Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

Footlite Musical: “The Bridges of Madison County” (4 stars)

bridgesSo, I kept telling myself it was hyperbole to use this word, and kind of cliché really. But then I thought about Footlite Musicals as a theatrical entity: “Footlite Musicals is an all-volunteer organization administered by a Board of Directors and several committees with the support of a loyal membership paying nominal yearly dues. Productions are cast from open auditions, and no one in the cast or on staff is paid. [emphasis added]

You get it?

The cast and crew (and orchestra, which is so often overlooked) are doing this for nothing more than the joy of being onstage, telling a story, and sharing their talents with audiences.

So I’m gonna say it.

The leads, Lori Ecker and Rick Barber, are superstars.

Ecker and Barber gift Footlite’s production of The Bridges of Madison County with their superlative voices in the most captivating and emotional performances I have seen onstage in years—no matter if the show was volunteer, Equity, touring, whatever.

Barber’s vocals are majestic in a way that belies his character’s humble persona. Robert’s strength is born of his growing love for Francesca. His a cappella is enchanting. Ecker vocally and physically manifests Francesca’s yearning to yield to her soul’s starvation for living, but ultimately she is shackled to her obligations as a wife and mother. Together they perfectly depict the bumbling, unsure, but eager interaction of two people drawn to each other in a guilty but inevitable way.

Barber’s credentials include both local (including other Footlite shows) and traveling gigs, such as cruise ship performer, and he graduated from IU’s Jacob’s School of Music. Time and effort that was well-spent to hone his talent. Ecker is also a veteran of Footlite’s stage, and she was also in the intriguing production of The Golem of Havana at the Phoenix Theatre. She has worked with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and the Indianapolis Opera, and has her MFA in acting from Ohio University. But even with all this experience, talent such as theirs remains something special.

Darrin Gowan as Francesca’s husband, Bud, gets a chance to impress, especially in the moving song “When I’m Gone,” sung with Daniel Scharbrough and the company. Joseph Massingale, as Francesca and Bud’s son Michael, also gets a deserved chance in the spotlight for the song “State Road 20/The Real World.”

But a special mention needs to be made of Jeanne Chandler as Francesca’s nosy neighbor Marge. In a hilarious and unexpected turn in such a somber show, Chandler gets to strut her stuff in “Get Closer,” sporting a muumuu and headwrap and using a strainer spoon as a microphone. Seriously, this was a riot.

Director Tim Spradlin, an Indianapolis directing and acting force in his own right, has overseen a beautiful piece of stagecraft for Footlite.

Admittedly, I was hesitant about seeing the show at first. I have never read the book or seen the movie, and the only impression I had about the plot was that it was sad and dealt with adultery, neither of which appealed to me. And while yes, the story is downright heart-wrenching, this production makes the chest pain worth it.

So why only four stars? There was a lot of prop rearranging, and sometimes it took too noticeable an amount of time. This movement was really distracting. However, the backdrops that took audiences from the farm to the bridge are lovely—understated but effective, just as these elements should be.

And that damned spotlight. I’ve said my piece about it before. So, yeah, that.

  • March 2-18, Thursday,  Friday, and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday at 2:30 p.m.
  • $25; 17 and under $15
  • Come a half-hour early to the show and enjoy live music performed on the beautiful two manual, eleven-rank Page Theater Pipe Organ at most performances.
  • http://www.footlite.org
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Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

Indiana Repertory Theatre: “Town Mouse and Country Mouse”

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Indiana Repertory Theatre: “Town Mouse and Country Mouse”

The beloved children’s story Town Mouse and Country Mouse has been adapted by Vicky Ireland and brought to the Indiana Repertory Theatre stage as part of its Exploring Stages program, and it’s absolutely adorable.

Exploring Stages targets ages three to eight as a way to get kids to experience live theater. Every facet of the production is created with this target audience in mind. The program doubles as an activity book, and crayons can be found for coloring pre-show. Two seating options are available: sprawl out on the floor for the more wiggly kids or take a chair in the back (for those who need a more comfy place to sit their butt). Pre-show announcements help ground the kids for what they are about to experience, and post-show discussion with an IRT teaching artist and cast members actively engages the children to reflect on what they have seen and understand the story’s life lessons. There is even a study guide available for parents and teachers.

In case you aren’t familiar with the story, the mouse William lives with his grandmother in a cozy if shabby little boot in the country, and they are happy. One day his fancy cousin Monty arrives to tell William that he has inherited a posh boot in the attic of a nice house in the city, where she is from. William decides to take this adventure to the city and see what it is like.

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Indiana Repertory Theatre: “Town Mouse and Country Mouse”

Benjamin Hanna directs the dedicated cast of Paeton Chavis as Monty, Carlos Medina Maldonado as Snowey, Brianna Milan as Silver, Grant Somkiet O’Meara as William, and Claire Wilcher as Granny. They all dive enthusiastically into their storybook characters and make them come alive in a way children rarely get to see outside of their imaginations, encouraging a new perspective. Chavis is a hoot in her mousy finery and high-life affectations, and Maldonado and Milan make a great devil-angel set as “the twins.” Wilcher is everything you would want in a loving and supportive grandmother, and O’Meara, as the only kid in the cast, holds his own admirably.

When my eight-year-old son was asked what his favorite part was, he immediately responded with the fight between Monty and the cat, in which Monty defends himself with a button for a shield and a sewing needle as a sword. But I know for fact that he also loved the songs that the kids participate in. In fact, about halfway through the one-hour show, he turned to me and declared with a grin, “This is great!” I can’t think of a better compliment than that.

  • Feb. 24-March 25
  • Children Storytime Seating $8; adult Storytime Seating $15; all chair seating $25
  • www.irtlive.com
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Indiana Repertory Theatre’s Exploring Stages production: “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse”
Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

Carmel Community Players: “Other Desert Cities” (4 stars)

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Camel Community Players: “Other Desert Cities”

Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities delves into family dynamics that are often left lying. But eventually, these issues tend to surface even with the most careful of burials. Here, estranged daughter Brooke returns to her family home after having published a successful novel several years ago, but nothing else was forthcoming. At least, that’s what her family thinks. In fact, she has drafted a tell-all memoir about her uber-right-wing mother and father and about her older brother’s suicide, a death that left her scarred.

The Christmas “celebration,” set in 2004, includes her mother, Polly, her father, Lyman, her other brother, Trip, and her aunt, Silda. As soon as Brooke arrives, the verbal sparring begins. The script is packed with details about these characters, and sometimes it feels as if you are watching a particularly volatile tennis match.

What initially drew me to the production is the inclusion of two of Indianapolis’s best-known veteran actors: Ronn Johnstone, as Lyman, and Miki Mathioudakis, as Silda. Johnstone doesn’t get to exercise his acting chops much because his on-stage wife, Vickie Cornelius, as Polly, controls (or tries to) her family with the proverbial iron fist. Lyman often buckles under Polly’s arrogance, which is peppered with egotistical name-dropping. They accentuate each other’s character’s weaknesses (but few strengths).

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Carmel Community Players: “Other Desert Cities”

Mathioudakis is, of course, awesome as the eccentric, drunk Silda. She brings much-needed levity to often-tense scenes. Silda sloshes through the family’s imminent implosion without even a nod to propriety. Mathioudakis waves off her sister and brother in-law easily. She’s the cool aunt to Trip and Brooke, a supporter that their mother is incapable of being, even if her idiosyncrasy leaves irritation and exasperation in its wake, respectively.

Opening night, Shannon Samson, as Brooke, took a while to settle into her role, but once she did, the intensity of her character’s emotions pour through However, she sometimes comes off as a whiny, peevish teenager instead of the well-educated, passionate woman she insists she is. Jeremy Tuterow, as Trip, plays a supporting role most of the time. His character is also a disappointment to the family matriarch; he produces a B-grade reality TV show. Tuterow’s Trip tries to lighten the mood; he’s the playful youngest. But often his character just wants to keep the hell out of it. There’s not much depth there, but he does try to defend his sister.

Director Jim Lamonte has brought together a cast that feeds off each other to reveal the deeply emotional and dysfunctional structure of the family. At first, it can be hard to keep up because the audience is bombarded with a lot of information. But hang in there. It will pay off in the end.

  • Through Feb. 11, 7:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays
  • $16; $14 seniors and students
  • carmelplayers.org
Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

Footlite Musicals: “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” (3.5 stars)

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Footlite Musicals: “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”

The 1978 Broadway musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas along with its 1982 film adaptation starring Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton made known the story of the infamous Texan “Chicken Ranch.” Yes, this show is actually inspired by a true story, though sensationalized for public consumption. Regardless, it’s a fascinating fact of history that the brothel stayed in business from 1905 to 1973.

Footlite Musicals with director Jim Thorp do the show proud. The huge singing and dancing cast (thanks to vocal director Rick Barber and musical director Will Scharfenberger) fills up the stage with realistic scenic design (Fred Margison, Rich Baker, Therese Burns, and Thorp) and dazzling costumes (designed by Jeff Farley) for that big, powerful musical feel, and the production maintains its high-energy appeal to the end.

Lead Julie Powers is stunning in both her portrayal of Miss Mona and her musical numbers, most notably the closer, “Bus from Amarillo.” She is supported by equally arresting performances by “Twenty-Four Hours of Lovin’” by Eryn Bowser as Jewel, “Doatsey Mae” by Jennifer Kaufmann, and “Hard Candy Christmas” led by Abby Okerson as Angel (ubiquitous sound issues aside). Fun-to-watch ensemble numbers include “20 Fans” and “The Aggie Song.” A surprising addition to the kudos is the engaging narrator (normally a relatively flat part) played by Rick Barber. The live orchestra on stage and in costume is a nice touch.

