Until He Wasn’t (MadLab – Columbus, OH)

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What’s it about?

Until He Wasn’t concerns four strangers connected by one man: Colin Bayley. Colin is attentive, sexy, sensitive – the perfect guy to each of his former lovers commiserating about their time with him; that is, until he wasn’t. As the evening progresses, each member of the group divulges just how deep their connection to each other goes – all because of one man.

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) Laura Spires (Raya), Tenille (Jenn Feather Youngblood), Will Macke (Gavin), and Kasey Meininger (Natalie)

Is it worth seeing?

When I first entered the MadLab Theatre to see how the seating had been completely rearranged to present this show in the round, I knew Until He Wasn’t was going to be special. I didn’t plan on how involving the piece would ultimately be, as the writing by Patrick McLaughlin can be interpreted as either dramatic or cynically comical all depending on the way the audience chooses to interpret it; there were many moments were certain groups would laugh at a particular moment whereas other parts of the audience were solemnly quiet. The set pieces are minimal and never in danger of blocking any of the action, and director Audrey Rush takes care to spread the action out so there doesn’t appear to be a bad vantage point.

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) Laura Spires (Raya), Rob Philpott (Colin), and Kasey Meininger (Natalie)

This is one hell of a cast working through some rough material, and it’s quickly apparent that this is not their first time at the rodeo. Laura Spires could be whiny as Raya, the wife who was married to Colin for years, but she isn’t; Ms. Spires isn’t keen on hearing of his infidelities, and so she comes off as naturally defensive of what she believes were those special years before the trouble started. Kasey Meininger makes Natalie, Colin’s lover while still married to Raya, quite aggressive, exhibiting a natural inclination towards physicality that fits the role and the actor playing it; a semi-dream sequence in the second act requires Ms. Meininger to fling herself around in a way that would send most of us to the chiropractor, but she manages it all in stride.

Jenn Feather Youngblood as Tenille at first glance might seem like the stereotypical “sexless, quirky best friend of the lead who never gets the guy,” but she is so much more than that. At times able to connect with a beat that jolts the audience with laughter and at other times uncomfortably vulnerable, Ms. Youngblood is able to turn the perceived stereotype on its head, showing more than anything that we all seek love and acceptance and don’t necessarily question it when it comes in an unbelievably attractive package. Will Macke’s Gavin definitely stands out in the otherwise female group, his swagger and sexual innuendos definitely meant to shock and disarm; still, Mr. Macke has a way of letting the audience in to look past his brusque facade, most shockingly during an intense sequence in the second act.

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) Laura Spires (Raya) and Rob Philpott (Colin)

It takes a special actor to be able to generate chemistry with four very different people in the same play, and Rob Philpott is just such a special talent. As Colin, Mr. Philpott is disarmingly suave and appealing, but he performs at a much higher level than one might expect from what seems like a typical pretty-boy role. His Colin says the right things at the right time, and the heat he generates with each of his on-stage lovers (no matter the gender) is electric and dangerous. Without a special person for each of the four main characters to pine for, Until He Wasn’t wouldn’t work; with Mr. Philpott as Colin, it works so well that I bet it could make members of the audience wonder if they might also be taken in under his spell if they encountered him in the same circumstances as did Raya, Natalie, Tenille, and Gavin.

Until He Wasn’t is one of those two-act plays where the first act ends with a big revelation, one that I didn’t see coming. This big moment lays the groundwork for the second act, as thrilling and tense as anything I’ve seen in years. At the end of this two and a half hour journey, I was exhausted yet exhilarated by the ride. Highly recommended!

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

Where can I see it?

Until He Wasn’t continues through to October 22nd in the MadLab Theatre located at 227 North 3rd Street, and more information can be found at http://madlab.net/until-he-wasnt.html

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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