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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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)

“The sooner you understand it ain’t what you say, or what Mr. Irvin say… It’s what Ma say that counts,” says Cutler, who plays guitar and trombone and is the unofficial leader of the band. The Ma he is referring to is Ma Rainey, and the argument is over which version of a song she will sing in August Wilson’s seminal Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, currently being presented by Short North Stage as part of a year-long festival of Mr. Wilson’s works.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Of course, the play isn’t really about music – it’s about power, and in a time and place like Chicago in 1927, being black and female would normally place one near the bottom rung in the pecking order of the day. Ma Rainey is no ordinary woman though, and she knows that she has something that Irvin, her white manager, and Sturdyvant, her white record producer, want desperately, but she’s going to make them work for it. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is about the rehearsal and recording session for the song of that same name; her trumpet player, Levee, has written a new arrangement for the song, but Ma Rainey is not a woman who is about to do anything she doesn’t want to do, and that includes doing a favor for the pushy Levee. The rest of her band is ready to follow her lead, but Levee feels that siding with Irvin and Sturdyvant against Ma will put him in their good graces, enabling him to embark on a career of his own. 

Photo: Jerri Shafer

“They don’t care nothing about me,” Ma confides to Cutler. “All they want is my voice. As soon as they get my voice down on them recording machines, then it’s just like if I’d be some whore and they roll over and put their pants on.” Ma knows that she holds all the cards but that her power is transient; when all is said and done, she’ll be dismissed until she is needed again. This is why Ma Rainey has demands she makes sure are met; it’s not just for her, but for all of the people who don’t have a voice to command the same kind of respect for themselves. In the same position, wouldn’t we all play up the opportunity to throw our weight around before the clock strikes twelve and the coach turns back into a pumpkin again?

Photo: Jerri Shafer

“As long as the colored man look to white folks to put the crown on what he say… As long as he looks to white folks for approval… Then he ain’t never gonna find out who he is and what he’s about. He’s just gonna be about what the white folks want him to be about,” Toledo, Ma’s piano player, wisely tries to explain to the hot-headed and ambitious Levee, though it’s a lesson Levee must learn the hard way. This is a time when segregation is still strictly enforced, and even up north, where the social situation is far more open, black people are still regarded with skepticism and a side eye. It’s enough to make anyone restless and frustrated, something with which
people who have been subjugated be it for their color or sexuality or some other reason can surely relate; remove “colored” and “white” from Toledo’s advice and it still rings true. This might be a “black play,” but its story about the disenfranchised and repressed is universal. The characters live in a time when racism is pervasive in a way that could make many complacent – but not Ma Rainey or Levee, one fighting quality which they both share.

So much of the play is spent with Ma’s band as they discuss and argue about life, all the while waiting for Ma to make her appearance and then be ready to record. The band members discuss women, money, philosophy, and even their ancestors in Africa; their conversation flows so naturally (a credit to Mr. Wilson’s genius) that it isn’t immediately apparent the relevance it will all have in the play. It’s during all of this that the audience gets to know and care for the characters as real people; we all become invested in how the session is going to play out because we get to know these people and how they think. This makes the startling finale all the more heartbreaking, a perfect demonstration of the misguided aggression that can result from broken promises and shattered dreams.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

As directed by Mark Clayton Southers, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a tight drama with enough genuine laughs and tense moments to feel thrillingly real. Mr. Southers doesn’t allow any of August Wilson’s spry dialogue to be tossed about or sped past; everyone in the cast gives the appearance of being united to tell this story without sounding too precious or studied. It’s a landmark work, but this fine cast thankfully doesn’t tiptoe around the material; many of the characters aren’t exactly endearing or likeable, but that’s completely beside the point.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Standouts in the cast are Wilma Hatton as the persnickety but in demand Ma Rainey; Chuck Timbers as Cutler, the voice of reason in the band; Will Williams as Toledo, the pianist who knows a little bit about most everything; Taylor Martin Moss as Sylvester, Ma’s stuttering nephew; and Ryan Kopycinski as the policeman who just can’t quite believe Ma Rainey could own a car or is as important as she claims.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

The real treasure though is to be found in Bryant Bentley’s performance as Levee, the bullish trumpet player who is as uneducated as he is blindly ambitious. Mr. Bentley takes a character who often rubs people the wrong way and makes him unexpectedly sympathetic; we understand why he is the way he is, and we want him to find some measure of success because we can see that he wants it so badly he can taste it. Levee’s disillusionment is felt by the audience all because of Mr. Bentley’s commitment and instinctual quickness; his performance rises to be the equal of this material, a daunting feat indeed.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

One could quibble about the prerecorded music and the fake playing of the instruments being handled in a way that is less than optimal, but Short North Stage’s production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is so alive and otherwise involving that it is futile to deny its charms and power. This is the second work of August Wilson I’ve been fortunate enough to experience this year. Mr. Wilson is hailed as one of America’s foremost black playwrights, though I think the qualifier is unnecessary; August Wilson is one of America’s foremost playwrights, period, and his Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is not to be missed.