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Footlite Musicals: “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”

Mike Bauerle as takes on the combustible Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd well, against the effectively nosy Melvin P. Thorpe played by Todd Hammer. Jim Nelms as the Texas governor gets in there with a convincing political “Sidestep.”

This is just a fun, upbeat, (mostly) feel-good show that is consistently entertaining. Some technical issues, off notes, and occasional fumble aside, this is a nice alternative to the overwhelming number of holiday shows on stage around town.

  • Nov. 24-Dec. 10, Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; Sundays at 2:30 p.m.
  • $23; youth (17 and under) $15. The first Sunday matinee and all Thursday performances are only $10 each.
  • www.footlite.org
Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

Fat Turtle Theatre Company: “Glengarry Glen Ross” (3 stars)

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Fat Turtle Theatre Company’s “Glengarry Glen Ross”

Fat Turtle Productions made a bold choice in its premiere production, Glengarry Glen Ross. The show demands only the most dynamic actors, and while the cast here is good, the show eventually succumbes to its own tedious weight.

David Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize winner follows four Chicago real estate agents in frenzied attempts to “make the board” no matter what tactics it takes to get there. In typical Mamet mode, the show is talk talk talk, and these men snipe snipe snipe.

As office manager John Williamson, Ryan Reddick consistently gives off a “fuck you” attitude even when Doug Powers as Shelly Levene does an admirable job of ripping into him. His excitement is warranted, as the audience previously saw Powers display his character’s desperation to get a decent lead and get back in the game after a lengthy dry spell. Jeff Maess as George Aaronow also gets to evolve into anger as his initial lost boy countenance, battered by hypotheticals from Luke McConnell as Dave Moss, morphs under pressure.

Tristan Ross as Richard Roma is the most charismatic of the salesmen, and his circular speech is demonstrated on the mousy James Lingk (played by Rex Riddle). Jason Page as Detective Baylen gets to try to strong-arm the men, but in the face of these rash characters, he stands little chance.

Mamet isn’t for everyone, but if you’re a fan of him or the film version of the play, this production, directed by Aaron Cleveland, may be worth checking out.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Sister Act” at Footlite Musicals (4 stars)

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“Sister Act” at Footlite Musicals. Photo Credit: Rick Galloway.

Footlite Musicals has yet another hit with its production of the popular Sister Act, which is based on the 1992 movie starring Whoopi Goldberg.

Morgan Webster as Deloris Van Cartier has the sound and the moves for the Reno singer. Once ensconced in the convent, she is joined by her gaggle of new friends and “sisters,” including the adorable postulate Sister Mary Robert (Bailey Jane Williams, who sings an especially memorable “The Life I Never Led”) and the insidiously happy Sister Mary Patrick (Nina Stilabower), among many others.

Donald Marter (as police officer Eddie), in his unrequired love for Deloris, is a riot in his “I Could Be the Guy,” as is Jonathan Studdard as TJ. Studdard, Daniel Draves, and Josh Vander Missen are another highlight in “Lady in the Long Black Dress.”

Director Paula Phelan and musical director Zak Tschiniak have crafted a real crowd-pleaser.

  • Sept. 21-Oct. 8, Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays at 2:30 p.m.
  • $23; $15 youth. Thursdays and Sundays only $10.
  • www.footlite.org
Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre (5 stars)

“There is a tension between everything that I am and everything that might be conventional for an actor. This is the same tension that makes incredible theater. No one wants to see something if it is too comfortable. Every performance should have a tension between what feels easy and what feels risky. When a grand piano is gracefully lowered out of a window by a rope onto a flatbed truck, slowly spinning and dangling, the tension of the rope is what everyone is watching. In theater, the performer is the rope, making the incredible look graceful and easy, making the audience complicit in every thought, every tactical switch. When the rope goes slack, the show is over.”

—Mickey Rowe, from the program for the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

 

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“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre

Mickey Rowe is the first American autistic performer to portray the main character, also autistic, in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The story begins with a 15-year-old autistic boy named Christopher who is intent on sleuthing out the murderer of his neighbor’s dog. From there, more than just the crime becomes paramount. Christopher discovers secrets about his family and his own strength and courage.

Through Christopher, the audience is granted a small look into what autism looks and feels like. In Christopher’s case, he is in constant sensory overload. As he describes it, while other people just glance at their surroundings, he instinctively catalogues everything, from the number and color of cows in a pasture to the details of a small village. Physical contact is overwhelming, and metaphor and slang are like riddles for the literal-minded boy. Coping with a differently abled child—especially your own—is a confusing and stress-filled journey. Often, these families disintegrate because of it, as is the case with Christopher’s father (Robert Neal as Ed) and mother (Constance Macy as Judy).

Christopher is lucky to have a special teacher at his school, Siobhan (Elizabeth Ledo), to encourage him and guide him with coping mechanisms that ease his interactions with his environment. When things get too hard to handle, Christopher falls back on numbers—a straightforward language that he easily relates to.

Rowe is a consummate actor, having experience in the Seattle Opera, Seattle Children’s Theatre, Seattle Shakespeare Company, Book-It Repertory Theatre, Washington Ensemble Theatre, and more, as well as being the artistic director of Arts on the Waterfront. With movement coordinator Mariel Greenlee, he uses his own love of physical stimulus to fluidly glide through scenic designer Russell Metheny’s translucent rolling screens, which define spaces and locations. (Rowe also has copious circus skills).

The ensemble cast, under the direction of Risa Brainin, revolves around Rowe, who is always central to whatever is happening around him. They all interact seamlessly to create a story with heartache, truth, hope, love, and even humor.

The play’s title is a reference to Sherlock Holmes in the short story “Silver Blaze.” The book garnered several awards, and the play took home the 2015 Tony Award for Best Play.

  • Sept. 19-Oct. 14
  • $20-$75
  • Friday, Sept. 22, performance at 7:30 p.m. Opening Night: Join the IRT for opening night and experience the theater like you never have before! Immediately following this performance join cast, staff, and patrons in the lobby for appetizers and a celebratory champagne toast. Afterwards, explore the set and connect with the artisans who bring the set to life.
  • Saturday, Sep. 30, performance at 1 p.m. Sensory Friendly Performance: IRT will be hosting a sensory friendly performance including a variety of accommodations designed to help patrons with sensory issues experience an IRT performance.
    Saturday, Sept. 30, performance at 5 p.m. Backstage Tour: Immediately following this performance, join IRT staff for an exploratory and informative backstage tour. Tours typically list 30 minutes.
  • Sunday, Oct. 1, performance at 2 p.m. IRTea Talk & ASL/AD: This post-show discussion is paired with tea and cookies and takes place immediately following the performance. Post-show discussions typically last for 20 minutes. Dr. Carl Sundberg, Chief Clinician at the Behavior Analysis Center for Autism and Cecilia Coble, Fishers City Councilor At-Large, are both honored to be on the panel. Dr. Sundberg received his doctorate degree in ABA from Western Michigan University and has over 30 years of experience using behavioral interventions to teach individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities. Ms. Coble, having a daughter with autism, has experience in being a community activist and volunteer in organizations such as the Fisher’s ADA Citizen’s Advisory Task Force.
  • Thursday, Oct. 5, performance at 2 p.m. Cookies & Coffee and Post-Show Discussion: Coffee, tea, and cookies can be enjoyed before this matinee performance. Doors open at 1 p.m. Join IRT staff and cast immediately after the performance for a post-show discussion that covers a variety of interesting topics related to the show. Post-show discussions typically last for 20 minutes.
  • Tuesday, Oct. 10, performance at 6:30 p.m. Happy Hour: Enjoy complimentary appetizers from Happy Hour series sponsor Weber Grill. New Day Craft, Hotel Tango, Taxman Brewing Co., St. Joseph Brewery, TwoDEEP, and Tastings will also be on site for patrons to sample local libations. Half-price drinks will be available throughout the performance.  Happy hour starts at 5:30 p.m.
  • Thursday, Oct. 12, performance at 7:30 p.m. Post-Show Discussion: Join IRT staff and cast immediately after the performance for a post-show discussion that covers a variety of interesting topics related to the show. Post-show discussions typically last for 20 minutes.
  • http://www.irtlive.com
Posted in Indianapolis theater: previews

Openings for the weekend of Feb. 17

Ha, look at me being all responsible and doing this early. Yay me!

theater_masks_silhouetteEver wanted to be on the inside of a theater’s workings? Buck Creek Players is having an annual Dinner and General Membership meeting Sunday, February 26. Dinner is at 6 p.m. with the meeting at 7 p.m. All current Buck Creek Players members and their families are invited. Not a member? Join up here. Donations  are appreciated to help cover the cost of the dinner. RSVP by Friday, February 24th, to reserve your place by e-mailing buckcreekplayers@yahoo.com.

And on to the openings.

Theatre on the Square: “The Money Shot”

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Photography: ZACH ROSING

Poster design: LORI RAFFEL

Neil LaBute’s darkly funny look at all things Hollywood. Steve (Earl Campbell) and Karen (Sarah McGee), screen idols past their peak in desperate need of a hit, have assembled in her Hollywood hills home to discuss a sensitive professional matter with their respective partners. But before they commit their coupling to digital eternity, they want to clear it with Bev (LisaMarie Smith), Karen’s live-in girlfriend, and Missy (Lauren Hall), Steve’s much younger wife. The meeting starts nasty, turns nastier, and is consistently hilarious.

Feb. 17-March 4

$20-$25

Phoenix Theatre: “An Act of God”

In this sinfully funny new play, the Almighty and His devoted Angels answer some of the deepest existential questions to ever plague mankind. He’s returned to set the record straight…and he’s not holding back! The stage play is adapted from Javerbaum’s “The Last Testament: A Memoir By God,” which itself began as “a series of Tweets.”

