Looped (Evolution Theatre Company – Columbus, OH)


What’s it about?

It’s 1965, and stage and screen star Tallulah Bankhead has seen better days. Suffering the ill-effects of a lifetime of boozing and doping, she is called in to re-record (or “loop”) one line for what would be her final film, Die! Die! My Darling! Based on a true event, Ms. Bankhead makes sure to put the sound engineer and film editor through the ringer before they get what they want out of her, playing up to their expectations of what a quarrelsome and demanding woman she can be. Looped enjoyed a brief run on Broadway in the spring of 2010, garnering Valerie Harper a Tony Award nomination as the beleaguered Tallulah Bankhead.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Vicky Welsh Bragg (Tallulah Bankhead) and Jon Osbeck (Danny Miller)

Is it worth seeing?

Looped is the kind of play where the concept is much better than its execution. Who wouldn’t enjoy seeing a comedic piece about a loud-mouthed lush, a star of both stage and screen, showing off her bad behavior? There are plenty of zingers to be had in Matthew Lombardo’s script, but at nearly two hours with an intermission (placed at a particularly contrived moment within the play), there doesn’t seem to be enough there to justify that much of an investment. However, Looped is that rare play that improves greatly in its second half, even if it gets rather maudlin and embarrassingly overwrought dealing with a discussion of homosexuality in the era. Mixing comedy with drama is tricky, but luckily the moments where the balance is completely off are brief and don’t sink the show. This is far from a great work, but, with the right crowd and performers, it’s more good than bad.

Vicky Welsh Bragg makes a fine Tallulah Bankhead, sounding a great deal like the actress, speaking in a low register that must be a challenge. Ms. Bragg is engaging if less biting that one might expect playing a drug-addicted alcoholic, but she is consistently interesting to watch and embodies the proper spirit to make her part work. Jon Osbeck as Danny Miller, the put-upon film editor struggling to corral Ms. Bankhead, performs as beyond irritated from the get-go, not allowing much room to grow all that much more frustrated with Ms. Bankhead’s shenanigans without yelling expletives that I doubt any studio employee would use towards a star, even a drunken one. Part of the problem is in the writing, but Mr. Osbeck is to blame for his entirely false crying scene near the end of the second act. It often feels like Mr. Osbeck thinks that he is part of a duet when it is quite clear that Ms. Bragg and her character is the star here.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Jon Osbeck (Danny Miller) and Vicky Welsh Bragg (Tallulah Bankhead)

Technically, the show is quite impressive, with a detailed black, white, and gray set by Jeffrey Gress complete with a boom mike that looks right out of that era. Nitz Brown’s lighting is detailed down to the ever-so-slight reflection of the film being projected (which we don’t see) for Ms. Bankhead to use as a reference for her vocal performance. Rebecca Baygents Turk’s costumes, from Ms. Bankhead’s improbable red gown (looking much like Bette Davis’s frock in All About Eve) to Danny Miller’s high-waisted slacks and slick shoes impressively represent a 1965 as one might imagine it from seeing sitcoms of the era; too perfect to be real, but too defined and attractive to ignore.

Ultimately, Looped misses its target, but not by as much as it could’ve had Evolution’s production not had such a proficient design team and game cast. At its best moments, when Ms. Bragg’s lines elicit honest laughter and Mr. Osbeck‘s exasperated look relaxes a bit in intensity, the production is quite enjoyable, though it takes someone with an appreciation of the era, film making, and that special kind of smoky female brashness to hang on through the more awkwardly written moments (like the ending that feels right out of Casablanca). Note to other playwrights: exercise caution when including excerpts from vastly superior works (in this case, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire) into your script.

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

Looped continues through to September 24th in the Van Fleet Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://evolutiontheatre.org

Sticks & Stones (Evolution Theatre Company & CATCO – Columbus, OH)

“There’s always a price to being included,” Janice Sanders says in Cory Skurdal’s Sticks & Stones, the final play in this year’s Local Playwright’s Festival presented by Evolution Theatre Company in partnership with CATCO. The specifics behind Ms. Sanders’ statement become clear throughout the play, a thought-provoking and honest exploration of the prejudices that exist around being true to oneself, be it openly gay, trans, or anything considered other than the norm. No, on second thought, perhaps it’s about jealousy and self-hatred. Actually, there are many different themes covered in this story of two women fighting over words, the kind used to classify as well as subjugate people.

