Review: EVOLUTIONARIES at Shadowbox Live

Salute to Prince and Bowie far more than just a clever repackaging of the singers’ greatest hits

By: Jun. 18, 2024
Review: EVOLUTIONARIES at Shadowbox Live
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In EVOLUTIONARIES, Shadowbox Live brings together the music of David Bowie and Prince, two things that seem to go together as well as Oreo cookies and mustard. They are great individually but they don’t really seem to complement each other.

Outside of their use of pseudonyms and the year of their death (both died in 2016), the two seem to have very little in common on the surface.

Bowie, who was born David Robert Jones but changed his name to avoid confusion with the Monkees lead singer Davy Jones, was a white British glam rocker who starred his career in 1969 and was rediscovered by MTV. Prince, who shortened his name from Prince Rogers Nelson to his single word moniker, was a black American who dominated the 1980s airwaves with a combination of funk, R&B, rock, new wave, soul, synth-pop, pop, jazz, blues, and hip hop.

Prince claimed to have only met Bowie once and he seemed to be “a nice man.” In an article for Far Out Magazine, writer Elle Palmer recalled an interview in which Bowie said of the Purple One: “I know that we share some similarities in as much that we both write much too much. I think maybe his attention span is a lot more focused than mine. And he has a far tighter genre of music than I do.”

Yet, in EVOLUTIONARIES, which runs every Thursday through Sunday until Aug. 11 at Shadowbox Live’s stage (503 S. Front Street in downtown Columbus), the troupe found a great deal of commonality between the two. Under the direction of Julie Klein, the theater troupe weaves together the divergent catalogue of the two icons with a variety of singers and styles, multimedia presentations, and the storytelling of Michelle Daniels.

One of the staples in the Shadowbox arsenal is its gift of mimicry with a spirit of independence. The band of guitarists Matthew Hahn, Justin Doe and Jack Walbridge, bassists Buzz Crisafulli and Andy Ankrom, keyboardist Rick Soriano and drummer Brandon Smith do a masterful job of duplicating the heavily nuanced music of the Thin White Duke and Prince. Saxophonist Fred Gablick became a crowd favorite, delivering the goods on songs like “Changes” and “Modern Love” and then disappearing behind the curtain until he is needed again.

While the band’s sound is very close to the original pieces, Hahn gives the 10 soloists the freedom to put their own unique take on some very notable songs. Shadowbox Live is not a cover band, dressing up in costumes to mimic Prince or Bowie. Seven of the 10 soloists are females. Singers Mary Randle powering her way through “Suffragette City” or Breanna Romer taking her swing at “1999” gave the songs a distinct sound. However, Tom Cardinal’s performance on Bowie’s “Lazarus” raised some arm hairs with its spot-on similarity to the original.

Prince and Bowie were both known for the visual hooks and looks for their performance. EVOLUNTIONARIES also comes up with some cool ideas. Many of the songs are tightly choreographed with dancers Riley Mak, Romer, Keahlie Cruz, Ankrom and Ash Davis. For Bowie’s “Fame,” Nyla Nyamweya, Brendan Barasch, Mak, and Deirdre Tobin simulate a catwalk of a fashion show while Haley Keller takes over the vocals.

Video designers Zach Tarantelli and David Whitehouse designed another spot-on performance, splicing in the interviews with the two singers between the gaps between some of the songs. During Cardinal’s delivery of “Changes,” an on-screen projection of Bowie kept morphing through the singer’s various characters and personas.

One of my favorite projections was Prince accepting an award for Best Internet Only Single for his song “War” at the 1999 Yahoo Internet Life Magazine’s Online Music Awards. During his acceptance of the award, Prince expressed his concern about … the internet’s influence on society. “It’s cool to get on the internet but don’t let the internet get on you. It’s cool to use the computer; don’t let the computer use you,” he said. “You all saw The Matrix. There is a war going on and the battlefield is inside the mind. And the prize is the soul.”

The glue that connects all these parts is the slick narration of Daniels of Klein’s smartly designed script. The second act opens with a sermon-like reading of “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life … But I’m here to tell you there’s something else … the afterworld.” Then Stacie Boord erupts into a joyful celebration of “Let’s Go Crazy,” which is about living for the moment.

Daniels then delivers the perfect segway as she talks about Bowie’s final album which the artist put together knowing he was going to die in a few months of liver cancer.

 “As you get older, the questions come down to about two or three things: How long do I have? And what do I do with the time I have left?’” Daniels said. “If you knew you had six months to live, what would you do? Would you travel to places you have never been? Would you try to knock a few more things off your bucket list? Or after an incredible career, would you sit down and write a new album’s worth of brand new music? Luckily for his friends, his family and his fans, David Bowie did just that.”

It is those moments that lift this show past the level of being just a collection of covered tunes into the area of a true tribute, a celebration of an artist.

In an interview before the show’s opening, Hahn, the show’s musical director, talked about the impossibility of hitting everyone’s favorite tunes by the two artists. EVOLUTIONARIES has some glaring omissions – Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” and Bowie’s “Young Americans” and “China Girl” among them.

EVOLUTIONARIES stays away from being a repackaged greatest hits setlist by covering some more obscure Prince tunes like “7,” sung beautifully by Jamie Barrow with support from Romer, Davis, Leah Haviland, Cardinal and Ankrom, Nyla Nyamweya’s delivery of “Blue Computer” and Haviland’s powerful performance of “Electric Chair.” Similarly, the show includes less familiar Bowie songs like “Lazarus” and the Bowie-Trent Reznor collaboration of “I Am Afraid of Americans” (Ankrom).

While the two artists may have come from different backgrounds and experiences, EVOLUTIONARIES shows how the music of Prince and Bowie can light up a dark room and that the world is a little bit darker without them.

Photo credit: Tommy Feisel


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