Feb. 16-March 12

$20-$33

Mud Creek Players: “Rabbit Hole”

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“Rabbit Hole” at Mud Creek Players

“Rabbit Hole” is a Pulitzer Prize-winning, contemporary American drama with a huge heart and good-natured sense of humor. We meet Becca and Howie, a successful, professional couple, some months after the loss of their only child in a terrible accident. While the soul of the story reflects the struggles of a family learning to cope with their loss, it is in the subtle humor of real life that we are invited to explore what it means to be human: to love, to laugh, to lose and to keep on living. Rated PG13.

Feb. 17-March 4

$15 per person; $13 Sunday matinee

Posted in Indianapolis theater: previews

Theatre on the Square presents “Love Letters” and more in February

lovelettersTheatre on the Square has a busy lineup this month. Staged readings of “the world’s most romantic comedy,” “Love Letters” by A. R. Gurney, continue through Valentine’s Day, performed by some of Indy’s most famous theater “couples.”

Tickets are $20. All proceeds go to Theatre on the Square!

TONIGHT: Saturday, February 11 at 8 pm
Scot Greenwell and Zack Neiditch

Sunday, February 12 at 5 pm
Josh Ramsey and Carrie Schlatter

Tuesday, February 14 at 8 pm
Claire Wilcher and Ben Asaykwee

MORE FEBRUARY EVENTS:

INDYPROV
Saturday, February 11 at 8:00 pm

THE MONEY SHOT

Neil LaBute’s darkly funny look at all things Hollywood. Steve (Earl Campbell) and Karen (Sarah McGee), screen idols past their peak in desperate need of a hit, have assembled in her Hollywood hills home to discuss a sensitive professional matter with their respective partners. But before they commit their coupling to digital eternity, they want to clear it with Bev (LisaMarie Smith), Karen’s live-in girlfriend, and Missy (Lauren Hall), Steve’s much younger wife. The meeting starts nasty, turns nastier and is consistently hilarious.

Feb. 17-March 4

ANGEL BURLESQUE’s  Vagina Show – Rejuvinated
Friday and Saturday, February 17 and 18 at 8:00 pm

LIGHT AND SHADOW:  A new musical about Jack the Ripper
Friday, February 24 at 7:00 pm

RIOT COMEDY SHOW
Saturday, February 25 at 9:00 pm

Posted in Indianapolis theater: previews

Carmel Community Players opens “Suite Surrender”

I know this opened last night, but, in the mind-set of better late than never: Carmel Community Players is presenting the comedy “Suite Surrender” by Michael McKeever.

From the press release:

unnamed It’s 1942, and the luxurious Palm Beach Royale Hotel is under siege as two of Hollywood’s biggest divas vie for the same suite. Mistaken identities, overblown egos, double entendres, and one pampered little lap dog round out this fall-down-laughing riot of a comedy. An all-out love note to those wonderful farces of the ’30s and ’40s.

Check out a video preview for Suite Surrender!

Carmel Community Playhouse at Clay Terrace
When : Feb. 10, 11, 12; Feb. 17, 18, 19; and Feb. 24, 25, 26
Show times: 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays
Tickets : $16 adults, $14 seniors (62+), $14 students

No service fee charged for purchasing online.

CCP now sells beer & wine at the concession stand!

Posted in Indianapolis theater: previews

“Rumors” opens at Civic Theatre Feb. 3

Sorry about the late notice! NUVO doesn’t have me covering anything this weekend, but I’m happy to pass on that Neil Simon’s Rumors is opening at the Indianapolis Civic Theatre this weekend!

From the website:

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“Rumors” at Civic Theatre

At a large, tastefully appointed Sneden’s Landing townhouse, the Deputy Mayor of New York has just shot himself. Though only a flesh wound, four couples are about to experience a severe attack of farce. Gathering for their tenth wedding anniversary, the host lies bleeding in the other room, and his wife is nowhere in sight. His lawyer, Ken, and wife, Chris, must get “the story” straight before the other guests arrive. As the confusions and miscommunications mount, the evening spins off into classic farcical hilarity.

February 3- 18, 2017

Showtimes
Thursday, Friday, & Saturday @ 7pm
Sunday @ 2pm
Final Saturday @ 5pm

Tickets are $40.50 and student discounts are available. Tickets can be purchased at civictheatre.org.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” at the Indiana Repertory Theater (5 stars)

 

 

Director Skip Greer infuses humor into the show to balance the serious issues put forward by the play, keeping the audience engaged and entertained without feeling overwhelmed or preached to.

Chiké Johnson and Annie Munch in the IRT's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." Photo by Zach Rosing.
Chiké Johnson and Annie Munch in the IRT’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Photo by Zach Rosing.

***

Most people seem to be more familiar with William Rose’s 1967 screenplay of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner than the 2013 stage adaptation by Todd Kreidler, which is now at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. But the play holds true to the crux of the film: the slow, sometimes even painful evolution of racial relations, the importance of the family unit, and the strength of love.

Upper-middle-class Matt Drayton, played by Craig Spidle, is a vocal proponent of social justice. But when his ideals are challenged in real life, his stance changes abruptly. His 25-year-old daughter Joanna, played by Annie Munch, returns from her medical internship in Hawaii with a surprise: her fiancé, a 36-year-old widower who is a successful, acclaimed, but modest doctor who happens to be black.

If Dr. John Prentice, played by Chiké Johnson, had been white, would the family have reacted differently to their daughter’s whirlwind engagement and her plans to marry when she imminently follows her beau to Germany? Instead, the conflict is completely centered on the fact that the man is black. Each of their families is opposed to the match due to race; both think this will somehow ruin the couple’s lives.

Spidle’s Matt is all tirades, but Brigitt Markusfeld, as Matt’s wife Christina, approaches the role with a calmer attitude, (very) slowly grounding her husband’s bluster. Christina realizes how poorly they are acting when her assistant Hillary, who seems to be a harmless if affectatious woman played by Constance Macy, spews bigotry in her matter-of-fact plan to break up Joanna and John.

But it’s Tille, the Draytons’ black housekeeper, played by Lynda Gravátt, who is initially the most antagonistic toward John; however, she also provides a wealth of laughter (at least for the audience), as does Monsignor Ryan, played by Mark Goetzinger, a jovial, sotted voice of reason.

Munch’s Joanna is a bundle of upbeat, positive energy in contrast to Johnson, whose John exudes a more mature, refined demeanor—and a realistic one. He won’t proceed with the relationship if Joanna’s parents won’t approve it, knowing that their support is crucial to the couple’s life together.

But then Joanna ups the ante by secretly inviting John’s parents to dinner. Both of them are as shocked by the situation as Joanna’s parents are. The audience’s first glimpse of Nora Cole as John’s mother Mary is priceless. The look on her face says it all. John Prentice Sr., played by Cleavant Derricks, is even more biting than Matt is in his onslaughts toward John Jr.

Director Skip Greer infuses humor into the show to balance the serious issues put forward by the play, keeping the audience engaged and entertained without feeling overwhelmed or preached to.

B. Modern’s costume design is spot-on for the times, but most striking is the truly awesome set designed by Robert M. Koharchik. The multilevel, detailed set is possibly his most impressive creation yet.

 

Continues through February 4

Recommended for patrons in ninth grade and older; contains strong language, including racially charged dialogue.

Tickets are $20-$75

IRTEA TALK January 22, performance at 2 PM

HAPPY HOUR January 24, performance at 6:30 PM

POST-SHOW DISCUSSION February 2, performance at 2 PM

COOKIES & COFFEE February 2, performance at 2 PM

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Beauty and the Beast” at Indianapolis Civic Theatre (4 stars)

 

bb1In summary:  Ron Morgan directs (and choreographs) the excellent cast through this “tale as old as time” with all the sweetness and elegance that audiences expect from this elaborate production.

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From the opening number to the curtain call, you will love being Indianapolis Civic Theatre’s guest for its production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Ron Morgan directs (and choreographs) the excellent Virginia Vasquez (Belle), Will Tople (Beast), Andrew Dalstrom (Gaston), and the rest of the large cast through this “tale as old as time” with all the sweetness and elegance that audiences expect from this elaborate production. Ryan Koharchik’s beautiful backdrops perfectly capture the settings, and Adrienne Conces’s costumes are spot-on.

Small distractions include too much reverb, Cogsworth’s painful light reflection, and some confusing utensils, but these quibbles won’t detract from audiences’ thorough enjoyment of this classic.

Through Jan. 1; $49.50

Thursday, Friday, & Saturday @ 7pm
Saturday & Sunday @ 2pm

Beauty & the Beast Holiday High Tea at Tina’s Traditional Old English Tea Kitchen, December 16 & 23

Brunch with Belle at 502 East, December 18

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Every Christmas Story Ever Told” at Buck Creek Players (5 stars)

Photo by photogary.net
Photo by photogary.net

In summary: The cast and crew have created a holiday show that is actually entertaining instead of just another tradition. This one deserves all the money.


Buck Creek Players’ production of Every Christmas Story Ever Told is what other holiday sendups only wish they were: genuinely, uproariously funny. Director D. Scott Robinson and the trio of actors, Jessica Bartley, Stacia Ann Hulen, and Steven R. Linville, get the credit for the show’s out-of-control hilarity. I laughed so hard I snorted, and I literally almost fell out of my chair when demon-Frosty boomed, “I’ll be back again someday!” And really, who can resist a shiny green codpiece on the Nutcracker? (Two weeks running, I’ve gotten to use “codpiece” in a review.)

