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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Precious Heart (Eclipse Theatre Company – Worthington, OH)

What exactly is “dessert theatre?” It’s like dinner theatre but just with dessert, which is the perfect supplement to spending a couple of hours with Fleeta Mae Bryte, a sixtyish Texas spinster with a vivid imagination and a cartload of stories to tell about herself, her family, and her hometown, Precious Heart, Texas. Precious Heart is a “dessert theatre” event, the second production by the Eclipse Theatre Company occupying a cozy performance space off the beaten path in Worthington, Ohio.

Photo: Kathy Sturm – Greg Smith (Fleeta Mae)

Precious Heart by Ted Karber, Jr., began life in the early 1990s as a submission to a theatre festival in Dayton, going on to enjoy many full productions throughout Ohio and Texas, at long last premiering just outside Columbus. The show is all about Fleeta Mae and her memories of her high school rivalries (you’ll hear a lot about a coy bitch named Emmaline), the lives of those around her in the little town, and her encounters with nymphomaniac armadillos, clandestine waltzing with her dress form, and a strange little creature that may or may not have been an alien. Anything is possible in Fleeta Mae’s world as she has retained a child-like wonder many people loose as they pass into adulthood. There is a certain kind of Grey Gardens-type charm to Fleeta Mae’s hoarding; a reference to the popular paperback Scruples by Judith Krantz being found in her basket of goodies particularly tickled me, as it would any other fan of trashy, soap opera fiction from the “Dynasty” era.

Photo: Craig Roberts – Greg Smith (Fleeta Mae)

Greg Smith recreates his performance as Fleeta Mae having performed the role in many productions over the years. Mr. Smith has the part down like a bad habit, but he doesn’t play it as a man in drag; this is not a campy performance that pokes fun at anyone, but rather a man completely embodying a woman’s role as a woman. The show has a few moments with a bit of audience interaction, but this is not an audience participation show at all. Mr. Smith as Fleeta Mae might point you out, make eye contact, or even take a Polaroid with you, but your main job is to sit back, enjoy some sweets, and let the laughter flow.

Photo: Kathy Sturm – Greg Smith (Fleeta Mae)

Mr. Smith makes sure Fleeta Mae’s feelings are known through a pile of expressions that show what she’s really thinking even if she’s trying her darnedest to be polite. Mr. Smith has a way of flicking his Gene Simmons-like tongue out to express Fleeta Mae’s dislike for her nemesis Emmaline that never gets old, and he is great at bringing out props like Fleeta Mae’s scrapbook to share with the audience. Fleeta Mae uses terms like “TV television” and “icebox” taking no mind of how redundant or outdated they may be, and Mr. Smith’s affection for the character is very clear in how he makes her in charge of all of the jokes rather than letting the jokes be on her.

Vintage photo of Fleeta Mae (far left)

The show only feels a bit heavy handed at the very end when the background music rises in volume and Fleeta Mae begins a new adventure with a gentleman caller (who may – or may not – actually be there). Something about the blissfully optimistic scene feels saccharine to me, but I can imagine many would find it an uplifting end to a show full of laughter and old fashioned kitchen table talk.

Photo: Kathy Sturm – Greg Smith (Fleeta Mae)

Precious Heart is unlike anything I’ve seen in or around Columbus, and that’s a shame. Where else can one get a wide selection of delicious desserts and enjoy a hilarious one-woman show in an intimate setting with plush, comfortable table seating? Fleeta Mae is one of those eccentric characters who is difficult to forget, and Precious Heart is just that: precious with heart.


Take note that the evening performances begin at 7:30pm instead of the usual 8pm, but I recommend arriving closer to 7pm to secure one of the limited seats (there are only five tables with eight chairs each) and getting first dibs at the dessert buffet (I recommend the cream puffs, lemonade, and the streusel-covered apple pie). 

*** 1/4 out of ****

Precious Heart continues through to June 19th at 670 Lakeview Plaza Blvd, Suite F, Worthington (less than 30 minutes from downtown Columbus), and more information can be found at http://eclipsetheatrecompany.org/

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

Violet (Porthouse Theatre – Cuyahoga Falls, OH)

I’m a sucker for the unusual. A simple boy-meets-girl story isn’t always enough to keep me interested; girl disfigured with an axe blade to her face, on her way to see a faith healer? And it’s a musical set in the 1960s? Now we’re talking! The show I’m speaking of is Violet, based on the short story The Ugliest Pilgrim by Doris Betts, and it is a musical with music by Jeanine Tesori (she just won the Tony for Fun Home and also did Thoroughly Modern Millie) and book and lyrics by Brian Crawley. In the show, Violet is a woman living with a scar down the side of her face from a childhood accident, and she is traveling from North Carolina to Oklahoma by bus to visit a faith healer she saw on television with the hope that he can rid her face of the disfigurement for which she has been ridiculed and ostracized. If it sounds like an unconventional premise for a musical, that’s because it is; it’s also so much more, examining how we all have lives marred with scars that we have to come to terms with – Violet’s just happens to be on her face.

