West Side Story (Columbus Children’s Theatre – Columbus, OH)


How lucky am I to be able to see full productions of the two biggest Broadway hits of the 1957-1958 season all in the same week? One night I get to see The Music Man at Weathervane Playhouse in Newark, and the next night I’m enjoying Columbus Children’s Theatre’s West Side Story! Both are now revered as classics, were made into very popular and faithfully adapted films, and for well over fifty years have been performed thousands of times a year all over the country from high schools to regional theatres. One can’t really be considered a fan of musicals without becoming acquainted with these evergreens; their songs pop up all the time in popular culture, and chances are you’ve heard some of them even if you didn’t know from where they originated.

Photo: David Heasley

Meredith Willson’s The Music Man was the big Tony Award winner in 1958 and the longer-running hit, but West Side Story, with a searing Leonard Bernstein score, lyrics by the up-and-coming Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents, and choreography courtesy of the legendary Jerome Robbins, has emerged as the more serious classic. Inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the action has been transplanted to the Upper West Side of New York City in the 1950s as rival gangs, the Jets (who are white) and the Sharks (who are Puerto Rican), fight for dominance. Caught in the crosshairs are Tony, a sometime member of the Jets, and Maria, the sister of the leader of the Sharks, Bernardo. Tony and Maria meet at a school dance, fall in love, and try to stop the gangs from fighting to discover things will only get worse before they begin to get better. With nearly every now song an established classic (“Maria,” “Tonight,” “Somewhere,” “I Feel Pretty,” and “America” to name but a few), West Side Story continues to capture the heart of each new generation, thanks to the 1961 film and the play’s continued popularity. This current production, featuring Columbus Children’s Theatre’s Summer Pre-Professional Company of performers ages sixteen to twenty-two, is about as engaging and rousing a production as one is likely to find, “pre-professional” or not.

Photo: David Heasley

These Jets and Sharks dance, fight, and spit with equal intensity (stage combat aided by William Goldsmith), and each performer appears fully cocked and ready to attack anyone who gets in their way. I remember some snickering from my classmates when we watched the movie in high school during the opening dance sequence; no one would dare to scoff at these Jets and Sharks, especially once they see them believably kick and punch each other to the ground! It’s interesting to note that all but two of the Jets and Sharks are wearing identical black Converse Chuck Taylor All Star shoes, a nice visual reminder that they have so much more in common than they seem to realize.

Photo: David Heasley

As sweet and innocent as Tony (Andy Simmons) and Maria (Elizabeth Blanquera) are in this production, they can’t help but appear less exciting when stacked next to the excellent supporting cast: Austin Ryan Backus as Riff exudes confidence and swagger; Matthew J. Mayer II makes an intense Bernardo; Odette Gutierrez del Arroyo is a firecracker as Anita but also heartbreaking; Will Thompson plays Doc like a wise, concerned older brother, making an impact in a part usually ignored; and Charlotte Brown should be watched closely in the small role of Rosalia, especially for her hilarious facial expressions during the dance at the gym.

Photo: David Heasley

The only serious flaw in this production occurs during the ballet (which is not in the film). This ballet leads into “Somewhere” and begins strongly with Riff and Bernardo reappearing after the violent end of the first act; then, inexplicably, a little boy climbs out of Maria’s bedroom window, down over the fence, sings “Somewhere” at Tony and Maria (now dressed in just a slip), and then scampers back up to from where he came. Though staged a bit differently, this addition of the character “Kiddo” and reassignment of the song was made by original book writer Arthur Laurents for the 2009 Broadway revival he directed; it was widely criticized then, and it’s inclusion in this production is a glaring sore spot. It has nothing to do with the ability of the kid playing Kiddo; the moment comes off as schmaltzy and like a lecture to the characters, bringing to mind this verse in Isaiah: “And a little child shall lead them.” I began to wonder why a little kid was squatting in Maria’s bedroom and if someone should let her know.

Photo: David Heasley

Luckily everything gets back on track when some of the Jets sing “Gee, Officer Krumpke,” far funnier with lyrics and gestures that were greatly toned down for the film. This is one of several scenes in which Jordan Feliciano as Baby John is a riot, donning a mop on his head and squeaky voice. As humorous as this sequence is, Ms. Gutierrez del Arroyo’s “A Boy Like That” that follows it is conversely serious and impassioned. Songs were moved around for the film to provide a more consistent tone for that medium, but the flow of the original play works marvelously on the stage.