The premise of the show is built around Steven’s insistence that A Christmas Carol is the most appropriate holiday offering, but Jessica and Stacia just as adamantly disagree, saying that other BHCs (Beloved Holiday Classics) are as deserving. And so they bust away from Carol and into the “drug-induced orgy of theft” that is How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Other memorable programs are also given the abbreviated treatment, but due to copyright issues, one claymation classic is revamped, with Gustave the Green-Nosed Goat and his oral hygiene elf heading to an island with freakish playthings, such as a Pee-wee Herman pull toy.

The show is such a success because of the genuine energy and abandonment that the cast exudes. They aren’t just playing parts—they are interacting, having a good time, and even cracking each other up. Which segues into the warning that some audience members will be conscripted onto the stage, and the show is rated PG-13.

Cathy Cutshall’s costume design adds those ingenious touches that take the joke further, and Aaron B. Bailey’s set design is a book-lover’s dream. The cast and crew have created a holiday show that is actually entertaining instead of just another tradition. This one deserves all the money. Pack the house. And if the hints during the show aren’t enough to remind you, buy the cookies in the lobby.

5stars

December 2, 3, 9, 10, 16 & 17 at 8 p.m.
December 4, 11 & 18 at 2:30 p.m.

$18 adults
$16 children & students
$16 senior citizens (62 & up)

 

 

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Spamalot” at Footlite Musicals (4 stars)

Photograph by Gary Nelson
Photograph by Gary Nelson

In summary: There’s so much good here that it overwhelms many of the production’s flaws.

Mounting a production of Spamalot is a bold move for Footlite Musicals. The show is based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a 1975 movie that garnered a cultish following, and that following, along with Broadway trivia buffs, helped make the musical a smash hit on Broadway, even if Terry Gilliam did call it “Python-lite.” Plus, the original cast included Tim Curry, Sara Ramirez, Hank Azaria, and David Hyde Pierce, among others. Given the show’s history (and having seen it twice in touring productions), scaling back my expectations was difficult at first, especially when the sound was distorted and the lighting was off. However, on more objectively evaluating Footlite’s production, it really is a remarkable success. Cast and crew are made up completely of volunteers, but this did not stop them from turning out a production with ingenious costuming, well-executed sets, and a cast packed with talent.

Rich Baker leads the knights and ladies through this show of carefully orchestrated silliness. And while Arthur is the central figure of the eponymous legends, the first laurels must go to Rebecca Devries McConnell as the Lady of the Lake. Her ability to bring down the castle in “The Diva’s Lament” would make Sara Ramirez proud, and her scatting in “Knights of the Round Table” is spot-on, as is “Find Your Grail.”

That said, Drew Duvall most certainly holds his own as King Arthur, especially in his rendition of “I’m All Alone” with his loyal, and hilarious, manservant Patsy, Vince Accetturo, who shines in “Always Look at the Bright Side of Life.” Arthur’s knights—Christopher Jones (Sir Robin), Christian Condra (Sir Lancelot), Tony Schaab (Dennis/Sir Galahad), Clint Buechler (Sir Bedevere), and Sam Surette (Sir Bors)—individually create distinct and inherently outrageous characters while collectively adding to the dynamic humor of the show (like in “Knights of the Round Table”). Jones pulls off a perfectly cheeky “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway,” and Condra is screechingly funny in his complete embrace of the rainbow in the too-brief “His Name Is Lancelot” (with help from THAT CODPIECE. Thank you, costume designer Jeff Farley, and for all your other masterworks here.).

There’s so much good here that it overwhelms many of the production’s flaws. And even mistakes can add to the entertainment—some bumbled dismembering of the Black Knight on Sunday made the scene even more comical.

4stars

 

Thursday @ 7:30 pm
Friday @ 7:30 pm Saturday @ 7:30 pm Sunday @ 2:30 pm
N/A November 25 November 26 November 27
December 1 December 2 December 3 December 4
December 8 December 9 December 10 December 11

Adults – $23.00
Youth (17 and under) – $15

Discount Days: All Thursday evening performances and opening weekend Sunday matinee: $10 all seats.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“A Very Phoenix Xmas 11” at the Phoenix Theatre (3.5 stars)

 

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Photo by Zach Rosing

In summary: What is consistent is the excellent cast. No matter what the setting or situation, each of them pulls it off effortlessly.

 

Eleven years running, and you still don’t know what to expect. A Very Phoenix Xmas 11 is the latest incarnation in the Phoenix Theatre’s commitment to bring its audiences unique and brand-new shenanigans for the holiday season. The show goes melodramatically PC this year by including some less-well-known customs from other countries to show us that we are all weird in our own ways; hence the tagline “I’m dreaming of an intersectionally thoughtful, multicultural winter holiday.”

Directed by Bryan Fonseca, he and playwright Tom Horan “curated” short pieces from eight contributors and mashed them together into a hit-and-miss hodgepodge of goofy, confusing, tragic, and even bunny-murdering stories performed collectively by Jean Childers-Arnold, Paeton Chavis, Paul Collier Hansen, Andrea Heiden, Jay Hemphill, Devan Mathias, and Keith Potts. From the hell that is the “It’s a Small World” ride, to Christmas dinner Mad Libs, to another kind of hell in the Syrian civil war, to puppets—the content runs the gamut and then some. What is consistent is the excellent cast. No matter what the setting or situation, each of them pulls it off effortlessly. My personal favorite: a “Night Before Christmas” tap rap by Potts and Collier Hansen.

Special accolades must also be given to the technical crew that made such a wide array of topics accessible on a single stage. I can’t reprint the program page here, but a very special Christmahannukwanzadanstice to them too.

3-5stars

Wed Dec 7, 2016 7PM
Thu Dec 8, 2016 7PM 
Fri Dec 9, 2016 8PM 
Sat Dec 10, 2016 8PM 
Sun Dec 11, 2016 2PM 
Wed Dec 14, 2016 7PM

$22/$30

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“A Christmas Carol” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre (4 stars)

Photos by Zach Rosing
Photo by Zach Rosing

In summary: The productions are consistently posh in every way—as John Hammond would say, its creators “spare no expense.” Even as the show has evolved over the last quarter century, it has remained the perfect picture postcard of Christmas.

 

This is the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s 25th year of producing A Christmas Carol, a tradition not only for it but also for many families in the greater Indianapolis area. This year, I was able to return to the show for the first time in seven years after taking a maternally induced writing hiatus, and I found that many of the elements that make this show so beautiful are still intact: a plethora of Indianapolis’ favorite actors, the choral recitation of lines, just the right amount of music, the gorgeous backdrop of haunting ruins, beautiful period costumes, dramatic lighting, the spooky entrance of the Ghost of Christmas Past, and of course lots and lots and lots of snow. But different faces pop up in different roles, Tiny Tims have to stay tiny, the script is trimmed here and there, and a director’s personal touches add new nuance.

IRT Executive Artistic Director Janet Allen takes the directorial reins this year for the first time since 1998—and what strikes me the most in this rendition is the portrayal of Scrooge. Ryan Artzberger is so intense that there is no caricature to his character. His Ebenezer truly is terrifying, and while that kind of believability is usually lauded onstage, in this setting, it is intimidating. If I had been one of the charity solicitors, I would have shit my pants when Scrooge charged at me with that ruler. With no humorous or relatable edging, it’s hard to root for Scrooge’s transformation. And his eventual redemption is creepy in its own way. Artzberger’s laugh seems calculatingly sinister instead of sincere, as if he’s going to buy the giant turkey and then use Tiny Tim as stuffing.

Charles Goad (Marley’s ghost, et al), Constance Macy (Mrs. Fezziwig, et al), Emily Ristine (Christmas Past, Mrs. Cratchit, et al), Milicent Wright (Christmas Present, et al), Charles Pasternak (young Scrooge, Fred, et al), and Jeremy Fisher (young Marley, Bob Cratchit) all play their roles with panache, as does the crowd of other thespians on stage.

The productions are consistently posh in every way—as John Hammond would say, its creators “spare no expense.” Even as the show has evolved over the last quarter century, it has remained the perfect picture postcard of Christmas.

4stars

Through Dec. 24

$25-$75

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Blackberry Winter” at Theatre on the Square (1.5 stars)

Photo by Zach Rosing
Photo by Zach Rosing

For National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month, Theatre on the Square is presenting Blackberry Winter, a relatively new play by Steve Yockey. Vivienne Avery is a middle-aged baker who oversees her mother’s care. Her mother’s Alzheimer’s has progressed to the point that Vivienne must come to terms with the transition from assisted-living facility to a nursing home.

Samples of the baked goods that Vivienne boasts about would help make the show easier to swallow. While Vivienne repeatedly insists, “It’s not about me,” her incessant bitching about her life gets old—fast. As does the amount of time spent on immaterial details, such as the intricate recitation of a recipe for coconut cake. The tired script is flatly, haltingly delivered by Gari Williams, who had to reference notes Saturday night. It is practically a one-woman play, which is challenging for an actor, to say the least, and I can’t really blame her for not remembering the rambling lines of her character. There is nothing enlightening or entertaining here.

In addition, there is a bizarre Alzheimer’s origin myth created by Vivienne. Using animals. Chelsea Anderson is lovely as a lively, high-spirited white egret, and Dan Flahive somehow actually captures the essence of a slightly cantankerous gray mole. As absolutely ridiculous as this premise is, Anderson and Flahive insert some much-needed diversion. Sadly, the first of their-three part installment is abandoned in favor of a tirade by Vivienne about scarves. Yet Anderson and Flahive are left on stage to look interested in Vivienne’s monologue until they finally get another turn. Those three short scenes helped me endure the 80 minutes of this play.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Cabaret” at Actors Theatre of Indiana (3.5 stars)

 

photo by Zach Rosing

Cabaret turns 50 this year, making it an advantageous time to revisit it—not to mention how its theme, impending political doom, sums up 2016. Actors Theatre of Indiana scales down the staging a bit for this production in its black-box studio located inside in the Carmel Performing Arts Center.