Mr. Skurdal’s play won the 2014 CATCO/Greater Columbus Arts Council Playwriting Fellowship; this is its first full production after a reading last year. On the surface, Sticks & Stones is about the aforementioned Janice Sanders, a popular art critic, who feels she has been libeled by Kyle, a transgender blogger, after certain innuendos are made about her private life online. Janice is quite conservative and traditional, and it’s easy to see that the uninhibited Kyle is the polar opposite – or is she? Both women know what it’s like to struggle with their identity, but they deal with it in completely different ways: Janice goes inward and keeps her cards close to her chest while Kyle lets “Kylie” (the name she calls herself) out for the world to see. The action unfolds as each woman relays her interpretation of the conflict to their respective lawyers, putting the audience in the position of being the jury.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Mr. Skurdal’s writing is uncommonly rich with dialogue that flows naturally and makes a point without being preachy. “You’re sick with shame,” Kyle shouts at Janice, only to have her hurl back, “And you ought to be!” So much judgmental and prejudicial rhetoric comes from Janice that it brings to mind those impassioned but completely misguided and embarrassing Facebook rants we all see posted by former high school friends or distant cousins. The only thing constant in life is change, and that’s one point which Janice struggles to accept based largely on the feelings of her family.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Josie Merkle (Janice) and Kim Garrison Hopcraft (Susan)

Women are the stars of this piece, and it is their actions that drive the plot. Some men are on hand in the cast, but what a rare treat to see a play with so many important roles for women in a culture where being white and male is flaunted as the ultimate prize in the genetic lottery. Director Joe Bishara keeps things moving at a swift rate, incrementally increasing the pace until an inevitable emotional (and physical) confrontation occurs between Janice and Kyle; the moment is so heated and real that I had to suppress the urge to jump in to break it up.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Josie Merkle (Janice) and Frank Barnhart (Dana)

Josie Merkle is the cantankerous Janice Sanders, ostensibly the villain of this work. She has no trouble delivering her caustic remarks with relish; and yet, Ms. Merkle allows us to see Janice as sympathetic as well, a product of her environment from a time when going against the grain was not much of an option. Playing her as an unrepentant harpy would’ve been too easy with this material, and Ms. Merkle has an instinctive biting delivery that would’ve made that a walk in the park for her; instead, she chooses another path, one laced with frustration born out of years and years of paying the price for inclusion.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Staley Jophiel Munroe (Kyle) and Priyanka Shetty (Kendall)

As competent as the cast and script is, the show would not function half as well without the glorious performance of Staley Jophiel Munroe as the fearless Kyle, a trans woman who manages to push the buttons of most everyone in her vicinity, sometimes just for fun (as when she challenges the personal space of her lawyer Kendall, played by Priyanka Shetty, who squirms uncomfortably and believably at the intrusion) but more often for just being true to herself and refusing to allow the opinions of others to bring her down. I gather Ms. Munroe has a deep well of life experience that informs her portrayal; the flashback scene with her father is particularly heartbreaking, surely touching a nerve with any LGBT person who has faced hostility from their family. “He can’t be this way!” her father shouts, while Ms. Munroe’s plaintive, “I AM this way!” is so nakedly honest that I defy anyone to walk away unmoved. After the performance, I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Munroe, who was quite modest about her abilities, stating that she had never acted on stage before; what’s wonderful is what she does here doesn’t feel like acting at all – it’s simply being – and I sincerely hope this is but the first of many performances she will gift to us.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Staley Jophiel Munroe (Kyle)

Sticks & Stones is compact at just over an hour in length, but it has so much to say about our outside differences, deeply-held prejudices, and fear. People tend to fear the unknown, and the very nature of being trans means that there isn’t a “one size fits all” way of classifying them; they may or may not have had certain surgeries to change the anatomy with which they were born, but that’s for each trans person to know and share (or not) with whom they please. For some people it’s easier to manage fear if they have a way of categorizing things, setting apart what they do understand from what they don’t. What Sticks & Stones drives home is that all of the important characteristics of being a human are there within all of us; love, sadness, longing, betrayal – these emotions feel the same to each of us on the inside no matter what we look like on the outside.