Violet premiered off-Broadway for a brief run in 1997 that produced a beloved cast recording; an acclaimed Encores! Off-Center one-night event in 2013 led to the 2014 Broadway premiere starring Sutton Foster, for which another cast recording was made. I saw the 2014 Broadway production and had mixed feelings about it, though it was well-reviewed and nominated for many Tony Awards. Seeing it live didn’t affect me the same way as listening to the initial cast recording did, so I was excited to get the chance to re-evaluate the show at the Porthouse Theatre as part of the Kent State University summer season. 

Photo: Bob Christy
This was my first visit to the Porthouse Theatre, a lovely outdoor performance space that is a part of the Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls, a pleasant drive around two hours from Columbus. I was a little surprised to find that the show was being performed outside on such a bright and sunny (and hot) Sunday afternoon, but the theatre is constructed on the side of a hill with the seats descending stadium-style to the stage at the bottom. I found it quite comfortable as the seats on the padded, backed benches were roomy, and the audience and stage were sheltered from direct light. It was like viewing theatre under the shade of a large tree with the breeze flowing and birds chirping; I can only imagine how nice it would be to see a show here on a crisp evening. The grounds have many picnic tables, ample free parking, and a nice concession area for drinks and treats.

Photo: Bob Christy – Jared Dixon as Flick and Amy Fritsche as Violet
Amy Fritsche plays Violet, appearing in her first Porthouse Theatre production during her summer off from teaching theatre at Kent State University. With facial structure that brings to mind Ann Todd and Laura Linney, Amy acts wounded well, appearing emotionally calloused from years of taunting even though in reality she’s a gorgeous blonde. As on Broadway, the scar is not represented by makeup but rather by the reaction people have to it and Violet’s own words. As Violet, Amy doesn’t scowl and act gruff like Sutton Foster did on Broadway, but that’s because she doesn’t have anything to prove; Sutton had to show she could play more than the peppy ingenue after Tony wins in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Anything Goes, and I think that pushed her performance in Violet too far in the opposite direction. Amy isn’t afraid to smile at a joke or greeting, and she is more vulnerable and reachable as a result. Like Sutton she comes off as a bit too intelligent to believe that a faith healer could suddenly heal her scar when doctors couldn’t; unlike Sutton I didn’t feel like her emotional dukes were up to the extent that she couldn’t be reached. It’s always thrilling to see an actor go on a journey in a role and grow, and Amy makes Violet’s eventual epiphany heartbreakingly honest and touching.

Jared Dixon plays Flick, the black serviceman Violet befriends along with his buddy Monty, played by Ian Benjamin. Jared is likable and sweet as Flick, and I believed his interest in Violet was coming from a place of mutual understanding. Ian is perfectly cast as Monty, an immature young serviceman who talks big thinking that people will take to him better for it; the part was played on Broadway by a pretty-boy type far beyond the age for which the part was written, but Ian has the fresh-faced look that is just right for it and the slight awkwardness of youth that the part requires. Both men sing quite well and drift in and out of verse with ease. 

Photo: Bob Christy – Talia Cosentino as young Violet, Dane Castle as her father, and Amy Fritsche as Violet

Dane Castle and Talia Cosentino play Violet’s father and the younger Violet, respectively, in flashbacks and dream sequences. Dane is caring but reserved as the father, and his bearded, broad mountain man look helps to hide the guilt and concern he has for his motherless daughter. His affection for Talia feels real. What Talia lacks in resemblance to Amy she makes up for in heart; her eyes are extremely expressive and warm, and I enjoyed seeing her come back onto the stage for each appearance.

The smaller roles are also extremely well cast, and many of the actors play several parts. Allisyn Just plays the old lady with verve, looking like a more mobile Thelma Harper from Mama’s Family; as the hotel singer her sterling voice, sly grin, and beautiful teeth are on display, as well they should be. Shamara Costa as the landlady is someone I wouldn’t dare cross, quick and sharp, shifting gears completely to sing effectively as the gospel soloist. Paul Floriano doubles as the bus driver and the preacher, the latter part he grabs and runs with, appearing like the perfect religious zealot working the crowd.