Directed by Billy Kimmel, the production gives the audience pretty much what it’s expecting: leather and lace, commentary on societal expectations, and the inevitability of catastrophe, all imbedded in well-known musical numbers.

Ben Asaykwee takes on the iconic role of the Emcee, whom he plays as less of a slightly disturbing pansexual and more as an escaped mental patient. His wild eyes seem to have been given the Clockwork Orange treatment. That aside, he performs admirably in both narrative and song, most often with his Kit Kat girls and boys: Nicole Bridgens, Jeneé Michelle, Ashley Saunders, Carol Worcel, Nicholas Roman, and Kenny Shepard with choreography by Carol Worcel.

ATI co-founder Cynthia Collins portrays a world-weary version of Sally Bowles—a Sally who can almost be pitied for her forced frivolity, fully knowing that her life is the joke and she’s on her way out. Collins’s rendition of “Maybe This Time” conveys this, as it lacks the actual hopefulness others have put into this song. While Collins is a strong vocalist, the overuse of audio effects though the sound system, especially in the above-mentioned song, detracts from her voice’s natural modulations.

Opposite Sally is Cliff Bradshaw, who is given a sincere, likable demeanor by Eric J. Olsen that is emphasized by his generous smile. (Though the question of his sexuality is played down considerably here.) He contrasts well with the very convincing Patrick Vaughn as Ernst Ludwig, whose affability is tempered by his matter-of-fact attitude toward Nazi politics.

Some of the most engaging performances are found in the supporting cast, which also includes Judy Fitzgerald as Fräulein Kost, Debra Babich as Fräulein Schneider, and Darrin Murrell as Herr Schultz. Babich and Murrell imbue true emotions into their so-sweet rendition of “It Couldn’t Please Me More” (the pineapple song).

The band (musical direction by John D. Phillips), on stage behind sliding screens, even gets in on the fun with some alternative costuming.

Do note that the show contains mature content and themes, and the ATI suggest that it is suitable for ages 16 years and older.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Young Frankenstein” at Civic Theatre

img_07724.5 stars

 

While Mel Brooks fans will be especially giddy with anticipation for the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre’s season opener, Young Frankenstein, (if they haven’t seen it already during opening weekend), anyone who savors an across-the-board top-notch musical comedy will be deliriously dazzled by the sheer quality of this staging. Having seen a professional touring production of the show several years ago, I can confidently state that Civic’s group of thespians outdid their travelling counterparts in talent, enthusiasm, and commitment.

The show’s transfer from film to stage kept intact the lowbrow comedy that make Brooks’ parodies so hilarious and inspired a dedicated following: ridiculous slapstick, bizarre situations, sexual innuendo, and outright dick jokes presented in unapologetic quantities.

Director Michael Lasley indulges us with shticky pleasures while achieving and maintaining excellence in performance and presentation. Jaw-dropping scenery frames ensemble musical numbers that come at you with the power of a case of 5-hour Energy drinks, choreographed and staged by Anne Nicole Beck with musical direction by Brent Marty and a live orchestra under the baton of Trevor Fanning. The most fantastical number, “Family Business,” contains not only a noteworthy performance by Evan Wallace as Grandpa Frankenstein but also a ginourmous puppet of the monster that is awe inspiring and unnerving.

Steve Kruze embraces the role of Frederick Frankenstein while insinuating his own take on the doctor, but hardcore fans won’t be turned off by his interpretation of the iconic character. He asserts his dominance of the stage from his first scene, “The Brain,” and never lets go. Nathalie Cruz also puts her own coquettish mark on Elizabeth, Frederick’s fiancée. Roles that more closely reflect their film versions are Igor by Damon Clevenger, Inga by Devan Mathias, Frau Blücher (“neigh!”) by Vickie Cornelius Phipps, and the Monster by B. J. Bovin. This in no way means that they aren’t exceptional—they own their caricatures 100 percent and revel in their insensible, bawdy humor. All of the main characters deliver knock-out renditions of songs, such as “He Vas My Boyfriend,” “Deep Love,” and “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”

So why take off half a star? Opening night, there were some pretty grating sound and mike issues. For a show of this caliber, it was a shame that occasionally we couldn’t hear the actors.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Dirty Blonde” at Buck Creek Payers

2 stars

 

Photo by photogary.net
Photo by photogary.net

Dirty Blonde by Claudia Shear, now on stage at Buck Creek Players under the direction of Lea Viney, loosely sketches out Mae West’s career arc (1930s through her death in the ’80s) intertwined with the present-day (fictional) story of Jo and Charlie who form a relationship based on their mutual obsession over the actress. While not strictly a musical, it does feature a handful of West’s songs.

Sonja Distefano plays both West and Jo. However, Distefano does not capture the sex appeal, confidence, and propriety-snubbing aura that dripped off West, and her musical numbers feel stiff, as does her posture. She is much better in the role of Jo, giving a sweet, likable persona to a girl who tentatively forges a friendship with the equally awkward Charlie.

Jay Hemphill (as Charlie and many other characters) is the star here. He executes dexterous transformations from character to character, each with a unique look and defining personality. From bowler hat to ball gown, this dynamo convincingly carries off anything.

Michael Patrick Smiley is hit-and-miss in his portrayal of a number of characters. His performances of caricatures (as opposed to more realistic people) are actually his best scenes.

The show’s pacing is bogged down by lengthy scene changes, often-inaudible dialogue, and unnecessary movement. However, Hemphill’s performance and Distefano and Smiley’s shining moments help break up the tedium.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Three Musketeers” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre

threemusketeers4 stars

Most people—even children—are familiar with the basic tale of the brave and daring Three Musketeers and their protégé D’Artagnan. The Indiana Repertory Theatre’s production, adapted for the stage by Catherine Bush, is a brilliant period piece—and we would expect no less from the IRT. Director Henry Woronicz coaxes his cast into a performance that eloquently invokes the time period, enhanced by William Bloodgood’s atmospheric, imposing set that towers over the characters, much as political intrigues hovered threateningly over Paris. The set is complemented by Ann G. Wrightson’s posh lighting, and Devon Painter’s elegant costuming is the finishing touch.

Jeb Burris is thoroughly charming as D’Artagnan in his naivety and dedication. He has a smile that could break hearts. He befriends the swashbuckling titular threesome made up of the prone-to-drunkenness Athos (Ryan Artzberger), the mild Aramis (Nathan Hosner), and the fun-loving Porthos (David Folsom), each of which seems to carry his character’s personality effortlessly. The Musketeers are led by Robert Neal as Monsieur de Treville, who can make hairpin turns from thunderous rage to intimate comradery.

Antagonists in the play are the evil incarnate Rochefort played by Rob Johansen (who is the recipient of some good laughs nonetheless), his subtly cunning cohort Milady de Winter played by Elizabeth Laidlaw, and the intimidating Cardinal Richelieu played by Dan Kremer.

Amanda Catania is sweet as Constance, D’Artagnan’s love interest, and Charles Goad gets a comedic if short turn as the foppish King Louis XIII; these are among the multitude of intriguing characters.

Barry G. Funderburg’s music reflects the tension of the play, but some musical underscoring during fights is distracting. The swordplay is realistic thanks to fight director Paul Dennhardt, but it often goes on too long—something that can be said of the show as a whole.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“The Addams Family” at Footlite Musicals

Photos/design by Gary Nelson
Photos/design by Gary Nelson

4.5 stars

Footlite Musicals’ staging of The Addams Family rides on two things: nostalgia and a strong cast under the direction of a passionate director, Ed Trout.

The musical is actually based on Charles Addams’s cartoons as opposed to the TV and movie adaptations. But all the favorite black-and-white characters, including Thing and Cousin Itt, are depicted to a T here.

The plot is merely a vehicle for catchy songs and a chance to revisit these beloved ghoulish characters. Wednesday (Ivy Bott), now in her 20s, has fallen in love with a regular guy, Lucas (Joseph Massingale). They are secretly engaged, and they plan a dinner so their families can meet and hear their news. But instead of being a show about Wednesday, Gomez (Michael Davis) is the pivotal character, sort of like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof minus the political and religious themes.

There is some excellent staging here. The costumes by designer Curt Pickard are spot-on, and the ethereal chorus of lively dead Ancestors shows an array of styles over the centuries. The Addams mansion, sound effects, and makeup are also grand accomplishments, as is the kicky choreography by Trish Roberds. A personal favorite is Uncle Fester’s (a hilarious Bryan D. Padgett) number “The Moon and Me” that utilizes a black light.

Everyone from lead to chorus does a standout job on stage. Davis and Kathleen Clarke Horrigan create spitting images of Gomez and Morticia (respectively) both physically and in their mannerisms. Both have first-rate performances that include exemplary musical numbers, but the vocal superlatives are Bott and Carrie Neal (as Lucas’s mother Alice), both of whom have powerful voices behind their shy characters’ demeanors. Even Pugsley (seventh-grader Xavier Wilson) gets a good turn in “Pulled” with Bott and “What If” with Grandma Addams (Marie Beason). Rounding out the cast is Darrin Gowan as Lucas’s stuffy father and Trenton Baker as the reticent Lurch.

The lighting and orchestra were a little off on Saturday, but these minor quibbles don’t detract from the show that is a dreadfully guilty pleasure.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Peter and the Starcatcher” at the Phoenix Theatre

 

Photo by Zach Rosing
Photo by Zach Rosing

4 stars

Before there was Tinker Bell, Captain Hook, or the “second star on the right,” there was a nameless, friendless orphan boy.

The Phoenix Theatre opens its season with the Tony Award-nominee Peter and the Starcatcher, a prequel to the well-known Peter Pan stories, which relates the origins of Peter and Neverland.