***/ out of ****

Sticks & Stones continues through to June 12th in the Van Fleet Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://evolutiontheatre.org

Zanna, Don’t! (Evolution Theatre Company – Columbus, OH)

I don’t recommend making a drinking game out of every time the word “love” is said in Zanna, Don’t! as you’d probably need to be hospitalized shortly after the first song had been sung; that would be a shame, as then you’d miss out on seeing one of the sweetest gay-themed musical comedies in existence. As the closing show of Evolution Theatre Company’s 2015 season, Zanna, Don’t! is awash in energy, bold colors, and catchy music, just the right kind of joyful diversion to brighten up a dreary fall.


Photo: Jerri Shafer
I first saw Zanna, Don’t! during its 2003 summer run off-Broadway, and several of its songs (by Tim Acito and Alexander Dinelaris) have been on my mix CDs and playlists ever since. Though the title is a play on the campy 1980 film musical Xanadu, the similarity ends there. Zanna, Don’t! is set in a high school in Heartsville, U.S.A., where everyone is gay and “those heteros” are often ridiculed and feared. This is a campus where everyone is love-obsessed, but not sex-obsessed, which keeps the material cutely innocent and tame. The students band together to put on a play about straights being in the military (remember, this was first performed in 2002) and how they should have the right to love each other, marry, and be accepted; their world is rocked when two of their own are found to be straight and in love.


Photo: Jerri Shafer
Director Brent Ries keeps Zanna, Don’t! moving quickly, zipping along in such a way that its two hour running time feels like one. The set by Shane Cinal is deceptively simple with bold graphics and a stage that extends out when needed. Costume designer Jason Guthrie is to be congratulated for pairing so many solid separates together while also creating some wild fashions for Zanna, including a camouflage muumuu and some glitterific shoes and t-shirts. Danielle Mann’s choreography makes excellent use of the Van Fleet Theatre’s space, with the mechanical bull riding dance a particular highlight. Aside from the song “Fast” (which is almost entirely unintelligible due to its pace and the volume of the band), the sound is strong with a good balance between the music and voices, so important to a musical.


Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Brian C. Gray (Arvin/Bronco), Ricky Locci (Mike), Tahrea Maynard (Roberta), Alex Lanier (Karla/Necca/Loretta), and Jordan Shafer (Kate)
The cast includes some of the best young talent in the area, and any casual Columbus theatre fan has surely seen many of its members before in other shows (I know I have). Ricky Locci is terrific as Mike, the boy who is heartbroken when he finds out his boyfriend, Steve (the small but mighty Sean Felder) is in love with Kate (the comically and musically gifted Jordan Shafer). Mr. Locci has the best songs in the score (“I Could Write Books” and “I Think We Got Love”) and performs them beautifully, playing the kind of jilted character to which we can all relate.


Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Sean Felder (Steve), Tahrea Maynard (Roberta), and Ricky Locci (Mike)
Tahrea Maynard plays flannel-clad Roberta, Kate’s rejected girlfriend, with humor to spare and putting a capital B in butch. T. Johnpaul Adams also makes an impression as Tank, perhaps the second most vigorous part in the show as he seemed to appear and disappear all over the place.


Photo: Jerri Shafer – William Macke (Zanna)
The centerpiece of the show is William Macke as Zanna, the sprightly matchmaker whose flame burns loud and proud. Though miscast in a part more appropriate for a pocket-sized gay (Zanna is like Peter Pan in that respect), no one can accuse Mr. Macke of not giving the part his all – and then some! Though his turbocharged effeminate gestures and voice can become a bit grating and come off as more of a caricature than a character, Mr. Macke flies free of any restrictions in a bold, committed performance; still, he is at his best in the more restrained, quiet moments when he isn’t trying quite so hard. 


