful, and its score is full of gems that are relatable to most anyone who has ever been in a relationship on rocky ground. While this production didn’t get to me in my gut like other productions I’ve seen of this work, it is far from being terrible. Hearing this score live bests listening to a recording of it any day, and being seated so close to the performers only adds to the experience. While I had hoped for a deeper emotional connection this time around, Short North Stage’s The Last Five Years is pleasant enough even if it misses the bull’s-eye.

**/ out of ****

The Last Five Years continues through to May 22nd in The Garden Theatre located at 1187 North High Street in Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.shortnorthstage.org/calendar/v/535

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The Full Monty: The Musical (Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)

It’s always fun to attend new productions of plays that I’ve seen and enjoyed when I can bring someone new to see them for the first time. The Full Monty: The Musical is a show I’ve always found enjoyable, and I was fortunate to have attended its closing performance on Broadway on a Sunday matinee in September 2002. From its national tour a year or so later to a spring 2014 production at Otterbein and then The Human Race Theatre Company’s production in Dayton last fall, Short North Stage’s The Full Monty: The Musical is now the fifth production of this show that I’ve seen. This time I brought my friend Bianca who had no knowledge of the musical or the film from which it was based. I enticed her with the promise of male nudity, but it was the humor and heart of the piece that kept her interested.

The Full Monty: The Musical is based on the 1997 surprise hit film about a group of unemployed steel mill workers putting on a strip show to raise money for their families as well as raise their spirits. Theatre legend Terrence McNally adapted the screenplay for the stage, adeptly transplanting the action from Sheffield, England, to Buffalo, New York, with music and lyrics added by the criminally underrated David Yazbek, with “You Rule My World” and “You Walk With Me” the standouts from a consistently tuneful and appropriate score. While the play may have one too many manufactured obstacles at the end, The Full Monty: The Musical is very entertaining and, dare I say it, even moving in its depiction of men down on their luck banding together to prove to their families and themselves that they can rise above their current employment statuses and work together to accomplish a goal. 

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
Director Edward Carignan deftly guides an energetic and jovial cast in this production, aided by a terrific set by Dick Block (who designed the same turntable set for The Human Race Theatre Company production in Dayton last fall and has adapted and expanded it here) and very clear and balanced sound designed by Kevin Rhodus. The sound for a musical is particularly important, and this production is the first to take advantage of Short North Stage’s new sound system; aside from a few blips here and there, voices are clear and the music (aided by music director Jeff Caldwell and conductor Jim Kucera) quite full-sounding without overpowering the vocal performances. Aside from Kieron Cindric (as the professional stripper Buddy) not being mic’d and sometimes being difficult to hear at the performance I attended, the overall aural presentation is solid, positioning Short North Stage to emerge as one of the best producers of musicals in the area.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
Standouts in the cast are David Bryant Johnson as Jerry, the dad trying to raise money for child support; Linda Kinnison Roth as crotchety rehearsal pianist Jeanette; Ian Short as the stuffy Harold; Patrick Walters as the rather dim-witted but boyishly handsome Ethan Girard; and Sean Felder as Malcolm, the suicidal mamma’s boy. Evin Hoffman is also perfectly cast as the villain Teddy, Jerry’s ex-wife’s fiancée; you can almost feel his smirk at Jerry’s activities as soon as he steps on stage. Sam Vestey deserves an honorable mention in his small role as Reg; his audition scene is so free of inhibition and honest that it emerges as one of the most touching scenes in the play, a scene usually played for comedy. 

The only criticism I have of this production is that the scene changes are often quite slow, idling the engine while the set rotates with some added business being performed on the far left and right of the stage. The show runs a good fifteen minutes longer than I’m used to, but perhaps some of this timing will be improved throughout the run. It didn’t bother Bianca when I mentioned it to her, and it certainly didn’t seem to affect anyone’s enjoyment of the show judging by the applause and chatter I heard at the conclusion.  The tender scene between Mr. Walters and Mr. Felder when they confront their budding attraction may also lack some chemistry, but Mr. Felder’s performance of “You Walk With Me” is a major highlight.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 

The Full Monty: The Musical was rather unfairly overshadowed by the monster hit The Producers during its Broadway run, so I’m pleased to see that it has found a life in regional and local theatres across the country. For a play about stripping, unemployment, and child support, The Full Monty: The Musical is diverting rather than depressing, and its message of acceptance hasn’t dated like its references to VCRs and Sony Trinitron television sets. Short North Stage’s production is to date the best musical I’ve seen produced locally this year, and it serves to make me more excited to see what comes next from this company.