Set in the 1800s, 13-year-old Molly (Phebe Taylor) is trying to overcome the burden of being a smart girl in a man’s world. Her astute supportive father, Lord Leonard Aster (a dignified Paul Nicely), is a “starcatcher,” and she is a starcatcher in training. Starcatchers gather rare “star stuff,” the dust that remains from a falling star. The Asters board separate ships, accompanying identical trunks—one carrying the queen’s treasure and one containing what appears to be sand. Molly travels on board the Neverland, where she finds a trio of orphans who have been sold into slavery: “Boy” (Nathan Robbins, recently in Hand to God), Ted (Peter Scharbrough), and Prentiss (Tyler Ostrander). Of course, requisite pirates take control of both ships, and the Boy (Peter), who wants to be more than a nameless orphan, helps save the real treasure.

Bryan Fonseca directs a large cast, most of whom play multiple characters. Liberal use of choral speaking gives the play a poetic feeling. James Gross’s set is both sea-worthy and island-accessible, and Emily McGee’s costumes add the finishing time-period touch.

Taylor and Robbins pull a little too hard on childish affectations for my taste, but it is diluted by other intentionally over-the-top characters, such as the flamboyant, malapropism-inclined Captain Black Stache (Eric J. Olson, in a snort-worthy performance), and the tongue-in-cheek romance between Alf (Michael Hosp), a pirate, and Mrs. Bumbrake (John Vessels Jr.), Molly’s nanny. The very un-PC “Injuns” have been replaced with a less racially offensive tribe of islanders, which are led by Fighting Prawn (Ian Cruz, who also embraces the equally outlandish performance); he was an English kitchen slave while a boy, and consequently, after his escape, his vernacular is punctuated with a slew of dishes.

The show is heart-warming if occasionally bittersweet; however, if you are taking kids, note that even though there are singing mermaids, one short event is dark: Peter being caned. I was glad I didn’t take my 7-year-old.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“It’s Only a Play” at Theatre on the Square

photo by Zach Rosing
photo by Zach Rosing

 

4 stars

It’s Only a Play by Terrence McNally (Corpus Christi, Love! Valour! Compassion!, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Ragtime, The Full Monty, etc.) is a theatrical-trivia-lover’s dream. Name-dropping and potshots at the theatrical echelons—especially professional critics—make up the show, in which a new play’s “inner circle” (plus a coat-checker and critic) anxiously await their opening-night reviews.

Audience members with no more than a passing interest in live theater will not get the show as a true fanatic would. References span decades, up to and including Hamilton. However, if you can pick up on even a third of them—they’re pitching-machine fast—you will thoroughly enjoy this sledgehammering of all things stage, which is currently running at Theatre on the Square.

The characters are Breakfast Club-level stereotypes. Adam O. Crowe as James Wicker, a “dear friend” of the playwright (Wicker seems to have many “dear friends”) and a Broadway refugee who has taken up the more lucrative but less dignified work of TV, opens the show with the set-up of the story via a one-sided phone conversation. Crowe immediately lets us know that this is going to be fun—and snarky. Crowe gets to express the widest array of emotions of the characters: congenial, gossipy, defensive, jovial, devastated, and even sympathetic—all of which he does with charisma.

Dave Ruark plays Peter Austin, the playwright, as a fragile artist. Ruark’s demeanor conveys the sense that Austin often lives in his own reality, though he shows fierce love for his work. With Austin’s head in the clouds, he is a somewhat bland character.

The play’s director, Thomas Cardwell as Frank Finger, and the leading lady, Kathy Pataluch as Virginia Noyse, salt the stage. Cardwell portrays the director as a strange, somewhat flamboyant man with interesting clothing choices. Finger desperately wants to direct a flop because he claims he is sick of being a directorial golden boy, and he occasionally retreats from the action by throwing a velvet cape over his head. Cardwell is a hoot. Pataluch kicks up the bawdy as the coke-sniffing, ankle-monitor-wearing, washed-up actress Noyse. Pataluch snorts up the (quite lovely) scenery in an uncouth, even trashy way. (And I say that in the most complimentary way possible.) The other characters’ reactions to her are just as funny.

Financing this bizarre project is Julia Budder, played by Afton Shepard. Budder is an appallingly positive, wealthy blonde who fancies herself a theater-advocate. Shepard’s portrayal of the ditzy producer is like a cat licking your poison ivy rash: You just want to slap her. (Again, I say this in the most complimentary way possible.)

The two hangers on in the room are Gus, an overenthusiastic goofball of a coat-checker, played by Jacob Swain, and Ira Drew, a theater critic, played by Jeff Maess. Unfortunately, Maess’s Drew is kind of pitiful; he’s not daunting enough given the reputation and power he supposedly holds. Of course, today the role of critic is far from what it was in the ’80s, when the play was originally conceived. With the advent of the Internet in almost every home in America, everyone really is a critic. So, Drew himself and the production’s depiction of baited-breath reviews are obsolete. (Sad for me.)

Kudos to Darrin Murrell and the cast and crew for opening TOTS’s season with a winner.

Trivia: The version of It’s Only a Play that hit Broadway in 2014 starred Nathan Lane as Wicker, Matthew Broderick as Austin, Stockard Channing as Noyes, and Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley) as Finger. The play’s original Broadway premiere in 1978 was cancelled due to negative reviews.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“My Old Lady” at Epilogue Players

3 stars

https://www.facebook.com/duane.mercier.5?hc_location=ufi
Photo by Duane Mercier

Penniless, friendless, jobless, middle-aged Mathias sells all he owns and flies to Paris in the hopes of making a profit off an apartment that he has inherited from his estranged father. His plans are thwarted on the doorstep when he discovers that he not only inherited the apartment but also its longtime tenants. The apartment is occupied by Mathilde, age 92, and her middle-aged daughter. Mathilde remains in the apartment through en viager. She “sold” Mathias’s father the apartment, but she lives in her home and receives consistent payment for the property from the buyer. When she dies, the property belongs to the purchaser (Mathias’s dad, or in this case, Mathias). This is a good investment for the purchaser—if the seller doesn’t live very long.

My Old Lady by Israel Horovitz (which was also made into a movie), now on stage at Epilogue Players, is about family and love. Sometimes, those two are mutually exclusive, and sometimes they are very complicated.

Gary Stewart as Mathias, Robina Zink as Mathilde, and Veronique DuPrey as Chloe are a trio of clashing personalities that now live together as roommates. Mathias is an alcoholic, being flippant and unmotivated about his own craptastic life. Chloe, Mathilde’s daughter, is acerbic in the way most Americans perceive the French to be. Mathilde is a bit of a mystery. She can cut to the core of an issue, but she also allows Mathias to stay with her. While Mathias’s motivations are always on the table, Mathilde and Chloe have layers that need to be examined cautiously.

Under Ed Mobley’s direction, the cast performs scenes of engaging repartee. DuPrey conveys the coiled energy of a cornered cat that is ready to unsheathe its claws at any moment. The Montreal, Quebec, native also gets to inject the show with some passionately French dialogue. Stewart exhibits genial pessimism at every chance. I only wish these two had more chemistry between them; their relationship is unanticipated, creating a chink in suspension of disbelief. Zink carries the grace of a blunt grandmother—you love her, but what she has to say can be exasperating. Some opening-night flubs can be forgiven, as with additional runs of the show, I am sure these will be tightened up.

While the play isn’t grand and groundbreaking, think of it as a mental amuse-bouche for the weekend.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

IndyFringe Theatre Festival: “Bad Brother: Religion and Politics in ’69”

3.5 stars

Written and performed by Loren Niemi

Phoenix Theatre Underground

Loren Niemi’s autobiographical storytelling is intense and personal at the same time. He recounts how he ended up at Catholic seminary, though not Catholic and not even very religious, after high school and how his journey evolved, eventually shaping him into a Buddhist antiwar demonstrator. Everything was changing in that decade—it was post Vatican II, and Vietnam was on the horizon. Catholicism and the country were torn between the past and the future, with causalities on both sides confusing the present. Eventually, Niemi was denied his final vows because, as he was told, “it isn’t what you believe; it’s that you say it out loud.” While racism, “post-riot architecture,” and the questionable morals of the church and country are at the heart of his story, the seemingly inconsequential details bring counterbalance to the performance’s serious subject matter, such as Niemi smoking a joint during visiting hours in a minimum-security prison with 62-year-old Brother Basil, who had been imprisoned for protesting—a joint that was smuggled in via Jennie O’s vagina. History buffs, lapsed Catholics, and antiwar supporters will find much to enjoy in this show.

http://indyfringefestival.com/

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

IndyFringe Festival: “Silken Veils”

3 stars

By Leila Ghaznavi

Performed by Pantea Productions and The Indy Convergence

Phoenix Theatre Mainstage

 

fringe-veilsI’m going against popular opinion on this show by not giving it five stars.

It’s prettily done, incorporating marionettes and shadow theater into the story of an Iranian émigré who flees the marriage altar and then, in a storage closet, has PTSD-like flashbacks to her childhood during the Iranian Revolution. In her mind, Darya has linked her family’s tragedies to her parents’ soulmate-like connection to each other. A love her mother clung to even though her husband eventually left them and created a new family with a new wife. Now, Darya is terrified of losing her own identity to her fiance because she is the product of what we would now call a dysfunctional family.

The bones of the production itself are strong, with solid acting and cunning props and staging. It’s visually striking. My discomfort comes from the slow pacing and the extraneous use of Darya’s fiance, Ahmad. Ahmad’s presence on the other side of the closet’s locked door does little to move the story forward until the end. I wish he had been a stronger character—someone who had a personality that showed he was worthy of Darya commitment. While the flashbacks and puppetry are intriguing, they run too long. The puppetry scenes especially could be tightened up because they drag down the story’s momentum.