Photo: Jerri Shafer

Zanna, Don’t! has a spirit that is in the right place, even if some of its songs rhyme “love” with “love” a bit too much for me. It’s impossible not to find oneself smiling and laughing during this show, and every member of the cast is delivering their A game, appearing to be having as good a time as the audience. With all the glitter and colors and dancing, it’s like concentrated gayness – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

*** out of ****

Zanna, Don’t! continues through to November 21st in the Van Fleet Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://evolutiontheatre.org

Sordid Lives (Evolution Theatre Company – Columbus, OH)

Texas has its own brand of southern charm different from the rest, and Del Shores is just the playwright to bring it to life. He has made a career of writing about the exploits of some rather unsavory characters, though whether or not they are unsavory depends on how you look at them. They could just as well be heroes.

Sordid Lives, Shores’s fourth play, tells the story of how a small town and family reacts to the accidental death of one of their own, an elderly woman who tripped over her married lover’s wooden legs on the way to the toilet and bashed her head in. Yes, you read that correctly, and yes, it’s a comedy full of some of the strangest characters you’re likely to see this side of “Hee Haw.” Death and infidelity are tricky to make funny, but the enduring popularity of this 1996 play and it’s 2000 film incarnation show that Mr. Shores has found a way to make it work for a great many people.


Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Danielle Mari (LaVonda), Betsy Poling (Sissy), and Lori Cannon (Latrelle)
It’s a real joy to see a comedy with such a large cast, and the characters are so delightfully varied that it would be difficult to confuse one for the other. There are three performers that stand out in the ensemble and make this production worth seeing if for no other reason than to see them at work. Lori Cannon leads the charge as Latrelle Williamson, the uptight eldest daughter of the deceased, playing her part with all seriousness, as do David Vargo as Wardell “Bubba” Owens and Vicky Welsh Bragg as the drunken barfly Juanita Bartlett. They each play this material with such sincerity and emotion that the comedy hits and lands perfectly. Ms. Cannon, Mr. Vargo, and Ms. Bragg never make a false move, even if some of their scene partners aren’t playing their parts with the same kind of gravity. When Ms. Cannon shrieks, “I don’t want to know the truth,” it’s because you know she already does and can’t face it; it’s funny and heartbreaking at the same time. Mr. Vargo shows real remorse when he reflects on how he treated Brother Boy in the past, making his rescue of him from the hospital that much more meaningful. And Ms. Bragg brings the house down when – in the middle of a scene involving guns and violence – she asks in all seriousness, “Do you think I’m pretty?” These three know exactly what they are doing.


Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) David Vargo (Bubba), Ralph Edward Scott (G. W.), and Jeb Bigelow (Odell)
Also worthy of honorable mention is Kathy Sturm as Noleta Nethercott, who impressed me when she accidentally splashed some mashed potatoes on her wrist during an early scene while she was helping herself to a snack. Without missing a beat, she piggishly lapped it up with her tongue and went on. And maybe it wasn’t an accident or an ad lib after all; it was done so naturally that I could believe it was planned, though executed by someone fully in the moment with a real firm grasp on her character.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Kathy Sturm (Noleta) and Betsy Poling (Sissy)

I must say that one character that slightly disappoints is Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram played by Mark Phillips Schwamberger. Mr. Schwamberger certainly knows his lines and appears to be having a ball in drag, but his interpretation of the character stays firmly on the surface, perhaps owing to the director, Beth Kattelman. While some of his cast members chose to go with the seriousness of their parts to great effect, this Brother Boy doesn’t appear to have any real emotion, not even when he sees his mother in a casket. His final words to her are underplayed in a way that the audience at the performance I attended wasn’t sure that the play had even ended as the moment felt half baked, like it was leading up to something more. A moment of reflection, a half smile that is quickly stifled – something was warranted in that final moment that just wasn’t there. It’s not like it ruins the play or anything, but I did see it as a missed opportunity.


