In lieu of a full review, I offer up this promotional video I produced for the production. Though the full title is Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Standing Room Only [SRO] is promoting it just as Sweeney Todd.
Sweeney Todd continues through to April 10th in the Van Fleet Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://www.srotheatre.org
It’s a tricky thing to take as established a classic as Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, deconstruct it, and rebuild it into something both familiar and new; this is what Jeffrey Hatcher has done with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, his 2008 adaptation that shifts the focus onto Mr. Edward Hyde as one who is perhaps not entirely evil and Dr. Henry Jekyll who isn’t perhaps all good either. The idea of Jekyll and Hyde with split personalities is a firm part of popular culture, spoofed in Bugs Bunny cartoons and sitcoms to even being the basis for a Broadway musical; Hatcher knows there is no surprise left there, but there certainly is in this version by way of reframing the plot to see it from a different angle. It is this creative reworking of the classic that opens Standing Room Only’s 31st season in an eerily effective production, arriving just in time for Halloween.
Everyone in this small cast of six deserves recognition. Joe Dallacqua plays Dr. Henry Jekyll with suave confidence, cutting a frame not unlike a young Richard Gere; Erica Beimesche plays Elizabeth with fresh-faced naïveté, the typical youth attracted to the bad boy in the form of Mr. Hyde; James Harper is intense and frightening as one of many faces of Edward Hyde, but he’s also effective as the nefarious Dr. Carew; Jordan Estose enjoys playing the fop as Lanyon, but he also gets in on the action as a violent Hyde as well; Catherine Cryan plays the dutiful servant Poole and her other roles with efficiency as well as an unlikely (but fierce) face of Hyde, one scene involving a transformation being particularly physical and impressive; last but not least is Ken Erney as Utterson and a few other roles, serving to help propel the story forward with dignity and stately grace.
Director Patrick McGregor II stages the action all around the audience; this is an environmental production, so the audience is seated on small bleachers all around the main performance space, one of the reasons for the limited seating. When artistic director Dee Shepherd warned everyone to stay in their seats and within a designated area during her introductory speech before the performance, she wasn’t kidding; the actors, props, and set pieces are sometimes just inches away from audience members. Some may find that intrusive, but those people are probably in the minority and wouldn’t have come to such a production anyway. My friend and I were thrilled to feel like we were right there in the middle of the action, and the people across and to the sides of us seemed to agree, their gasps loudly audible as actors would suddenly appear behind them or a violent murder would be enacted within arm’s length. Hyde’s slithery voice can often be heard from several directions at once, not by the use of some fancy sound engineering but because the character is played by many people; there are times when they speak the same lines, a terribly creepy effect when a voice suddenly pops out from behind you from an actor you didn’t know was there.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the rare reimagining of a classic that complements the original rather than seeking to replace or upstage it. The basic concept of separating good from evil and the struggle in the body of one man is still there, but the characterizations and situations all around are modified to tell a different version of this story. Standing Room Only’s production is the kind of show that can help engage an audience with preconceived notions about the static nature of some theatre while also offering something fresh to even the most jaded theatregoer. The decision to have such limited seating may not be the most sound financial decision but it pays off in spades for the privileged few audience members that will catch this production before it’s gone.
I came to Big Fish having not read the 1998 Daniel Wallace novel nor seen the 2003 Tim Burton acclaimed film. It was one of those properties that was recommended to me but that I had never gotten around to exploring. I never attended the short-lived 2013 Broadway production of the musical either as it arrived and disappeared between NYC theatre trips. Aside from listening to the cast recording once, I was about as clean a slate as can be when I attended Shots in the Dark’s production of Big Fish last night in Upper Arlington. Though I don’t have anything Big Fish-related to compare it to, I walked away thoroughly entertained.
With music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa (The Wild Party and The Addams Family) and a book by the film’s screenwriter, John August, Big Fish is the story of Will Bloom (Johnpaul Adams), a newlywed and soon-to-be-father, and his quest to understand his ailing father, Edward (Chris Ceradsky), whose life was told to him in tall tales rather than hard facts. Edward tells stories of being taught how to swim by a mermaid (Catherine Huffman), meeting a circus ringmaster/werewolf named Amos Calloway (Thai Sribanditmongkol), befriending a giant named Karl (Bruce Hoffman), learning of his own death by a witch (Madeline Elizabeth), and meeting the love of his life, Sandra (Kristen Basore). As he digs deeper into his father’s life, he learns secrets about Edward’s high school sweetheart, Jenny Hill (Nicole Fowles, with Taryn Huffman playing her in flashbacks) and how he worked to save his hometown.