Photo: David Heasley

Director David Bahgat incorporates many design elements from the film (unavoidable with its popularity) and expands upon them, the Jets costumed in blue and yellow and the Sharks in purple and red; the lighting is also used in this color motif effectively without being too obvious. Mr. Bahgat keeps everything moving at a brisk pace (save for the aforementioned break in the ballet), and he guides his cast into making each line sound like it is theirs and theirs alone. I’ve seen several productions were the actors copy each line reading as it was done in the film; that isn’t the case here at all, and many times so much more humor and character comes across because of it. He keeps his actors moving all around the audience, maintaining an immediacy that a lesser director wouldn’t bother trying to create. The marvelous set designed by Jeffrey Gress represents all of the different locations needed for the story, elements of which extend out around the audience, making this what I would consider an environmental staging; a low chain link fence separates the audience from the cast on the left and right sides, Doc’s storefront is between the center and right seating areas, actors often enter the center rows of the audience and sit alongside them, and (depending on where one is sitting) Chino (Frank Ruiz) can be seen stealthily sneaking down the alley between the center and left section of seats leading up to the intense climax.

Photo: David Heasley

The four-piece band led by Zac DelMonte kicks into high gear during the “Tonight” quintet and rumble, though the limited orchestration takes a little time to get used to at the start of the show. Nicolette Montana does a fine job of recreating iconic moments from Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, adding and changing bits here and there to suit the space and production demands; aside from a moment during the prologue when the Jets shout “Ha!” and jut their hands out into the audience, Ms. Montana’s work is commendable and adds so much to this overall splendid production.

Photo: David Heasley

Except for a few missteps (mostly minor), Columbus Children’s Theatre’s West Side Story is nearly impossibly good. With action occurring from all sides of the theatre and an energetic cast that knows this show like seasoned pros, this West Side Story is one to see no matter how many times you’ve seen the play or movie before. Most of the performers appear to be exactly in the right age range of the characters they are playing, from late teens to early twenties, but this is the exception rather than the rule when compared to the film or Broadway productions of this show. The “us verses them” struggle between the Jets and the Sharks is still relevant today; one need only to watch the daily news to see how fear of the “other” continues to incite violence and be used politically to pit people against one another. 

*** 3/4 out of ****

West Side Story continues through to July 17th at Columbus Children’s Theatre located at 512 Park Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.columbuschildrenstheatre.org/west-side-story.html

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Sweeney Todd (Standing Room Only [SRO] – Columbus, OH)

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

A Little Night Music (Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)

It takes a lot of drive and talent to direct a show with a large cast involving an enormous set and make it all seem effortless. The challenge is even greater when the show is a musical by the great Stephen Sondheim. It’s for these reasons that Short North Stage is fortunate to have Michael Licata on hand to guide their production of A Little Night Music, a confection high in style and grace, and the opening show of their new season.

A Little Night Music, with a score by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, premiered on Broadway in 1973, won six Tony Awards (including Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book), ran for a year and a half, was adapted into a rather poor 1977 film, and has gone on to become one of Sondheim’s most beloved and accessible works. Based on Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), A Little Night Music is about middle aged widower Frederik Egerman and his much younger wife, Anne; his son from his previous marriage, Henrik; Petra, the Egermans’ saucy maid; Desiree Armfeldt, a successful touring actress and Frederik’s former mistress; Desiree’s daughter Fredrika; Desiree’s mother, Madame Armfeldt; Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, Desiree’s current boyfriend; and Charlotte Malcolm, the count’s wife who wants to take her husband back from Desiree. All of these people find themselves at Madame Armfeldt’s estate one weekend where relationships are rekindled while others are broken. It is a sweetly romantic comedy from which came the song “Send in the Clowns,” arguably Sondheim’s most commercial hit, though it also includes such penetrating compositions as “A Weekend in the Country,” “Every Day a Little Death,” and “The Miller’s Son.”