**** out of ****

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom continues through to June 19th 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/536

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

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

Two Trains Running (PAST Productions Columbus – Columbus, OH)

We can’t always control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond to it; we can either settle for the way things are, or stand up to actively change the narrative. That’s the lesson I learned while watching how the people in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running responded to adversity; some caved immediately, others balked but eventually gave in, and a few others continued to fight for what was right, even when their words fell upon deaf ears. This PAST Productions Columbus presentation is one of a series of works by Mr. Wilson being produced throughout this year in a partnership with Short North Stage funded by PNC Arts Alive.

Two Trains Running was first performed in 1990 and ran on Broadway for four months in 1992. The play in set in Pittsburgh at the end of the 1960s inside Lee’s Restaurant. Memphis Lee is the owner, and the city is exercising its right of eminent domain to take possession of his restaurant. Memphis is determined to get $25,000 for his place, even though its glory days are long past. The city is supposed to make an offer of fair market value for the building, but no one believes Memphis will get what he demands because he is black. Lee’s Restaurant is a hangout for several men in the neighborhood: Wolf, a bookie; Sterling, recently paroled and looking for work; Holloway, a retired painter; West, a wealthy funeral home director; and Hambone, a mentally-challenged man. Risa is Memphis’ waitress, far more interested in chatting with the fellas than doing her job, much to Memphis’ chagrin.

 

Photo: Patrick Evans
 
Throughout the course of the play we learn about how the Hill District where the restaurant is located was once an active, prosperous neighborhood; now it is stagnant with few opportunities and a general malaise of unrest. Many people play the numbers, hoping that their number may come up, which is so unrealistic that it seems logical compared to trusting that their lots in life will improve any other way. The optimism brought by the civil rights movement earlier in the decade has evolved into a more aggressive feeling towards the great social and economic divide between white and black people. Still, the people at Lee’s Restaurant still find plenty to laugh about, their sense of humor about the situation and their faith in a higher power being the support they need to keep going.

 

Photo: Patrick Evans – (left to right) Tony Roseboro (Memphis), Vincent L. Mason (West), Lisa C. Shepherd (Risa), Scott Porter (Sterling), and Truman Winbush Jr. (Holloway)
 
Standouts in this talented ensemble are Tony Roseboro as Memphis, playing the determined business owner with nerve; Mr. Roseboro never makes a false move, and he’s the kind of flawed hero you want to root for; Lisa C. Shepherd is Risa, Memphis’ waitress and the object of much of his scorn; Ms. Shepherd isn’t an easy nut to crack, but when she allows her emotions to bubble to the surface she’s electric to watch; Vincent L. Mason plays West, the funeral director; Mr. Mason speaks deliberately and with care in a way that lets the audience know that he’s aware of how his community holds his success in high regard while also relaying how that kind of pressure can be stifling; last but not least is David Johnson as Hambone, the man-child who constantly shouts, “I want my ham!” Mr. Johnson is hilarious without turning Hambone into a gross caricature of a challenged individual; his continued pursuit of the ham that the grocer cheated him out of nearly ten years before is a comforting daily distraction to the neighborhood. When circumstances around Hambone shift, Ms. Shepherd takes full advance of the moment, her plea on his behalf quite heartfelt and sincere.

The title Two Trains Running is a reverence to Memphis’ hometown which he remembers for the two trains than ran there; he might as well be referencing the two paths he could take in regards to the sale of his business: accept less or fight for more. His fight is akin to that of Cervantes’ Don Quixote battling windmills, a fool’s folly a la “The Impossible Dream,” and this is one area in which Memphis and Hambone are matched; they both fight for what is just and right no matter the catcalls or pressure from the crowd. There’s a lot to respect there and with which many of us can identify; all of this is clear without being overstated by director Patricia Wallace-Winbush.

“Language in this play contains racial epithets that may offend some audience members,” is printed along the bottom on the show’s program; I rolled my eyes at first because I thought it was an unnecessary warning. Are we so politically correct that everything needs a warning label? That being said, the “N” word is used a lot in this play, but it is integral to the story. The “N” word is used as an endearment as well as to cut others down to size, and its pervasiveness is effective in demonstrating a community in which people often tear each other down through their words rather than build each other up, partly I suppose because that is what had been done to them all of their lives. This play is set in a time before rap music and a younger generation reclaimed the word for use with a different intention; here its use still has bite, and the black girlfriend I attended with even mentioned at intermission that it was a bit much even for her. I take that as showing the word’s power and effectiveness of its use in this piece.

 

Photo: Patrick Evans – (top left to right) Guy Jones (Wolf), Vincent L. Mason (West), Tony Roseboro (Memphis), Truman Winbush Jr. (Holloway) – (bottom left to right) David Johnson (Hambone), Lisa C. Shepherd (Risa), and Scott Porter (Sterling)
 

Two Trains Running is the kind of play that takes its time to unfold (running well over two and a half hours including an intermission), painting a vivid picture of a specific place and time with characters that are true to themselves and interact naturally. What the piece lacks in plot it more than makes up for in message: Keep fighting for what is right. This is a sentiment that will never go out of style, and one that we should all remember to live by.

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

Two Trains Running continues through to March 19th 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://pastproductionscolumbus.com/ and tickets purchased via http://m.bpt.me/event/2488083

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

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