***/ out of ****

The Full Monty: The Musical continues through to April 24th in The Garden Theatre located at 1187 North High Street in Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.shortnorthstage.org/calendar/v/469

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

Krampus, A Yuletide Tale (Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)

 
Ah, there’s nothing quite like a pagan holiday tale, one filled with a hairy, horned creature, frightened children, and kidnapping. Why, yes, it does sound German, doesn’t it? In a brilliant bit of counter programming to the countless incarnations of A Christmas Carol at this time of year, Short North Stage proudly presents Krampus, A Yuletide Tale, at The Garden Theatre, a terrifically trippy new musical based on the legend of the creature who punishes all of the children on the naughty list. The audience sits on the stage where the action takes place in this environmental production, only adding to its giddy delights.

 

Photo: Heather Wack – (left to right) William Gorgas (Bruno), JJ Parkey (Krampus), and Emma Lou Andrews (Flora)
 
Based on German folklore about the yeti-goat cloven-hooved monstrosity, Krampus, A Yuletide Tale is smartly written by the husband and wife team of Nils-Petter Ankarblom and Carrie Gilchrist, with the former composing a lush and tuneful score while the latter reins in directing duties. The story is about single mother Anna Schlecht (Stephanie Prince) struggling to make ends meet by having her children, Flora (Emma Lou Andrews) and Bruno (William Gorgas), sell her knitting in order to pay their cruel landlord, Herr Ulrich (Luke Stewart), for their lodging. The kids happen upon a lost wallet and lie that they earned the money from selling their mother’s wares. It just so happens that it is the night of December 5th (not the 24th or 25th), the evening when good kids are rewarded by Saint Nicholas (Edward Carignan) and bad children are kidnapped and punished by Krampus (JJ Parkey). Of course the kids are taken from their mother and transported to a phantasmagoric place high in the mountains that is dark and evil-looking, driving their mother to accuse their landlord of being involved with their abduction and holding him hostage! While awaiting rescue, Flora and Bruno also encounter Saint Nicholas and discover the strange partnership he has with Krampus.

 

Photo: Heather Wack – Edward Carignan (Saint Nicholas)
 
Edward Carignan not only adeptly plays the rather conniving Saint Nicholas as a kind of heavily accented and bossy chef (his hair is frosted and up, resembling a chef’s hat), but he is also responsible for the highly stylized and spot-on costume and set design. The action takes place on several levels on a set that honestly looks a bit treacherous, and below it is Krampus’s forest, which is only revealed when the kids are kidnapped. There is a synergy between the exaggerated sets and colors used in the costumes that only enhances the story as there is always something interesting to discover. Krampus himself is no minor achievement, sporting a horned headpiece and long blonde hair. He’s frightening at first, but JJ Parkey has a singing voice so pure and sweet (“Eternal Winter” is a standout in the score) that it is hard to fear him for long. The story is also one in which the children’s lives are never really in danger as it is said that Krampus will be returning the children to their mother eventually. Personally, I would’ve enjoyed a bit more aggressive action and peril in the story, but that would probably have pushed it beyond the family-friendly territory it stays within here.

 

Photo: Heather Wack – (left to right) JJ Parkey (Krampus), Edward Carignan (Saint Nicholas), William Gorgas (Bruno), and Emma Lou Andrews (Flora)
 
Emma Lou Andrews and William Gorgas make for a terrific pair on stage, and they have the back and forth sibling thing down pat. Stephanie Prince is affectionately true as their mother, quite touching during her solo, “I Can’t Go On,” which pushed my companion to tears. Luke Stewart as Herr Ulrich, the selfish land baron whose heart thaws during the play, turns in a real ear-opening performance as well, especially during “Someone Who Cares,” one of several songs that highlight his superior pipes. 

 

Photo: Heather Wack – Luke Stewart (Herr Ulrich) and Stephanie Prince (Anna)
 
The only real drawback to this production, which I have found to be the case with other Short North Stage productions in The Garden Theatre, is the sound. In this case the band is tremendously over amplified into the speakers that are placed just a few feet away from the performers and the audience. The vocal performances are often drowned out by the music (glorious as it is), and so the levels on their mics are raised to compensate; this results in escalating feedback until their mics are suddenly cut in volume. It happens time and time again, and it’s a testament to the actors and the material that such an invasive issue doesn’t completely wreck the show.

 

Photo: Heather Ware – (left to right) JJ Parkey (Krampus) and Edward Carignan (Saint Nicholas)
 

Krampus, A Yuletide Tale is unlike anything I’ve seen before yet feels strangely warm and comforting. Being seated around the periphery of all of the action really adds to the experience, and this is one show that takes some twists and turns that I truly didn’t expect. There are some technical issues to sort out and perhaps the book could benefit from a polish, but what works in this show works so well that I defy anyone to see it and not be fully engaged throughout its seventy-five minute running time. Put me down for the cast recording!

