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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Jackie & Me (Columbus Children’s Theatre – Columbus, OH)

Joey is a ten-year-old with a very special gift: he can travel through time by holding a baseball card and concentrating. Joey’s adventures through time meeting various baseball players are detailed in a series of “Baseball Card Adventures” children’s novels by Dan Gutman, with titles such as Honus & Me (1997), Babe & Me (2000), and Shoeless Joe & Me (2002). Jackie & Me (1999), the second novel in the series, covers Joey traveling back to 1947 in order to meet Jackie Robinson, the first black player in the major leagues. Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, winning Rookie of the Year for the Dodgers in a time when most of the country was still quite segregated. Columbus Children’s Theatre is now presenting Jackie & Me as a play, perfectly timed to be a part of Black History Month.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – (left to right) Eric Qualls (Jackie Robinson) and Collin Grubbs (Joey)
 
So much of the success of the show rests on the shoulders of Colin Grubbs as Joey, the time traveler who begins as a Polish white boy dealing with anger issues and awakens as a black boy in 1947! That little plot twist of changing skin colors reminded me of the musical Finian’s Rainbow (1947), but what better way to illustrate how black people (referred to as “colored” or “negroes” in the play) were treated than to have a red-headed white boy be treated as a black boy by the cast? Mr. Grubbs is in every scene, and all of the action revolves around him; he controls so much of the pacing by how and when he chooses to respond, and his excellent timing is quite startling. A key scene requires Mr. Grubbs to say the “N word,” and he doesn’t take the task lightly; the moment feels genuine because of the way he handles it.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – (left to right) Ken Erney (Flip) and Collin Grubbs (Joey)
 
Mr. Grubbs is surrounded by some terrific stage veterans, many playing several roles; these are the kind of people who are so good that they make their younger, less experienced co-stars rise to the occasion. Ken Erney is Flip, the kind sports memorabilia store owner who supplies the rare Jackie Robinson card needed for time travel; Brent Alan Burington plays Branch Rickey, the sharp Dodgers owner who gives Jackie Robinson his chance in the major league; Mitchell Spiro plays a spirited coach and manager, a bundle of nerves and energy akin to Mickey Rooney; Catherine Cryan is Mrs. Herskowitz, the sweet shopkeeper who hands out promotional baseball cards, but she also plays a woman on the street who spits at poor Joey when he forgets to tow the “whites only” line; Jenna Lee Shively is caring but stern as Joey’s mom; and Eric Qualls plays a calm and controlled Jackie Robinson.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – (left to right) Chris Curran, Louis Weiss, and Jack Carson
 
Standouts in the young ensemble include Jacob Cohen as Ant, a fellow batboy from the past who taunts Joey; and Louis Weiss, playing a student and a kid in Brooklyn. Mr. Cohen has to say and do some despicable things to Joey without being so awful that he throws the show off balance; he performs intelligently while also embracing his inner bully. Mr. Weiss doesn’t have a great deal of lines to say, but his expressions throughout the play are quite funny and say more than enough; at any point he can be counted on to be responding with an array of funny facial expressions to what is going on around him.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – (left to right) Mitchell Spiro (Coach), Jack Carson, Collin Grubb (Joey), Devin Lapp, and Jacob Cohen
 
Ray Zupp’s set, complete with ramps and a raised platform behind a baseball diamond on the stage floor, is an excellent setting for the action; it’s one of those sets that is best appreciated from the middle on back in the audience so the full breadth of it can be taken in. Director William Goldsmith is successful in keeping the energy of the cast up between the scenes involving the baseball games, only faltering with the storytelling in a few notable places; a scene between Joey and Ant in the locker room where Joey scares Ant with his revelation about time travel plays out awkwardly, and the first act closing where Joey reads a letter signed by much of the team requesting to be traded rather than play on the field “with a negro” is treated as a throwaway moment without the proper reverence and buildup.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – (left to right) Brent Alan Burington (Eddie Stanky) and Eric Qualls (Jackie Robinson)
 
