Looped (Evolution Theatre Company – Columbus, OH)

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What’s it about?

It’s 1965, and stage and screen star Tallulah Bankhead has seen better days. Suffering the ill-effects of a lifetime of boozing and doping, she is called in to re-record (or “loop”) one line for what would be her final film, Die! Die! My Darling! Based on a true event, Ms. Bankhead makes sure to put the sound engineer and film editor through the ringer before they get what they want out of her, playing up to their expectations of what a quarrelsome and demanding woman she can be. Looped enjoyed a brief run on Broadway in the spring of 2010, garnering Valerie Harper a Tony Award nomination as the beleaguered Tallulah Bankhead.

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Photo: Jerri Shafer – Vicky Welsh Bragg (Tallulah Bankhead) and Jon Osbeck (Danny Miller)

Is it worth seeing?

Looped is the kind of play where the concept is much better than its execution. Who wouldn’t enjoy seeing a comedic piece about a loud-mouthed lush, a star of both stage and screen, showing off her bad behavior? There are plenty of zingers to be had in Matthew Lombardo’s script, but at nearly two hours with an intermission (placed at a particularly contrived moment within the play), there doesn’t seem to be enough there to justify that much of an investment. However, Looped is that rare play that improves greatly in its second half, even if it gets rather maudlin and embarrassingly overwrought dealing with a discussion of homosexuality in the era. Mixing comedy with drama is tricky, but luckily the moments where the balance is completely off are brief and don’t sink the show. This is far from a great work, but, with the right crowd and performers, it’s more good than bad.

Vicky Welsh Bragg makes a fine Tallulah Bankhead, sounding a great deal like the actress, speaking in a low register that must be a challenge. Ms. Bragg is engaging if less biting that one might expect playing a drug-addicted alcoholic, but she is consistently interesting to watch and embodies the proper spirit to make her part work. Jon Osbeck as Danny Miller, the put-upon film editor struggling to corral Ms. Bankhead, performs as beyond irritated from the get-go, not allowing much room to grow all that much more frustrated with Ms. Bankhead’s shenanigans without yelling expletives that I doubt any studio employee would use towards a star, even a drunken one. Part of the problem is in the writing, but Mr. Osbeck is to blame for his entirely false crying scene near the end of the second act. It often feels like Mr. Osbeck thinks that he is part of a duet when it is quite clear that Ms. Bragg and her character is the star here.

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Photo: Jerri Shafer – Jon Osbeck (Danny Miller) and Vicky Welsh Bragg (Tallulah Bankhead)

Technically, the show is quite impressive, with a detailed black, white, and gray set by Jeffrey Gress complete with a boom mike that looks right out of that era. Nitz Brown’s lighting is detailed down to the ever-so-slight reflection of the film being projected (which we don’t see) for Ms. Bankhead to use as a reference for her vocal performance. Rebecca Baygents Turk’s costumes, from Ms. Bankhead’s improbable red gown (looking much like Bette Davis’s frock in All About Eve) to Danny Miller’s high-waisted slacks and slick shoes impressively represent a 1965 as one might imagine it from seeing sitcoms of the era; too perfect to be real, but too defined and attractive to ignore.

Ultimately, Looped misses its target, but not by as much as it could’ve had Evolution’s production not had such a proficient design team and game cast. At its best moments, when Ms. Bragg’s lines elicit honest laughter and Mr. Osbeck‘s exasperated look relaxes a bit in intensity, the production is quite enjoyable, though it takes someone with an appreciation of the era, film making, and that special kind of smoky female brashness to hang on through the more awkwardly written moments (like the ending that feels right out of Casablanca). Note to other playwrights: exercise caution when including excerpts from vastly superior works (in this case, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire) into your script.

My rating: ** 3/4 out of ****

Looped continues through to September 24th in the Van Fleet Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://evolutiontheatre.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**** out of ****

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