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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Cats (Columbus Children’s Theatre & Columbus Moving Company – Columbus, OH)

 


Cats, one of the longest-running and most popular stage musicals worldwide, has always been a bit of a puzzlement to many a theatre fan, myself included. The show doesn’t follow the usual structure of a musical or stick to any of its conventions, yet it has proven to be incredibly popular and successful. Adapted from T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats with music supplied by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cats was one of the British mega musicals that took over Broadway during the 1980s. In all the show ran for eighteen years on Broadway and has toured the country since the mid ’80s, a favorite for families long before Disney’s The Lion King appeared on the horizon in 1997.

 

Photo: David Heasley – (left to right) Grace Johnson (Jemima) and Devin Judge (Munkustrap)
 

Cats is an assemblage of various character numbers with only the barest semblance of a plot; its main assets are a catchy score, character design, and dancing. It isn’t a real musical in the traditional sense, but it has surely drawn many people to the theatre over the last thirty-five years who may now owe their initial curiosity about live theatre to this show; in that way, Cats is a force musical theatre scholars can’t deny, one that has helped to foster generations of theatregoers who perhaps moved on to more serious and deeper pastures musically. The show’s flagship song “Memory” is now a standard, one that even the staunch theatre cognoscenti (those that count Cats along with other British juggernauts like Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon as somehow inferior works) can’t discount entirely. 

  

Photo: David Heasley – William Macke (Skimbleshanks)
 


Cats has now arrived via Columbus Children’s Theatre and Columbus Moving Company at the historic Lincoln Theatre in a production that is elaborate with energy to spare. Here the cats frolic and scamp about, sometimes even through the aisles around the audience. This production replicates so many of the costumes and bits of stage business quite familiar to fans of the show while making some notable and welcome changes that aid in making it the kind of local event that commands attention. Even if you’ve seen Cats many times before, this production is still very much worth your time and attention.

 

Photo: David Heasley – (left to right) Rumpleteazer (Sara Tuohy) and Mungojerrie (Kyle Swearingen)
 
Highlights of this production include seeing Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer (Kyle Swearingen and Sara Tuohy respectively) perform their number with added acrobatic feats; William Macke shimmy his way around the stage as Skimbleshanks, The Railway Cat; Ryan Stem’s solemn and solid portrayal of Old Deuteronomy; Stewart R. Bender performing double duty as jolly Bustopher Jones and the heartbreakingly infirm Gus, The Theatre Cat; and last but far from least, Kendra Lucas as Grizabella, The Glamour Cat, eloquently delivering “Memory” as if the words are occurring to her for the first time, more than matching the best interpretations of that famous song.

 

Photo: David Heasley – Kendra Lucas (Grizabella)
 
Director Ryan Scarlata sticks close to the feel and staging of the 1998 film version produced for television and video release, which appears to have been a valuable reference. Still, some of the best moments are when Mr. Scarlata and choreographer Jeffrey Fouch (who also adeptly performs as Quaxo and Mr. Mistoffelees) veer away from what we expect from Cats, incorporating more gymnastics and acrobatics into the presentation. Michael Brewer’s decrepit circus set fits the material far better in my mind than the traditional junkyard, as the various musical sequences feel more like circus or vaudeville acts than alley performances. Brendan Michna’s layered lighting serves to enhance each scene and support the excellent craftsmanship of the many talented people working behind the scenes to make sure the makeup, costumes, and wigs are just right.

 

Photo: David Heasley – (left to right) Krista Lively Stauffer (Jellylorum) and Stewart R. Bender (Gus)
 
The only aspect of this production that is sometimes disappointing is that of the music, which is a pretty big deal for a musical. I’m sure it’s no fault of musical director Jonathan Collura as he never missteps in his accompaniment, but only so much can come across without the proper instrumentation. Many numbers sound more like elevator Muzak than what should be playing alongside the action on stage.

 

Photo: David Heasley
 
Columbus Children’s Theatre and Columbus Moving Company have done a remarkable job mounting Cats with production values that meet or exceed what we usually see from national tours when they pass through Columbus. It really says something when I find myself enjoying a production of a show of which I’m not particularly fond, but that is exactly what happened in this case. Don’t let the 150-minute running time listed on CCT’s website scare you off; it actually runs two hours including the intermission though no songs are missing or are abridged (aside from “Growltiger’s Last Stand” and perhaps longer dance sequences that pass without notice). Cats is still a show that makes many a theatre fan roll their eyes, but I found myself humming the tunes to “The Rum Tum Tugger” and “Skimbleshanks The Railway Cat” as well as the ubiquitous “Memory” for days afterwards.

***/ out of ****

Cats continues through to May 15th in the Lincoln Theatre located at 769 East Long Street, and more information can be found at http://www.columbuschildrenstheatre.org/cats.html

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Imagine Productions – Columbus, OH)