With any adaptation there will be changes made for one reason or another; while overall the stage adaptation of Jackie & Me by Steven Dietz (he is credited with the stage script along with the writer of the novel, Dan Gutman) is solid, there were a few changes that didn’t make sense to me. For example, in the play Flip lets Joey borrow his rare Jackie Robinson card for $20; in the novel he lends it to him for free, which makes a heck of a lot more sense. Who would someone charge a little boy to “rent” a baseball card? The aforementioned scene involving several Dodgers signing a petition against Jackie Robinson only to have one of them balk and tear it up has been weakened, and the use of racial slurs has been greatly tamed (most of which is understandable – the “N word” doesn’t need to be shouted all the time to get the point across). Ant calls Joey the “N word” in the novel, but in the play Joey reads a letter that contains the word. It’s an odd shift to have Joey, now a black boy when he appears in 1947, to be the one character that says that word; it changes the impact to have the message soft pedaled in that way. There is a lot more to the novel that wouldn’t have fit into this ninety-minute, two-act play, and I recommend reading it; I just think a few of the changes were unnecessary in the transition from page to stage.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – Collin Grubbs (Joey)
 
Still, Jackie & Me is that rare children’s show that doesn’t talk down to its young target audience. A serious message about prejudice and fear is mixed in delicately with all of the fun and humor, and yet it doesn’t come off as heavy-handed or too simple. The suggested age of seven and up seems right, though kids aren’t required to enjoy this production. No prior knowledge of baseball is needed either as this is more a human story than anything else.

*** out of ****

Jackie & Me continues through to February 28th in The Garden Theatre located at 1187 North High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.columbuschildrenstheatre.org/jackie–me.html

Mr. Scrooge (Columbus Children’s Theatre – Columbus, OH)

I wonder just how many adaptations there are of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol for the stage as well as on film. I know there are several different musicalizations of the story, created by talents as diverse as Alan Menken (the 1994 stage version, which was made into a 2004 TV movie starring Kelsey Grammar) and Leslie Bricusse (as Scrooge!, the 1970 film starring Albert Finney, which was subsequently adapted for the stage). And there are films of the story starring George C. Scott, Alastair Sim, Jim Carrey, and even Scrooge McDuck! Perhaps playing the greedy and cantankerous Ebenezer is a rite of passage for many performers, as one has to age into the role to be suitable to play it.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – (left to right) Dayton Duvall (Jacob Marley) and William Goldsmith (Ebenezer)
 
Columbus Children’s Theatre now presents their version of this classic story as Mr. Scrooge, in an adaptation written by their artistic director William Goldsmith (who plays Ebenezer) and with songs by Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman. With a running time of around an hour and a cast full of lively children, this version of the familiar story of the stingy Ebenezer Scrooge and how his attitude towards people and life changes after visits from several ghosts on Christmas Eve is a strong alternative to some of the heavier variations of this tale to be found elsewhere this season.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand
 
The action takes place in front of a set representing the front of a stone building with doors, windows, and passageways. At times this is the front of Scrooge’s home, at other times the interior, and sometimes it is just another home in the background where action takes place out on the street, all delineated with some excellent lighting effects by Derryck Menard. The large cast mingles in character with the audience as they enter and take their seats, noted as the “Nicholas Nickleby motif” in the program; this helps not only adults get into the spirit of the piece but also eases new, young theatregoers gently into the experience. Though a musical, the songs are usually quite brief and the dancing limited to appropriate moments only. The scenes involving the ghosts are handled very lightly and are a bit eerie without being disturbing or too intense; this is a family show, after all. My favorite scene is the number “Ebenezer Scrooge,” where the grumpy businessman is encircled by chanting children that he is attempting to shoo away. The children in this show are many and know their parts well; they are never cloying or overly cute at all, a blessing to those of us with a low tolerance for that kind of saccharine.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – William Goldsmith (Ebenezer)
 
William Goldsmith is fine and reserved as Ebenezer Scrooge, firm in his resolve as the play begins but susceptible to melting as the piece goes on. It’s a difficult balancing act to allow for that transition to occur and feel unplanned, but Mr. Goldsmith handles it quite well. He doesn’t come off as a stereotype like so many other Scrooges that I’ve seen; he plays the part earnestly without exaggeration. Mr. Goldsmith’s Ebenezer reminds me of that persnickety far right conservative relative who posts rhetoric on Facebook that makes you roll your eyes, but you can’t unfriend or block him for fear of the repercussions it might cause. He is surrounded by a solid cast, including the humorously intense Dayton Duvall as the ghost of Jacob Marley.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – (left to right) Jennifer Feather-Youngblood (Ghost of Christmas Present) and William Goldsmith (Ebenezer)
 