Chris Ceradsky as Edward Bloom plays older without using any silly aging makeup, preferring to transform using his posture and gait. He’s affable and sweet but remains an enigma, much like the character. Chris inhabits this role more easily than he did in Shots in the Dark’s Reasons to Be Pretty a few weeks back, but he still seems a bit uncomfortable in his own skin. His singing voice suffers in many scenes, but I have it on authority from the director that he lost his voice earlier in the week and is just now getting it back. The audience was rooting for him though, and one needs only to look in his twinkling eyes during the finale to know that his emotions were real.
Johnpaul Adams as Will Bloom plays frustrated well, and he rides a fine line trying not to overpower Chris with his stronger singing voice. Objectively, Johnpaul looks to be older in actual age than Chris as his father, but they work well together at creating that sometimes conflict-ridden familial relationship. Johnpaul has great timing, knowing which lines will bring laughs and how best to deliver them.
Kristen Basore is Sandra Bloom, even more delightful and striking than she was in Reasons to Be Pretty in which she also played Chris’s love interest. She also is probably younger than Johnpaul as her son, but she pulls off the older maternal persona like a pro, particularly affecting during a scene in which she and Johnpaul dance. Her voice is clear and singing voice strong, and she really goes for the open-mouthed kiss with Chris during the scene when he tracks her down at college and proposes! This may be a strange thing to comment on, but Kristen also looks strong and sure-footed in heels, more secure along some of her less experienced co-stars that wobble ever so slightly from time to time.
Thai Sribanditmongkol is a standout as Amos Calloway and many other small roles, his voice being one that is firm and carries well on the stage. His versatility is remarkable, and I hope to see him in future productions. Also noteworthy is Lynn Moyer playing Zacky Price and other small parts, fearless in her attempts to elicit laughter from the audience and always succeeding.
Bruce Huffman is a lovable Karl, navigating his stilts as the giant with grace; his daughters Taryn and Catherine Huffman bring eye candy to their numerous parts, and their joy in being in the production is apparent. Madeline Elizabeth as the witch and Nicole Fowles as Jenny Hill round out the proficient supporting cast and are also game at dancing and doubling in other small parts. Choreographer Gigi Cook Thompson brings life to several dance scenes, the funniest involving one that apparently causes fish to leap from the sea!
Siblings Carly and Tanner Sells also deserve honorable mentions for their numerous small parts. The youngest members of the cast, Carly and Tanner look to be having just as good a time as everyone else; Tanner is particularly cute in a lion costume.
Director Patrick McGregor II has really outdone himself in staging and designing this beautiful production, with bold Technicolor lighting and long drapes strategically placed. The staging made full use of the extreme sides of the stage and extended out in the auditorium for a few scenes. Limited set pieces were used throughout, instead relying on lighting changes and placement around the stage to evoke changing locations. It all came together beautifully, and the cast was game at keeping the tone consistent and the energy up. There are times when the actors’ voices were drowned out by the music, but otherwise the sound was more than adequate to support the storytelling.
There is a lot of fantasy at play in Big Fish as well as a message about being true to oneself; “Be the Hero of Your Story,” as one of the songs states. Truth isn’t the same as fact, and Will’s realization that the truth about his father’s nature and spirit were always on display even if the facts weren’t is an important message. I guess we all have a hard time accepting that are parents are regular people with just as many strengths and weaknesses as anyone else. My favorite song from the score, “Fight the Dragons,” should be everyone’s anthem for a purpose-filled life. Big Fish has wholesomeness and charm to spare, and I hope its life and reputation continues to grow; this production shows that the elements are there for an entertaining and memorable evening.
To those unfamiliar with Upper Arlington High School and the location of its Little Theatre (like I was), I offer some advice. The high school is indeed located at 1650 Ridgeview Road, but you’ll want to circle the block, pass the sports field, and enter the parking area on Mount Holyoke Road to what appears to be the rear of the school. I didn’t see any signs signifying where to go or what entrance to use (I hope they have some set up outside for the remaining performances), but I entered a lobby near the parking area where there was a large taxidermied bear to the left. If you see that bear, keep walking forward and you’ll pass the larger theatre and a bunch of posters for past productions in the high school. You’ll eventually get to the Little Theatre on your left and the ticket and concession booth just past it. Trust me, the show is worth the bit of extra effort to find it.
*** out of ****
Big Fish continues through to August 1st in the Little Theatre in Upper Arlington High School at 1650 Ridgeview Road in Upper Arlington (20 minutes or less from most anywhere in Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.shotsinthedarkitc.org/#!bigfish/cekv
Unhappy people sure do talk a lot and still not really get across what they mean; that’s what I took away from Shots in the Dark Independent Theatre Company’s production of Neil LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty. Oh, and young straight couples can be loud, obnoxious, and superficial – who knew, right? First performed in 2008 and then given a limited run on Broadway in 2009, Reasons to Be Pretty examines the lives of four twentysomething friends and how their lives are effected when an offhand comment is taken the wrong way. Everyone has experienced the feeling of being misunderstood and having stuck one’s foot in one’s mouth, but this group of two couples (Greg and Steph – Kent and Carly) have a lot to learn about saying what they mean and meaning what they say.