Photo: Jerri Shafer
Still, the audience was primed and ready for every comedic moment to play out, no doubt having seen the popular film adaptation, and there was an energy in the crowd that was palpable. I enjoyed this production far more than the film, and it’s a worthy successor to the other fine shows that Evolution Theatre Company has put on so far this season. 

*** out of ****

Sordid Lives continues through to September 26th in the Van Fleet Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://evolutiontheatre.org

Columbus Theatre – Alive and Well

Why did it take me so many years to discover that there was so much theatre to enjoy in and around Columbus, Ohio? I don’t have a good answer for that. Sure, I got my theatre fix seeing as many shows on Broadway as possible on my trips to New York a few times every year. I would see a lot of the big tours when they would pass through town as well, and a show now and then at the Riffe Center, but that was about it until two years ago.

My discovery of the large and diverse theatre scene in the area began when I happened upon an ad for tick, tick…BOOM! being performed by the Evolution Theatre Company. I think I saw it on Facebook, but I was unfamiliar with that theatre group or the Columbus Performing Arts Center, the venue in which it was being performed. I certainly didn’t expect much when I saw the little building hidden away on Franklin Avenue in a section of town where I’d never really visited. Maybe that lack of expectation is what made the experience so seminal for me. 

What I experienced that day was what I would call organic theatre, raw and fresh without the burden of large production values that swamp many a Broadway show. Not that I don’t love a big Broadway show (I do), but there is something to be said about having a few set pieces, just a smattering of props, and just getting out there to tell a story. I believe that there is talent everywhere, and Columbus sure seems to have more than its share.

While at the Columbus Performing Arts Center to see tick, tick…BOOM! I saw another theatre company was performing Next to Normal, which I had seen on Broadway years before and loved. Of course I had to come back to see it. I looked up both theatre companies on Facebook, liked their pages, and then started searching for all the other theatre that I was apparently missing out on. I even read the bios of the actors in the programs to tick, tick…BOOM! and Next to Normal to see what other theatre companies they had performed with in an effort to find out as much as I could about this underground (well, it was to me, anyway) network of theatre groups and performance spaces all over town.

I am that person that pestered all of my friends whenever I found a play was being performed to see what they were doing the following night. “What play is it this time, Chuck?” they would sigh. I couldn’t always sell them on joining me, but more often than not when they did they ended up enjoying themselves, which helped me corral them into seeing another show a few weeks later. Not every show was great or even good, but none were as aggressively bad as some Broadway shows I’ve seen. I remember how much fun my friend Kona and I had at Imagine’s La Cage Aux Folles, or the time Michael and I giggled our way through Short North Stage’s The Divine Sister, or the time I went alone to Evolution’s Sons of the Prophet and because of a mistimed potty break found myself returning to the theatre to have two guys stripping (in character) just a few feet away from me.

I started a blog earlier this year on a New York theatergoing trip mainly to chronicle my thoughts on the shows I was seeing so I wouldn’t have to keep repeating myself to the people that would ask, “What did you see, and what did you think?” Lots of people write about New York theatre, but what about theatre in Columbus? The Other Paper was a good source for information and reviews until it disappeared in 2013, but I was fortunate to find Richard Ades excellent blog at http://www.columbustheater.org (his “On the Boards” weekly listing of theatre in and around Columbus has informed me of so many plays I would’ve missed otherwise). Columbus Alive! is good as well, but with so much theatre to cover naturally many plays would come and go without much notice in print.

I started writing my thoughts on the shows I was seeing in Columbus as I thought that maybe it could help bring some awareness so others could find out about and enjoy the shows that I was seeing all the time. I’m not a professional critic and have no credentials for writing about theatre save for my passion as an audience member. Everyone has an opinion and certainly mine is just that; an opinion, no more or less valid than that of anyone else. One thing led to another and I befriended some actors and directors on Facebook. Then the “I Support Local Live Theatre” group was suggested to me to join, and I started to discover whole other groups of performers that I had overlooked!