*** 1/2 out of ****

Krampus, A Yuletide Tale continues through to December 20th in 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/509

Lost Lake (Wild Women Writing and Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” I’m not sure where I first heard that, and that quote has been attributed to many different people, but it encapsulates what I feel is the theme of David Auburn’s Lost Lake, currently being presented in a terrific production by Wild Women Writing and Short North Stage at The Garden Theatre in the Short North district of Columbus.

 

Photo: Geoff McTurner – Chiquita Mullins Lee (Veronica) and James Hughes (Hogan)
 

Lost Lake was first produced by Manhattan Theatre Club a year ago for a limited run, and this its area premiere. Sensitively directed by Katherine Burkman, the play is about two people who, on the outside, seem to be about as different as can be – Veronica, a black, widowed mother of two, a city woman making ends meet as a nurse practitioner; Hogan, a white middle-aged man, a virtual recluse (who considers himself a handyman) living off of his disability payments in a cabin on a lake. They meet via an online ad that Hogan posts offering up his cabin for rent for the summer, and Veronica agrees to a one-week stay with her children. What the two don’t realize until after they butt heads over a variety of problems and situations is how they are much more alike than they are different, a lesson I guess we could all learn when negotiating or facing adversity. This all probably sounds terribly serious and droll, but it’s actually quite a funny “dramedy” – that is,  if it belongs to any specific genre.

 

Photo: Geoff McTurner – Chiquita Mullins Lee (Veronica) and James Hughes (Hogan)
 
James Hughes is an enigmatic Hogan, his logic often circular and his motives understood only by himself. Mr. Hughes plays him as a kind of overgrown man-boy, blindly appealing and a little goofy at the same time. He has sudden moments of rage in which I caught myself looking away as it all felt too real, like it was rude to keep watching and not try to console him. Mr. Hughes has a physical presence as Hogan that leads me to believe he could get away with just about anything, either with charm or artfully changing the subject, and he is an exciting performer to watch.

 

Photo: Geoff McTurner – James Hughes (Hogan) and Chiquita Mullins Lee (Veronica)
 
Chiquita Mullins Lee is Veronica, playing her with so many more shadings than the stereotypical Angry Black Woman we see so much of. Does Ms. Lee get angry? Sure, but she leaves the finger waving and head bobbing by the wayside, exposing someone far more vulnerable than may be expected considering her firm voice and stance. Ms. Lee’s Veronica has a maternal understanding that I would imagine comes from having and nurturing children; she sees the need for attention in Hogan, but it doesn’t keep her from taking him to task for not following through on his promises. This Veronica is not “just black” – she’s so much more, a full rainbow of emotions, demonstrating that “just black” exists only to those who choose not to look deeper. Even though this isn’t a play about race, it does come up briefly in a moment that is more insightful and telling than any loud sermon on the subject.

 

Photo: Chuck Pennington III – Set by Edward Carignan
 
The Green Room at The Garden Theatre is the perfect setting for such an intimate two-person character study. Edward Carignan’s set for Hogan’s cabin says so much about him before he even appears on stage, with junk food and wrappers scattered about well-worn furniture and animal furs. So much care has been put into the set and props that they do exactly as they are meant to do: support and enhance the story.

Ms. Burkman only missteps once in her direction, but it’s a big flaw in an otherwise splendid production. There is a speech by Hogan that closes the first act in which he recounts his estrangement from his eighteen-year-old daughter; rather than let his words and performance speak for themselves, some sappy instrumental is played at a fairly loud level through the sound system. I’m not against using underscoring to supplement a moment in a play, but it is mostly a tool used in films to manipulate the audience’s feelings; here the music effectively neuters the emotion of the scene and comes off as heavy-handed. Having just a few minutes out of a two-hour play be misguided is a track record of which most directors would be envious.

 

Photo: Geoff McTurner – Chiquita Mullins Lee (Veronica) and James Hughes (Hogan)
 

Lost Lake is the kind of theatre that I love; it’s original and doesn’t contain the clichés of other love stories. Make no mistake, this is a story about love, though one that remains delightfully platonic. Not every relationship between a man and a woman needs to be consummated in a traditional way to be valid and meaningful; this is a play about such a relationship, one with two souls who are struggling and find strength in each other. Highly recommended!

***/ out of ****

Lost Lake continues through to November 22nd 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/485