Chris Ceradsky is Greg, the well-meaning boyfriend who inadvertently gives a backhanded compliment to his girlfriend in response to his friend praising the gorgeous face of a new co-worker. He says he is okay with the “regular” face of his girlfriend, though he maddeningly doesn’t elaborate on the things he does like about her (like he should have – such a dolt!). Chris is a curious performer, all limbs and gangliness, a cross between Ray Bolger and Alan Alda. His hands are always moving and expressing, though he sometimes comes off as fidgety and lacking for some bit of business to do with his hands. Chris needs to slow down just a bit in his delivery and listen more to his cast members. So much of acting is listening and reacting, and too often it felt like Chris was swinging the bat before the ball reached him. It doesn’t help that he is playing such a weak character for much of the play, but his arc of growth ends up being quite satisfying in the end with a well delivered monologue. He’s the backbone of the play and in every scene; it can’t be easy, but Chris succeeds more than he fails.
Kristin Basore is Steph, Greg’s “regular” faced girlfriend. She starts the play off cussing a mean streak, and she has no problem appearing to be a harpy. She is meant to start off as mousy, dressed in jeans and an unflattering top, and then go through a transformation decked out in heels and a smart skirt, but a pretty girl is a pretty girl. Steph has personality and wit, no doubt cultivated as a result of not relying on being the prettiest girl in the room; still, like anyone, she doesn’t want her perceived shortcomings spoken about so casually, especially by her boyfriend. I believed Kristin in the part, though I can also see the part being modulated more to not always be a ten on the bitch meter. It’s too easy to write her off as a bitch, as Kent does, because it doesn’t require any introspection; Steph is probably like most women – insecure about being insecure.
Jacob Sabinsky plays Kent, the superficial jerk that talks all about body parts but nothing of anything deeper. The character is fairly despicable, and yet Jacob is handsome and appealing – a smart casting choice as he has a way of making what Kent says palatable to a degree. Jacob came off as the most relaxed and confident performer in the play, and he was frighteningly engaged during a fight scene in the second act that was so intense that I looked away. When I looked back, Jacob was yelling at the imaginary crowd (the scene takes place at a baseball field) and making eye contact with me and other people in the audience. Talk about an uncomfortable moment, but it was exactly right and took talent to pull off.
Caroline Rose Thoma plays Carly, the pregnant pretty girl wife of Kent. Her character never has anything smart to say, as if pointing out how her beauty perhaps kept her from developing other parts of her personality. Caroline seems miscast but applies herself well, her character’s insecurity feeling genuine even if her devastation is not. Caroline looks like she is still in high school, smart skirt and pumps notwithstanding, and she doesn’t seem to have experienced a real heartbreak yet, or at least that’s how it seemed to me. Her apparent inexperience in acting worked for her in a way; her sometimes stilted line readings gave her an otherworldly presence, perhaps unintended but still interesting.
Reasons to Be Pretty is staged in the round in the wonderfully small Green Room at The Garden Theatre. Director Patrick McGregor II shoots for a minimalist approach and it scores, with the barest essentials needed to convey locations on display when needed. The funniest set piece is that of the bed that opens the show, which is nothing more than a frame with a comforter on it – no pillow, no mattress. Talk about uncomfortable, but I’m sure that’s the point; the hard bed is a perfect visual metaphor for the state of Greg and Steph’s relationship. The limited lighting works well, and I liked the confessional-type area where each of the four main characters have The Real World-like confessional monologues. I didn’t like the music that would play between scenes as it was too on the nose, commenting on the action or mood in a very paint-by-numbers way or just randomly trying to evoke the ’80s-early ’90s. I’m sure some quirky instrumental would’ve worked better and reminded people that it was a comedy, easy to forget when some of the funniest lines fly by at breakneck speed.
Neil LaBute writes dialogue that is often deceptively insightful while also being littered with expletives. In an effort to write more like how people talk, his work can sometimes sound a bit rough and unpolished. Still, Reasons to Be Pretty is a show that nearly demands a discussion afterwards, and it’s the perfect show for couples to attend with other couples. Anyone who has ever been in a relationship will recognize aspects of an ex or themselves in the characters, not exactly a good thing but telling nonetheless. I know I had a long, thoughtful discussion of the characters and situations after attending last night with my friend Jocelyn, and we were both glad we went. It isn’t a perfect production, but it’s thought provoking and entertaining – an admirable effort by a team of young performers still learning and growing.