Jennifer Feather-Youngblood is a major standout, turning in a riotous performance as the Ghost of Christmas Present, joyfully romping around in her Santa-like robe, wreath atop her head, with a jug of spirits in tow. Ms. Feather-Youngblood injects some good old vitamin B-12 into the proceedings when she appears and, as capable as the rest of the performers are, she’s a difficult act to follow and is missed when her character departs.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – Abby Zeszotek (Mrs. Dilber)
 
There is one character and sequence in this adaptation that I don’t quite understand, and that is of Mrs. Dilber played by Abby Zeszotek. Mrs. Dilber is Ebenezer’s rather shiesty housekeeper who is missing a front tooth and steals some of his silverware. Ms. Zeszotek is quite funny and gruff with a cockney accent in the part (the audience gave an guttural “yech!” when she dished out gruel), but her character and scene go nowhere; Ebenezer doesn’t catch her stealing or confront her about it, and at the end of the play he is generous and kind to her. The impression given is that it is okay to steal as long as you aren’t caught and if the person that you’re pilfering from is stingy anyway.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand
 

Mr. Scrooge is overall a sweet, family-friendly show that tells its story succinctly and with charm. The environment at Columbus Children’s Theatre is one that is quite pro family and children, which is sometimes rather difficult to find in the theatre scene around Columbus. I’ve seen adaptations of A Christmas Carol that run more than twice as long as this one and aren’t half as good. You don’t need to bring kids along to enjoy this one.

*** out of ****

Mr. Scrooge continues through to December 20th in Columbus Children’s Theatre located at 512 Park Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.columbuschildrenstheatre.org/mr-scrooge.html

Pinkalicious (Columbus Children’s Theatre – Columbus, OH)

It’s tough to write about a piece of work created and intended for children. When I heard that there was a musical play called Pinkalicious based on a series of popular children’s books that would be presented by Columbus Children’s Theatre, I thought I should approach the topic academically; thus began weeks of reading through dozens of Pinkalicious books with a neighbor’s four-year-old daughter. I’m not sure what the librarians thought of me as I walked out with a huge pile of these children’s books, and frankly I didn’t care – I was on a mission!

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – Avery Bank (Pinkalicious)
 

Pinkalicious began in 2006 as a book by Victoria and Elizabeth Kann (they wrote the book of the play as well, and are co-writers of the lyrics along with John Gregor, who did the music), and to date there are over thirty books in the series. They are all about a girl named Pinkalicious and her obsession with the color pink, and often her younger brother Peter figures into the stories. The first book, on which the play is based, has Pinkalicious eating so many pink cupcakes that she turns pink, coming down with a case of “pinkititis”. The doctor warns her that unless she eats green food to counteract the “pinkititis” that she will only be able to see pink (“pinkeye pinkititis” being the official term). Will she obey the doctors orders or will the situation get worse? I won’t spoil the ending, but I will divulge that no one dies.

There are good and bad things about this production, most of the bad stemming from the play itself, which is no reflection on Columbus Children’s Theatre aside from the fact that they chose it. I first want to focus on what is good and then go into explaining the other.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – Nancy Skaggs (Dr. Wink), Ashley D. Sergent (Mr. Pinkerton), and Jessica Lynne Rigsby (Mrs. Pinkerton)
 
The actors are all uniformly adept at performing this material with a straight face. Avery Bank plays Pinkalicious exactly as written, which means she comes off as rather spoiled and whiny (as the character – I’m sure Ms. Bank herself is lovely – she’s certainly talented). She puts forth her smile and voice well, and it is a sizable part that requires her to be present and active in nearly every scene. Her parents are gamely played by Jessica Lynne Rigsby (Mrs. Pinkerton) and an unexpectedly ebullient Ashley D. Sergent (Mr. Pinkerton). Nancy Skaggs as Dr. Wink brings a lot of joy and laugher to her “Pinkatitis” number, appearing both a bit goofy and sinister at the same time. Poor Anneke Keesing doesn’t have a lot to do as Alison, but she makes the most of the role and wears her glasses well.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – Rayli Boyd (Peter)
 