 

Photo: Heather Wack
 
You know you’re seeing something special when you can recognize so many faces from other shows around Columbus playing small or mute roles in this production when they are usually leads (I’m looking at you Nick Hardin, Doug Joseph, Chris Rusen, and Kristen Basore). Everyone on stage here is perfectly cast and on their A game; the moment that Jennifer Barnaba (Anne) is seen next to her on-stage husband, Mark A. Harmon (Frederik), I thought, “She’s too young for him,” and that’s one of the points of the story! The cast seems to enjoy grandly prancing around the elegant set by Ray Zupp, delicately designed with patterns and pieces evocative of a more tasteful period. The orchestra sounds lush and full, firmly conducted by musical director and orchestrator Lloyd Butler; the players are behind a screen on stage, their silhouettes comfortingly visible in the background.

 

Photo: Heather Wack – Marya Spring (Desiree) and Mark A. Harmon (Frederik)
 
Mark A. Harmon (Frederik) and Marya Spring (Desiree) have sparkling chemistry as the lovers who rekindle their romance, and they both have commanding stage presence. The play has many other delightful characters, but it is the moments with Mr. Harmon and Ms. Spring that I treasure and of which I found myself wanting to see more.

 

Photo: Heather Wack – Linda Dorff (Madame Armfeldt)
 
Linda Dorff (Madame Armfeldt) is wry and direct in her wheelchair-bound role, and her rendition of “Liasons” is beguiling as she keeps a firm grasp on her emotions, releasing her grip every so slightly in a few moments; it’s a subtle shift but highly effective.
 
Photo: Adam Zeek (zeekcreative.com) – Eli Brickey (Petra)
 
Eli Brickey (Petra) all but stops the show with her rousing rendition of “The Miller’s Son,” though every scene in which she appears has a bit more kick than it would’ve otherwise. Her scenes with JJ Parkey (Henrik) bristle with sexual energy. Mr. Parkey plays repressed well, even persevering through the score’s weakest moment (in my opinion, mind you) – his section of the otherwise charming “Now/Later/Soon.”

 

Photo: Heather Wack – Jennifer Barnaba (Anne) and JJ Parkey (Henrik)
 
There is an odd audio anomaly that is worth pointing out; all of the voices, no matter where the actors are on stage, come solely out of a far left speaker. It’s a disconcerting sound problem, especially when the orchestra can be heard so clearly across the stage. I hope this was an issue just with the performance I attended and not a design flaw.

Short North Stage’s A Little Night Music is a very good production of a very good show, and its leisurely pace suits the material, though at around three hours it sometimes feels a bit slow. It’s a real testament to Short North Stage to have some of the biggest talents in the area on their stage all at once. I’ve always found the show itself to be second tier Sondheim (which means it is better than first tier most anyone else), but it’s that rare musical that improves in its second act. There is no shortage of talent or beauty on display in this production, one of the largest and most ambitious I’ve ever seen in Columbus not part of a touring production.

*** out of ****

A Little Night Music continues through to November 1st 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/467

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

Into the Woods (Dare to Defy Productions – Dayton, OH)

I understand why Into the Woods has become a modern classic. Since its premiere on Broadway in 1987, Into the Woods has been recorded for television broadcast, toured, had several subsequent major productions in London and New York, been licensed for production by tens of thousands of high schools and community theatres, and was finally transformed into a star-filled 2014 feature film starring Meryl Streep. The show has a terrific score with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, an unpredictable but intriguing book by James Lapine, and requires a large cast of talented performers to pull off; Dare to Defy Productions presents their Into the Woods for just one weekend at the Victoria Theatre in downtown Dayton, paying justice to the material with distinct qualities that make it worth seeing even if one has already seen dozens of productions of the show in the past.

 

Photo: Sydney Fleming – Tori Kocher (Little Red Ridinghood) and Ray Zupp (The Baker)
 

Into the Woods tells of famous storybook and fairy tale characters inhabiting a land together and how their lives change in strange and new ways once their paths cross. There is a witch, a baker and his wife, Jack and his beanstalk, Cinderella and her family, Rapunzel, and Little Red Ridinghood; they all have desires and lives that are derailed by wolves, giants, and circumstances involving death and infidelity. Even though the story meanders quite a bit in the second act and comes off as a little preachy (must so many songs in one show have some kind of moral message?), the score includes such classics as “Children Will Listen,” “Stay With Me,” “No One is Alone,” “Last Midnight,” and “Giants in the Sky,” all songs forever to be performed in auditions by budding performers. This production is fortunate to have John Benjamin directing and conducting a talented team of musicians that bring the score to life with the kind of brisk tempo the material requires.