Doing theatre on little to no budget leaves no money with which to advertise, and so word of mouth and some effort to seek out the events of interest is required. Some theatre groups have harnessed the power of social media to great effect posting about upcoming performances and keeping their audience “in the loop” while others rarely post until the last minute when most people have their plans for the weekend or evening already set. Because of changes with Facebook I recently had to go to all of the theatre company pages I had previously “liked” to then “subscribe” to their updates as simply liking their page wasn’t enough to keep the notifications coming anymore.

Through the “I Support Local Live Theatre” group on Facebook I learned of the Third Annual Columbus Black Theatre Festival coming up this weekend! I don’t know where I was for the first two festivals, but I know I’ll be there this weekend for the third. Spearheaded by Julie Whitney Scott and her Mine 4 God Productions (http://www.mine4godproductions.com/home.html), the goal is to present original works by local black artists. Ms. Scott’s theatre company also offers workshops and outreach programs for the community. “I support all theatre, even high school plays,” says Ms. Scott. “I also look to promote theatre productions on my radio show (http://www.talktainmentradio.com).”

Tasha Neal Harris is performing her show G-H-E-T-T-OH No She Din’t as part of the festival at 530pm on Sunday, July 12th at the Columbus Performing Arts Center in the Shedd Theatre. Though she performed it at Ohio University and in this same festival last year, Tasha admits, “It’s still scary because there’s really no script to it. It’s usually not very big, unfortunately,” she says of the audience. “I like to perform it in front of any crowd of people who want to be entertained,” she added. “I would prefer to perform it in front of fifteen people who want to be entertained than fifteen hundred people who are jerks.”

My experiences in the audience of the plays I’ve seen in Columbus support what Tasha says; the theatregoing crowd may be small, but they are supportive and fervent. “I did a play for the Little Theater Off Broadway,” Tasha said, referring to the theatre in Grove City (http://ltob.org/), “and it was probably one of my favorite plays I have ever done. The crowd was probably about forty-five to fifty people, and it was so amazing. I like a smaller theatre space as well because when you have a big theatre space everyone kind of spreads out and it looks like less people are there and the mood isn’t contagious because people aren’t close to one another.”

Tasha and I agreed that, as with movies and books, there is some theatre that is right for everyone; people just need to be exposed to the genre that they like. “People who think they don’t like theatre have not been to the right theatre or show,” Tasha said.

This weekend I compiled a bunch of links on my blog (at the bottom of this page on the mobile version, and to the right on the desktop site) covering as many local theatre groups as I know about, and I plan to keep adding more. I’m going to keep nagging at my friends to go see plays with me, and I hope that my writing on this blog might help bring attention to the wealth of inexpensive theatre right here in our backyard.

Two of the big companies that license plays for performance even offer a search tool to find productions playing in your area. Samuel French’s “Now Playing” section helped me find some interesting high school productions planned for the coming year (http://www.samuelfrench.com/now-playing), and Music Theatre International has a terrific app (http://www.mtishows.com/content.asp?id=2_3_1) that helped me discover the Weathervane Playhouse in Newark as a premium theatre just a short drive outside Columbus! During most months I bet I could see a different play every week right here in Columbus, which makes the stretches of time between my marathon New York excursions bareable.

Here’s my itinerary for this week: 

Crowded? Sure, but with so much talent right here in Columbus, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

GO SEE A SHOW! And if you see something you like, tell a friend about it! They say that theatre is a dying art, but I refuse to believe it.

Yank! The Musical (Evolution Theatre Company – Columbus, OH)

All I knew of Yank! The Musical before seeing the Evolution Theatre Company production of it (twice) this past week was that it was about gay men in the military during WWII. And, yes, very generally it is about that, but it is also so much more. Written by David & Joseph Zellnik (brothers, not lovers) and first publicly performed in 2005, the show ran off-Broadway in early 2010 (as Yank! A WWII Love Story) for just over a month. That cast was reunited for the belated 2013 recording of a cast album, and now here we have the Midwest theatrical premiere of this notable and important show.