 

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

Indy Fringe Festival: “Passing Notes”

3 stars

By Joe Cameron

Theatre on the Square Stage Two

fringe-notesWonder Years style, an adult Matt looks back at his teen-age relationship with May. May and “Matty” pass notes as a major part of their interaction. It was the 1990s, so these were actual paper notes that had to be hand-written and sometimes even mailed, like with a stamp. Matty calls notes May’s “weapon of choice” but only because he is portrayed in all his teenage male awkwardness and oblivion. As Matt says, “Life as a teenage boy is making a series of stupid statements and then trying to make up for them.”

Overall, it’s a sweet picture of bumbling first love with wide-eyed actors portraying the teens. But then their lives take a heart-wrenching turn. Looking back, Matt says you always remember the first and the last of something, but you never know when that last is until it’s over. This initially lighthearted show ends with the audience having a more conscious appreciation for the people in their lives.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

IndyFringe Festival: “Drankspeare”

4.5 stars sober; 5 stars drunk

By EclecticPond Theater Company

ComedySportz

fringe-drankDrink! The audience is continually invited to imbibe along with the actors while EclecticPond plays fast and loose with Romeo and Juliet. This raucous, frenetic send-up brings you such lines as “Are you fucking fisting me right now?” Drink! “You have to be 16 to drive a Chevy but only 13 to drive a vulva.” Drink! “Who the fuck is in my bushes?” (the infamous balcony scene). Drink! And, regarding Juliet, Nurse says, “She isn’t experienced with men, so if you are looking for butt stuff, this is not the droid you’re looking for.” Drink!

Some of Shakespeare’s original lines are thrown in for good measure at a tempo that doesn’t seem humanly possible—but is deeply impressive. Drink! Some ad lib adds to the flow, and anytime actors manage to crack each other up onstage means good comedy. This is an excellent show to cap off an evening of Fringing. Drink!

http://indyfringefestival.com/

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

IndyFringe Festival: Elsie and Frances and the Fairies

2.5 stars

by Tom Horan

Performed by Earlham College

Phoenix Theatre Mainstage

fringe-fairyThe Cottingley Fairies story is intriguing even now. In 1917, still during the early ages of photography, two young girls faked a photograph of fairies that had many in the world believing.

This retelling begins in modern times with a group of sisters poking around in their grandmother’s attic. A scrapbook is found with the pictures and news clippings about the events, and Elsie and Frances “appear” to the girls and tell their side of the story.

The actresses tell us this is a work in progress after the performance, and given that these ladies are college students, staging a production on the side is impressive.

The show is quaint, with some lovely costuming. Elsie and Frances carry a subtle British accent, which is admirable. Acting quality is across the board for the six cast members, but with school productions — even at the college level — that isn’t surprising.

But as an audience member, I was a little disappointed. I’m a fan of the original story — and fairies in general (watch for a popular Brian Froud image to pop up), and I was expecting more wonderment. Instead, the show feels rather flat, with Frances and Elsie simply recounting their adventures with occasional help from the original four sisters, who stand in as various other characters. Additionally, none of the characters have sufficient depth — Elsie and Frances have merely a hint of a personality. More showing, less telling would make the experience more engaging.

http://indyfringefestival.com/

 

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

IndyFringe Theatre Festival: “A Darkly Humorous Time with Stephen Vincent Giles”

1 star

Phoenix Theatre Underground

fringe-dark

Stephen Vincent Giles is at a disadvantage in Indianapolis because many of us who are longtime local theater enthusiasts were spoiled by (now defunct) ShadowApe Theatre‘s Gorey Stories. No performance of dark poetry will ever compare. Unfortunately, Giles’s set includes many of Edward Gorey‘s pieces (as well as well-known poems such as “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert W. Service and “Little Orphant Annie” by James Whitcomb Riley), so the comparison is inevitable.

Giles is almost too sweet-looking for the macabre. His persona leans more toward James Corden as Craig in Doctor Who than toward Vincent Price. The incessant hand rubbing and unconvincing voice affectations are distracting instead of entertaining. And speaking of distracting and annoying, he uses an overhead projector (!) with transparency sheets to illustrate some of his tales.

 

What.

The.

Hell.

http://indyfringe.org/

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Next to Normal” at Carmel Community Players

Photo by Charlie Hanover, CCP Board Vice President
Photo by Charlie Hanover, CCP Board Vice President

4 stars

The rock musical Next to Normal is a dichotomy of heartbreaking and hopeful. Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) and Tom Kitt (music), part of the team behind If/Then, crafted this show, which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize and was nominated for the 2009 Tony Award for Best Musical. Their story gives audiences insight into the painful effects of mental illness on a family—in this case, the mother, who was diagnosed as bipolar and experiences hallucinations.

Carmel Community Players’ production of this raw narrative is spot on. Carlo Nepomuceno (also the director) and Bill Fitch’s set design is minimal but effective, letting the audience’s full attention rest on the actors. Various levels segregate spaces and allow simultaneous events to take place in different locations. Nepomuceno utilizes the cast’s talent to fill in the gaps.

Talent is in no short supply here. Georgeanna Teipen, as Diana, the mother, gives a powerful performance. Teipen’s Diana never comes across as a slave to her illness, even when she attempts suicide, which from her perspective seems logical, and then when ECT treatments rob her of most of her memories. (As Diana’s son sings in “Aftershocks”: “ECT, the electric chair, we shock who we can’t save.”) Teipen channels this strength in “I Miss the Mountains,” a song about how medication can dull you to the pain but also the joys of life. After one medication change, she is asked how she feels; Diana replies, “I feel…nothing,” which her psychiatrist notes as “stable.” A typical doctor’s interpretation in psychopharmaceutical treatment. Likewise, Teipen conveys Diana’s frustration in “You Don’t Know.”

Diana’s husband and daughter are worse for the wear after living with her oddities for the last 16 years. Russell Watson, as her husband Dan, expresses the longtime suffering of a man who is devoted to his wife but doesn’t really know how to help her. Watson’s Dan is the most sympathetic character, as he portrays the patience and helplessness of his situation.

Sharmaine Ruth as their daughter Natalie combines the typical difficulty of being a teen-ager with the added burden of her family life. Ruth shows how angry Natalie is but also how lonely and sad. Ruth and Teipen share a poignant duet in “Superboy and the Invisible Girl.” Ruth has a lovely, clear voice that carries Natalie’s conflicting emotions. Daniel Hellman, as her sweet boyfriend Dan, is the most stable element in her life, and she doesn’t know how to accept that kind of love.

Kyle Mottinger plays the crux of the family’s dysfunction: the specter of Gabe. His rocking “I’m Alive” demands notice, symbolizing the relentless, inescapable nature of mental illness and grief, which his character represents.

Bradley Kieper rounds out the cast as Diana’s two psychiatrists, aptly named Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden. Kieper’s few scenes also get some of the funniest treatment as Diana’s hallucinations take on a bizarre twist in “Who’s Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I” and “Doctor Rock,” which Kieper embraces wholeheartedly.

Toward the end, Diana says, “Most people who think they are happy haven’t thought about it enough.” Diana was diagnosed after only four months of grieving over a lost infant. The subtext in this show questions what is normal. As Natalie states later, maybe we should all accept that the more realistic goal should be something “next to normal.”

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Acid Dolphin Experiment” at the Phoenix Theatre

3 stars

Lisa Gauthier Mitchison

John C. Lilly: 1960s and ’70s physician, neuroscientist, psychoanalyst, “psychonaut,” philosopher, writer, and inventor, as well as the subject of Phoenix Theatre Playwright-in-Residence Tom Horan’s loose biography, Acid Dolphin Experiment.

First, a condensed background on Lilly because there is little setup within the often-psychedelic and hard-to-follow show. Lilly had a near-death experience as a child, which fueled his desire to explore and understand humanity’s view of consciousness. He deviated from the family’s lucrative banking career and turned toward scientific pursuits—including nontraditional experimentation in which he was often the test subject. He invented the isolation tank to achieve sensory deprivation and used LSD to explore alternate forms of consciousness. He believed that dolphins were capable of imitating human language, and he was a proponent of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project.

As his grasp on reality relaxed, his mind crafted cosmic watchdogs, the benevolent Earth Coincidence Control Office (ECCO), and the malevolent Solid State Intelligence (SSI), a sort of artificial intelligence destined to go to war with humanity.

On the Phoenix’s second stage, Joshua Coomer is generally awash in blue light, representing Lilly floating in his isolation tank. (Effect achieved by lighting designer Laura Glover.) This is where his communications with ECCO happen. Lauren Briggeman, Jolene Mentink Moffatt, and Chelsey Stauffer pop in and out of portholes as members of ECCO. They also take on many other roles that pertain to Lilly’s life, as does Michael Hosp. Under the direction of Bill Simmons, the cast is passionate, focused, and lively, with several funny moments interspersed throughout. Costuming and set coloring (Emily McGee and Jeffrey Martin) are bright reflections of the time. But as I noted before, the play feels disjointed (though a case could be made that its structure is a representation of Lilly’s LSD trips). This makes the story arc hard to follow, however, hence the summary of Lilly above. With adequate information going in, the show could be a look inside an unusual piece of American scientific history presented by a capable cast. Without the Cliffs Notes, it’s as discombobulating as the LSD.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Heathers: The Musical at Theatre on the Square

2.5 stars

Reboots of iconic and/or cult classics are always challenging and controversial: Psycho, Star Trek, Ghostbusters … If you happen to be obsessed with the original material, deviations from the source can be … upsetting. And so, after seeing Heathers: The Musical, I left Theatre on the Square with a heavy heart. Heathers was and still is a staple in my movie collection. It’s my generation. I already knew the music was pretty formulaic, having listened to the soundtrack many times. But the gleeful, darkly vicarious experience of the movie—I would have loved to serve up some cups of Drano to several students in my high school—simply doesn’t translate to the stage.