What I liked about director Steven C. Anderson’s production of Violet is that he has found a way of presenting the story simply on such a relatively small stage. Characters often appear walking around the perimeter of the theatre and then enter the performance space walking down the aisles where the audience is seated. The flashback and dream sequences are staged in a way that spells out exactly what they are, while on Broadway I was sometimes confused. An intermission has thankfully been added at an appropriate place, and the events of the story play out at a brisk pace while not feeling rushed. The gore hound in me would’ve liked more realistic blood and makeup in the flashback to Violet’s accident, but that’s a pretty minor criticism for such a strong production.

While I think Violet is slightly over musicalized (there is a lot of recitative when regular dialogue would’ve more than fit the bill), I found a new appreciation for the show in this production. Violet’s inner and outer journey is easier to understand and embrace with this team of talented performers behind it, and it is a show that only improves in its second half (quite unusual in my experience). The show is worth seeing even if one only saw the last few minutes when Violet learns how to let someone in to love her and give love in return in her relationship with Flick. Whether or not their interracial relationship would last in such a troubled time isn’t as important as the fact that Violet, by way of her pilgrimage, grew emotionally and would never again be the same untrusting, closed-off person that she was at the start of her journey. This is the kind of theatre that is touching without being preachy, the kind that shows feelings rather than tells about them. The Porthouse Theatre production of Violet demonstrates what theatre is all about, and my only regret is that I only got to see this incarnation of the show once. 

***/ out of ****

Violet continues through to July 25th at the Porthouse Theatre in Cuyahoga Falls, OH (around two hours from Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.kent.edu/porthouse/news/porthouse-continues-season-violet

My friend Michael Nalepka and I at the Sunday matinee of Violet.

The Holy Shop (3rd Annual Columbus Black Theatre Festival – Columbus, OH)

I didn’t expect to laugh so much at Christian author Charlay Marie’s The Holy Shop, but maybe that’s precisely why I did. This was my first time attending the Columbus Black Theatre Festival, and it was the promotional art for The Holy Shop that caught my eye. Sure, the poster looks humorous, but I wasn’t prepared for the good time that awaited me.

The play opens with Millie (Lakita Bradford) pleading with bank officer Jordan (Darrell L. Hunter II) not to foreclose on The Holy Shop, the family business that she runs with her feisty grandfather John (Brian Bowman). They are seven months behind in payments and owe $10,000, but Millie has prayed on it and is sure all she needs is more time for God to deliver onto them; perhaps that rich, fine Pastor Thomas (Z. F. Taylor) who has asked Millie out could be a beacon of hope sent by God – or is he?

The Holy Shop’s most consistent customer is named Jackie (Johnathan Pierre) whose nickname is “Crackie” and lips are all “ashy” they say. Grandfather John thinks the reason their business is going under is because people are stealing from him, so he hires admitted thief Doneesha (Andrea Johnson) as security. Doneesha shows up the next day in a t-shirt with “BODYGAWWD” on it and agrees to work for bottled water. Oh, but that bottled water has been blessed, and it has some strange properties once it has been consumed.

Charlay Marie (who has a pivotal cameo in the play that I won’t spoil) gave a touching curtain speech about how this was her first play, how she has decided to be a film director, and how all one needs to do is believe in God and wait and His blessings will come forth. I think that message is leaving out effort, which Charlay certainly has put forth with two published novels and more on the way. Her biggest strength is her dialogue between characters; conversations come off as real and humorous naturally.

All of the actors perform well, but the standouts are Brian Bowman and Darrell L. Hunter II. Brian reminds me of Red Foxx in his performance of grandfather John with his booming voice filling the theatre and tall tales about Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman visiting his store “back in 1992,” his catchphrase. “Harriet Tubman bought two bottles of oil because her hair so nappy,” he says, and the audience howled. Darrell L. Hunter as Jordan is handsome, confident, and knows that being a good listener is part of being a good actor. He is blessed with the looks, manner, and voice that makes him thrilling to watch. We should all be so lucky to be as talented as these two guys.

  

I enjoy seeing original works by growing artists. I hope the promise of a future performance mentioned in the program of The Holy Shop is true because I have several friends that I’m sure would enjoy it, probably laughing even harder than me.

*** out of ****

The Holy Shop was written and directed by Charlay Marie (http://charlaymariebooks.wix.com/charlay) as part of the 3rd Annual Columbus Black Theatre Festival produced by Mine 4 God Productions (http://www.mine4godproductions.com).

 

 

The enthusiastic audience of which I was a part.