The show opens with a millennial talking about an old, abandoned journal that he found in a thrift shop, and from there the history of the journal plays out from when it was first given to Stu (Nick Hardin) as he heads off to basic training. Stu just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the guys, the kind that trash talk and are vulgar and seem at home in the military, but he is quickly befriended by Mitch (William Macke), a guy everyone in the squad likes. In between drills and polishing shoes, Stu develops feelings for Mitch, and it appears that to some extent Mitch does the same for Stu, but neither knows what to do about it. Ah, this was the ’40s, when being “light in the loafers” was synonymous with “faggot,” and you’d better lust after Betty Grable or otherwise face ridicule. Fortunately, Stu meets Artie (Brent Fabian), a photographer for “Yank Magazine” (published for servicemen) and who is also gay (but has embraced it on the sly). Artie gets Stu a journalist position with the magazine, and they leave to cover stories, with Artie showing Stu all the tricks to finding men and being convert. When Stu and Mitch meet up again after some time has passed and the war has started to take its toll on them both, they find that their feelings are still there and decide to explore them in secret.

As long as there have been people there have been gay people, and yet I never thought anything about gays being in the military and what that was like especially during WWII until this play. I had heard about men meeting in public restrooms and various tapping and hand gestures meant to signal to those in the know, but that is all of a different generation. I think it is hard for younger people to understand just how far society has come in regards to gay people when it is now largely acceptable to be out, so plays like this are doubly important. Yank! The Musical is smart, sensitive, and realistic, and the music perfectly captures the era while also moving the plot forward. Stu isn’t a gay stereotype, and Mitch isn’t your typical closeted man either. As in real life, the truth is so much more complicated than that.

I’m consistently surprised by the quality of productions by the Evolution Theatre Company of Columbus, Ohio, and Yank! The Musical is my favorite production of theirs yet in the two years I’ve been attending their shows at the Columbus Performing Arts Center. Director Jimmy Bohr has taken a rather small performing space in the Van Fleet Theater, where the audience is so very close and seated on bleachers in the front and on the sides, and used it as an advantage in telling this story. The show moves and changes locales easily with minimal props or set pieces needed, and the actors often appear from behind the audience and walk between the bleachers to the front.

I’ve been to enough local shows in the past few years to recognize some of the actors, and it always tickles me to see them tackle such different roles seemingly effortlessly. I was glad to see Doug Joseph ham it up again (albeit in several smaller roles here) after hilarious turns in The Divine Sister (Short North Stage) and Psycho Beach Party (Immersive Theater), and it took me a while to recognize Nick Hardin as being the moody and rambunctious Chicklet from Psycho Beach Party I wouldn’t have thought the same person did such utterly different roles had the program not tipped me off; as well as the expression of disgust Nick gives at one point, reminding me of Chicklet’s constant expression. Special attention should be paid to Jesika Siler Lehner playing all six female roles, seamlessly transitioning between each and making them feel like completely different people, many with a different posture and gait, all with different costumes and hair. She goes from sexy torch singer to butch lesbian to wholesome mom with ease, believable as always. I had not seen Brent Fabian in anything before, but man can he tap! His Artie is knowing and sly while also being sympathetic. I look forward to seeing him again. William Mackle and Nick Hardin have genuine chemistry, though on the surface they don’t look like two people that would necessarily be drawn to each other, but that’s kind’ve the point.

Somehow they found actors with “period” faces and bodies, all looking at home in the setting of the story. Take a picture of any scene in the play in black and white and it would pass for a photo from seventy years ago, no question. There is a brief nude scene at the beginning showing seven of the guys from behind and to the side, all looking so different and comfortable, and it’s a credit to this production that such a titillating moment (for me anyway) is far from the best reason to see this show – it’s a highlight, to be sure, in a show of many.

I only wish there were more chances to see this terrific production again. I saw the preview performance on Wednesday as well as the Sunday matinee, all performed like the cast had been doing the show for months and enjoying it.

**** out of ****

Yank! The Musical continues through to June 6th, and more information can be found at http://evolutiontheatre.org/#2828