A notable surprise is the song “Our Little World”; it was written for the London production but is not always performed. It was in the 2002 Broadway revival that I saw with Vanessa Williams as The Witch, but it was not in the film. Though listed in the program erroneously as “Rapunzel,” the song gives The Witch (and especially Rapunzel) another moment to shine and examine the complexities of their relationship. I had forgotten about the song’s existence until it appeared like a gift in this production.

Director Mathys Herbert and set designer Ray Zupp (he also plays The Baker to great effect with a clear voice and good diction) have transformed this play by using the theatre as its own setting, creating a kind of “found theatre” approach by employing so many types of media and backstage equipment in this production. No attempt has been made to recreate the woods in the story, the stage appearing to be a combination of scenic elements from various prior productions with suitcases, trunks and such items as a Victrola all around the set; it all looks more like Follies than Into the Woods, but I liked it. A rolling ladder with a platform at the top represents the tree where Cinderella’s mother is buried; an overhead projector is used to project an image of the wolf on a screen for the baker to slash through and rescue Little Red Ridinghood and her grandmother; animated silhouettes represent a large eye of the female giant to great effect. The mix match of design extends to the characters as well; the stepmother (Amy Askins, as svelte and statuesque as any runway model) is dressed in a sparkling dress as if she walked out of “Real Housewives of New York,” while Cinderella’s father is a puppet that looks a lot like one from Avenue Q, and Milky White is a puppet controlled in plain sight a la War Horse (though curiously without legs, appearing to float on udders). It’s all terribly inventive and fresh, and bravo to Herbert and Zupp in pulling it off, with great assistance via the atmospheric lighting by Sammy Jelinek, puppet builder Danielle Robertson, and costume designer Carolyn McDermott.

 

Photo: Lauren Schierloh (edited by Sydney Fleming) – Natalie Sanders (Cinderella)
 
The cast is uniformly good, though there were some notable standouts; Natalie Sanders is a wistful and longing Cinderella, with a thrilling voice; Evan Benjamin is a buoyant Jack, with athletic movement akin to an older Billy Elliot and a sweet innocence that is charming; Kelsey Hopkins brings humor to The Baker’s Wife more than I’ve seen before, though when she lets her hair down (literally and figuratively) she is dramatically effecting (her performance of “Maybe They’re Really Magic,” a great song with clever lyrics that was not in the film version, is precise and performed with exactly the right tone); Jackie Darnell has a splendidly operatic voice as Rapunzel, and projects more than just the sad victim as the role is often portrayed; Tori Kocher reinvents Little Red Ridinghood as a physically developed, precocious vixen, loud and fierce; Kocher is a great foil for The Wolf, played by Bobby Mitchum, who is also Cinderella’s Prince, classically handsome and unafraid to poke fun at that fact; and last but not least is Mimi Klipstine as The Witch, wry and enjoyably abrasive, her performance of “Last Midnight” particularly enjoyable.

 

Photo: Lauren Schierloh (edited by Sydney Fleming) – AJ Breslin (Rapunzel’s prince)
 
I can’t say I was a fan of the obtrusive masks worn by The Wolf and The Witch (before her transformation); they were quite stylized and well-executed but covered too much of the performers’ faces and were set off of their heads in a way that cast shadows with the lighting that often hid their mouths. Still, that is a relatively minor criticism in a production so striking and original. It’s a shame that it gets to haunt the classic Victoria Theatre for only three performances, only two left later today at the time of this writing. This Into the Woods dispenses with trying to cater to the kiddies, feeling delightfully more adult though still appropriate for the middle school crowd. Even if you’ve seen it before (and if you’re reading this, you probably have), you really should catch Dare to Defy’s production of Into the Woods before it’s gone.

***/ out of ****

Into the Woods continues through to September 5th in the Victoria Theatre at 138 North Main Street in Dayton (a little over an hour outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.d2defy.com/