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is one of the crowned jewels of musical theatre, and is quite possibly musician and lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece (with proper credit due to the book by Hugh Wheeler, of course). Since premiering on Broadway in 1979, this show has been broadcast, revived, adapted into a hit film, and licensed for countless performances all across the country; its score has entered the lexicon of great showtunes with selections like “The Worst Pies in London”, “Pretty Women”, “Not While I’m Around”, and “Johanna” being particularly haunting, often recorded, and used in many an audition. Columbus’s Imagine Productions is now tackling this piece after their sterling production of Thoroughly Modern Millie a few months ago, a production better than the show probably deserved. Alas, the situation is quite the opposite this time around.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is about a barber previously known as Benjamin Barker who has just been released after fifteen years in prison on a trumped up charge, returning to London with revenge on his mind. Judge Turpin is the man who took away Todd’s daughter, Johanna, and caused the apparent death of his wife, Lucy. Todd returns to his former lodgings above Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop and starts up his barber business again, though wielding his beloved straight razors with deadly results. Across his path come Anthony, who rescued Sweeney at sea and falls in love with his daughter; Pirelli, a scheming charlatan and his assistant, Tobias; a beggar woman, always lurking about; and Beadle Bamford, Judge Turpin’s valet.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
Something odd is going on with Keith Robinson as Sweeney Todd, a part for which he has the voice and stature. He lacks menace and bite in the part, coming across as friendly instead of fiendish. Why does he smile so much? Surely his exaggerated makeup and odd costume don’t help, as he appears to be Bea Arthur dressed up as Frankenstein’s monster for a very special episode of “Maude”. Mr. Robinson comes alive in the part only sporadically, talented as he is, and I hate to say I found the same to be true (though to a lesser extent) with Jesika Lehner as Mrs. Lovett. Ms. Lehner brings a sexiness to the part that is not unwelcome (I’m not sure there is anything Ms. Lehner can do to avoid that other than to wear a burlap sack), but key moments during her first meeting with Sweeney Todd and the finale are missing beats in which the audience gets a peek into the devious machinations going on in her mind. It’s almost as if both Mr. Robinson and Ms. Lehner are afraid to be truly devilish and repugnant, and it’s a shame to see their obvious talents not focused properly on these roles, one of many things I blame on the director.

The orchestra sounds particularly divine as conducted by Tyler Rogols with musical direction by Ashley Woodard (Imagine consistently has one of the best – if not THE best – group of musicians to play at their shows in Columbus), but the sound of the music almost always drowns out the singing! What’s worse is that some of the performers don’t appear to be properly mic’d or amplified, particularly Tobias (Johnny Robison) whose entire performance is almost completely inaudible; Jesika Lehner’s mic cuts in and out throughout “God, That’s Good” depending on what direction she is facing, deeply impairing her performance as Mrs. Lovett through no fault of her own. I’m not sure exactly what is going on with the sound design, but someone needs to reevaluate things – adjust EQ, replace some microphones, or steer the vocals to a separate set of speakers; so many lines and lyrics are lost because of the varying sound issues.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
The two standout performances from this production come from the unlikeliest of places (at least to me) – Elizabeth Zimmerman as Johanna and Kent Stuckey as Judge Turpin. Ms. Zimmerman has an incredibly strong and high singing voice and isn’t hampered by the sound issues, and Mr. Stuckey has a deep gruffness to his voice that is powerful and disturbingly sexy; one almost wouldn’t blame Johanna for picking this Judge Turpin over the squeaky-clean and rather wimpy Anthony (Justin King, who sings beautifully but needs to lose the blue neck kerchief). Honorable mention goes to Brian Horne as quite a fancy and foppish Pirelli, though his performance is also compromised by the poor sound in the scene leading up to his murder; it’s another scene where it isn’t clear what exactly he said to bring about his demise. Ryan Kopycinsky is also a fine Beadle Bamford, particularly funny in the scene where he sings parlor songs when Mrs. Lovett is trying to get rid of him.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
Director Ryan Scarlata doesn’t appear to have a firm grasp on how best to handle a show of this size and scale as many sequences (“Poor Thing”, the contest scene with Pirelli, the scenes leading up to and into “A Little Priest” and “God, That’s Good”, and the finale) are difficult to decipher unless one already knows the story (the abduction and rape of Lucy is particularly obscure). I can’t pinpoint exactly where the problem lies in each instance in which the plot isn’t coming across, but surely the minimalist set (just some scaffolding and a few props here and there, though Mrs. Lovett does hang a sign once her shop has been revitalized – and leaves it up even when scenes play out that take place elsewhere) and the lighting cues which change abruptly don’t help the situation, nor does the sound. Some members of the ensemble are also overacting terribly, sticking out like they escaped from an asylum with no one there to reign them in.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
A major misstep is having what appears to be the specter of Lucy (Candice Kight, appearing quite ethereal) appear onstage whenever Sweeney commits a murder. Ms. Kight leans in and blows red confetti in place of blood when someone’s throat is slashed (which is a neat idea), but her presence makes absolutely no sense as Lucy is found to be alive later in the show! “Who’s that girl?” I heard people question around me, and I wondered myself until I realized what was going on. When it is revealed that the beggar woman (Michelle Weiser, who projects too much health to be a homeless beggar to me) is Lucy, it doesn’t come across properly because of the presence of Ms. Kight throughout the play. It’s another example of how this production has moments that are only clear to people that know the show intimately while alienating that very same audience at the same time! I don’t even want to go into how the “dead” people simply walk off stage and behind a curtain, making it difficult to suspend disbelief that anyone is in any real danger, something necessary for this show to work.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a brilliant show, but this production fails to do it justice. The woman next to me kept checking her program, presumably to see how many songs were left until intermission and then how many until the show was over, and that should not be the case with such an superlative piece. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing so many members of this cast in other shows, and it breaks my heart to see so much talent on the stage go to waste. This isn’t a disaster of a production, just a dishearteningly droll and undistinguished one, the first time I can say I’ve been so disappointed in a show by Imagine Productions.

** out of ****

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street continues through to October 11th at Wall Street located at 144 North Wall Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.imaginecolumbus.org/sweeney-todd.html