The real star of this show is Rayli Boyd as Peter, perfectly capturing the frustrations of being a younger brother while also being funny and self deprecating. Ms. Boyd has a vivacious stage presence and often steals attention away from her co-stars; it’s as if she walks around with her own private spotlight on her at all times. Even though Ms. Boyd is playing a boy with a sometimes questionable wig, but she does it with just enough swagger that I wasn’t sure she wasn’t a boy until I reviewed the program.

 

Photo: Chuck Pennington III – Set Design: Edie Dinger Watkins
 
The set is nicely designed by Edie Dinger Watkins, smartly functional with surfaces for Pinkalicious to mark up with her pink chalk and able to transform into Dr. Wink’s office, and with an upper level for Pinkalicious’s very pink room. Patty Bennett’s costumes are bright and appropriate, with the ensemble outfits representing cupcakes, bees, and butterflies a real standout. In fact, those scenes with the ensemble dancing around (kudos to choreographer Kati Serbu) are the best parts of the show and the ones to which the audience really responded. Director William Goldsmith keeps the show moving and light in tone, and he makes the most of the space, staging it to accommodate the viewpoint from the far left and right where the majority of the seats in the theatre are located.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand
 
And now for the bad… This is not a good play, and it’s based on a series of books about an increasingly obnoxious girl who is thoroughly despicable. Don’t believe me? Check out Aqualicious, when Pinkalicious flippantly tosses a “merminnie” (a tiny mermaid, who was safe inside a sea shell until that girl came along) into a part of the ocean where she is almost eaten; or Silverlicious, where she manages to piss off the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, Cupid, and a Christmas elf with her demands in the form of poison pen letters; or Purplicious, where she scolds Peter for requesting pink ice cream, shouting “Pink ice cream is for sissies!” What’s funny about the musical play is that Peter has a whole subplot about liking the color pink and being afraid to show it, eventually being encouraged to embrace it – not so in Purplicious! The play glosses over a bit just how bossy and spoiled Pinkalicious is in the books, definitely not the kind of girl any parent would want their child to emulate.

The songs are forgettable, with poor Ms. Boyd saddled with “Peter’s Pink Blues”, an unfortunate takeoff on the classic “Blues in the Night” by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, and the plot isn’t enough to sustain an hour-long show. The parents are given much bigger roles than they ever have in the books, with the mother coming off as particularly obnoxious, telling Pinkalicious that she is too busy reviewing her mutual funds and investments to pay attention to her. Well, I guess we see from where her daughter gets her attitude… And why does Pinkalicious wear a yellow dress at the beginning and ending of the show? She only wears pink in the books. Why the quick blush and stockings to show how she now has “pinkatitis” when she looks just like that in all of the books (once infected, she merely looks like she was playing around with her mom’s makeup) – couldn’t some creative lighting be used to really make her pink? And why is there a scene with Alison finding Pinkalicious’s wand and such a big point made of it when nothing comes off it? The authors should’ve taken some of the best books in the series (Emeraldalicious, Pinkalicious and the Pink Drink, and Pinkalicious and the Cupcake Calamity being the only ones I found enjoyable) and focused the play around them, but I digress. These are a series of books in which the colorful pictures are the main draw, and this play is left with what remains when the illustrations are gone.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand
 

Pinkalicious is mercifully only about an hour in length, and the kids in the audience at the performance I attended appeared to have attention spans that wavered a bit. They seemed to enjoy it enough, but they were only audibly responsive in the moments when the ensemble players appeared playing bees or cupcakes that I pointed out earlier. There are certainly far worse diversions for the younger set, but this isn’t a show with many charms for those of us over the age of eight.

If you are attending with children eight years of age or younger: **/ out of ****

If you don’t go with children: */ out of ****

Pinkalicious continues through to October 11th at Columbus Children’s Theatre located at 512 Park St., and more information can be found at http://www.columbuschildrenstheatre.org/pinkalicious.html