The crew rolled the 8-foot-high, broken satin heart onto the stage as Monsignor Napoleon Dynamite, devil's pitchfork in hand, pranced from behind the curtain, prepared to lead the unwitting audience down the dim path to Hades.
Or something like that.
Monsignor Dynamite, British rocker Elvis Costello's alter-ego, stole the show last night before a sellout crowd at Mershon Auditorium on The Ohio State University campus.
The good Monsignor, decked out in a velveteen smoking jacket, spent nearly an hour of Costello's encore wowing the crowd with game show-style antics, calling on audience members to pull daggers from the broken heart, each dagger exposing one of the priest's "new" deadly sins.
"The original sins have already been done to death," Dynamite explained.
Included in the pantheon of deadly zingers were the sins of awesomeness, bogus insights and touching base.
For his part, Dynamite would then allow the audience member to choose any song from Costello's extensive catalog, which (Dynamite/Costello) would play solo.
There was no backing band last night (until singer/songwriter/producer Nick Lowe joined Costello for three encores), only an immense talent with an acoustic and electric guitar and a backlog of great songs.
"The exciting thing about this experiment," Costello, uh, Dynamite said, "is remembering how to play a song I haven's played in five years."
Nothing new for a Costello tour (he brought out a wheel of fortune to pick songs a few years back), the Monsignor routine breathed life into an already intense show.
Playing a random selection of songs was precisely what made the schtick interesting, as Costello roamed through his voluminous catalog for chestnuts like "Alison," the biting "New Lace Sleeves" ("good manners and bad breath / get you nowhere"), the touching "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" and the full-throttle attacker "Pump It Up."
Monsignor Dynamite typified last night's show — Costello was loose, congenial, playful and, as ever, wicked. He may be maturing, becoming kinder and gentler, but he hasn't lost an ounce of pathos or urgency
When the real Costello sang "Watching the Detectives," his delivery was powerful, strumming the stuffing out of his guitar and breathlessly spitting out vocals.
More than just regurgitate each song, Costello also took chances, rearranging tunes to suit his mood and whimsy. "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" was slowed to emphasize impending pain; "God's Comic" included a beautiful acoustic departure from the script, as well as an ad-lib insertion of The Monkees' "Last Train to Clarksville."
In rare instances, the live versions diminished songs, as when Costello sang "Baby Plays Around" too loudly, wrecking the tune's anguished mood.
Still, his routine was uniformly excellent, the music vital and illustrative of the encyclopedic knowledge of American popular music, from Nat King Cole and Jackie Wilson to Elvis Presley and bluesman Little Willie John — all influences that Costello has incorporated in his own music.
The show also featured Lowe's 50-minute opening set, the perfect warm-up, what with his incongruously wry and infectious pop tunes "Cruel to Be Kind" and "So It Goes." Lowe and Costello teamed up for a moving rendition of the unabashedly romantic "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding," a reminder that it's not all anger and vitriol in Costello's act.