With that said, TOTS’s production has its pros and cons. Let’s start with the pros.

  1. Director Zack Neiditch and choreographer Annalee Traeger created a most excellent slo-mo fight scene for “Fight for Me.” The cast’s expressions are priceless, and they pull off the effect perfectly.
  2. Also absolutely hilarious is “Blue,” a song performed by Joe Mount as Ram and Nic Nightingale as Kurt. Call me immature, but these guys pull off the crazy lyrics in a LOL yet totally believable way. (“They’re warm like mittens./They’ll curl up on your face/And purr like kittens!/You make my balls so blue!”)
  3. Clay Mabbitt as Ram’s dad and Ryan Ruckman as Kurt’s dad give an equally comical performance of “My Dead Gay Son.”
  4. Clayton Marcum as JD has an excellent voice.
  5. As do Sommer O’Donnell as Martha and Jenny Reber as Heather McNamara in their solos “Kindergarten Boyfriend” and “Lifeboat,” respectively.
  6. The live band is fantastic.

And so, the cons.

  1. Veronica’s “transformation” from geek to hottie entails a wardrobe change. Period. It’s on par with She’s All That: take Laney’s glasses off and bam! She’s a babe! And Veronica’s hair is all wrong.
  2. The costumes are hit and miss. JD’s trench coat is OK, but the jeans and T-shirt are too 1990s. Heather Chandler’s spangly party dress is a disaster. OK for prom, not a house party.
  3. Miranda Nehrig’s (as Veronica) vocals are capricious. Sometimes she hits that goal note, but sometimes … she doesn’t.
  4. A lot of the choreography uses moves too reminiscent of Grease.
  5. Heather McNamara’s character is a doppelganger for Sara Jessica Parker in Hocus Pocus.
  6. The set is minimalistic. I went in anticipating that TOTS would pull out all the stops, seeing as this slot had originally been reserved for RENT. But, no.
Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Billy Elliot” by BOBDIREX at Marian University Theater

4 stars

Nothing exudes immense strength disciplined with infinite control like a male ballet dancer. Sadly, many male dancers take flak from peers and even family for pursuing this demanding training, especially at an early age. Billy Elliot’s story about defying societal conventions to pursue your dreams (one that, strangely, I had never seen before) is popular in both movie and musical form, and BOBDIREX’s cast that spans all ages presents an engaging telling of the tale.

At the helm are director Bob Harbin, choreographer Kenny Shepard, and vocal/musical director and conductor Trevor Fanning. Together, they created a boisterous and touching rendition, even tackling British accents and the crazy clothes (Peachy Keen Costuming) and hair from the ’80s.

Seventeen-year-old Thomas Whitcomb is center stage as Billy. Whitcomb captures the innocence and budding talent of a boy torn between his family and his passion. But don’t let that baby face fool you. In the last number, Whitcomb’s roguish grin and sassy steps show that he knows just what he is doing—and he loves it.

Vocal standouts are Holly Stults as the fiery Mrs. Wilkinson and Bill Book as Mr. Elliott. Special mention goes to 13-year-old Jack Ducat, who shows no self-consciousness in donning women’s clothing, as Billy’s friend Michael.

Out of several, one particularly moving scene shows Billy dancing with his older self, Stu Coleman, in a well-executed glimpse of what Billy’s future could hold. The song “The Letter,” featuring Whitcomb, Stults, and Trisha Shepard (as Billy’s mother), is also exceptionally emotional.

Some lighting and mike missteps were distracting, but hopefully these will be ironed out for the remaining performances. The entire ensemble has so much enthusiasm that you can tell a lot of heart went into staging this show.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Hand to God” at the Phoenix Theatre

5 stars

Puppet sex seems to be a theme this year. First, in Avenue Q at Footlite Musicals in March, again in Bat Boy at Theatre on the Square in May, and now in Hand to God, the latest production that the Phoenix Theatre snagged as it came off Broadway. It’s also a year of five-star reviews, as I have never handed out so many in such a small amount of time.

Much like Avenue Q, this show integrates puppets into its cast. But here, the puppets aren’t used to replace the human character behind (under? in?) them. Only one puppet, Tyrone, could be called an individual character—a demonic, vulgar, bloodthirsty one. Tyrone may be the puppet, but he is the puppet master.

If religious irreverence shocks you, you will have PTSD after seeing this show. The story is set in a small town in Texas. Margery, played by Angela R. Plank, is a recent widow who is trying to find a place for herself by teaching a puppet-making class at her church. Her awkward son Jason, played by Nathan Robbins, seems inordinately attached to his puppet. Also in class are love-interest Jessica (Jaddy Ciucci) and horny bad boy Timothy (Adam Tran). Margery has to deal with the advances of both Timothy and the church’s pastor, Greg (Paul Nicely), while dealing with depression, her estranged son, and unmotivated students.

Under the direction of Mark Routhier, the entire cast is stellar, but additional emphasis must be given to Robbins and his character’s id in puppet form. His mastery of the craft is remarkable. His puppeteering is so deft that you come to see Tyrone as a separate entity that has accepted the devil as his lord and savior. As Tyrone’s rampage escalates, a puppet exorcism is contemplated. In contrast to Tyrone, Robbins conveys a shy, insecure teen in Jason. His split-second oscillation of unrestrained rage to confused, scared boy could twist your spine.

Plank also gets to be a switch player, from an anxious, grieving widow to kinky sexcapader in the VBS restroom. She manages to be equally believable and sympathetic in both modes. Tran’s high-energy, testosterone-laden Timothy is the picture of a teen acting out, but his quest for the MILF Margery is sad too because he craves a human connection, as do the rest of the characters.

Nicely juxtaposes the role of righteous pastor and his passive-aggressive courter of Margery. You would think he would be the voice of reason, but he is bested by Tyrone as well. The group’s anchor in reality is Ciucci as Jessica, the only one who knows how to deal with Tyrone’s iniquity and Jason’s repressed emotions. Ciucci’s smart, steady portrayal buffers the other characters’ insanity.

The show is consistently hilarious, but it is also a reflection on human needs and desires. Snappy writing and superior performances make this another one not to miss.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Time Stands Still” at Theatre on the Square

I want to preface this by saying that I do not enjoy writing negative reviews. I get no satisfaction out of them, though some people do write negative reviews with glee. It just makes me sad when something doesn’t live up to its potential.

2 stars

Though Time Stands Still was nominated for Best Play in the 2010 Tony Awards, I couldn’t help but feel it was little more than a string of cliché lines being delivered by cliché characters. Two journalists who have been in a long-term personal and professional relationship find that they have grown apart, and their editor seeks a more simple life with a much younger, simple woman. This isn’t life-changing stuff.

As far as its execution at Theatre on the Square…passion—that complete submersion into a character—felt off on opening night. This is surprising given that the cast and its director are seasoned pros and recognizable to Indianapolis-theater regulars: heavy hitters Ronn Johnston, Dave Ruark, Cindy Phillips, and director Gari Williams. They are joined by less-well-known Katherine Shelton, but even she isn’t a stranger to the stage.

Phillips is perhaps the most interesting as Sarah, a war photojournalist, because she gets to be confrontational and rude throughout most of the play. Her personality steamrolls over the other three, who, strangely, seem to lie down and await the inevitable pounding. There are good moments—some shocking and some funny—but they don’t carry the show to a transformative level.

John Walker’s set design is fun and functional—a representation of urban funk for people who don’t live in their living space often.

The show is passable, but it’s far from memorable.

 

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Assassins” at Buck Creek Players

3.5 stars

While the premise of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins may sound bleak—the stories of nine presidential assassins, four of whom were successful—it is actually fascinating and, surprisingly, funny. “Funny” may not seem plausible given the subjects, but when Sara Jane Moore and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme get high and use Colonel Sanders’s picture on a bucket of KFC as a “graven image” to curse their fathers with “the evil eye”…well, that’s priceless.

Scott Robinson directs the actors at Buck Creek Players in their depictions of desperate characters’ personalities and decade-defining markers, including authentic replicas of the original guns (created by David Schlatter), clothing style (Linda Rowand), and music (under the baton of Matthew Konrad Tippel).

The timeline spans Lincoln to Reagan, though not in that order, and the assassins defy time by interacting with each other. The lineup can get confusing, so a quick summary here may help audiences follow along.

  • Mark Meyer as John Wilkes Booth, 1865: assassin of Abraham Lincoln
  • David Wood as Charles Guiteau, 1881: assassin of James Garfield
  • Jake McDuffee as Leon Czolgosz, 1901: assassin of William McKinley
  • Scott Fleshood as Giuseppe Zangara, 1933: attempted assassin Franklin Roosevelt
  • Luke McConnell (uncredited) as Lee Harvey Oswald, 1963: assassin of John F. Kennedy
  • Daniel Draves as Samuel Byck, 1974: attempted assassin of Richard Nixon (by planning to fly a 747 into the White House)
  • Stacia Hulen as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Cathy Tolzmann as Sara Jane Moore, 1975: attempted assassins of Gerald Ford
  • Trenton Baker as John Hinckley, 1981: attempted assassin of Ronald Reagan

The show also includes two fictional characters: The Proprietor (a gun salesman, portrayed by Steven R. Linville, who has a chillingly creepy grin) and The Balladeer (McConnell, who has a beautiful voice, as a narrator). In addition, the stage is fleshed out by a handful of bystanders and a few auxiliary characters.

Each assassin actor embodies someone with an excessive personality based on actual accounts, whether flamboyant (such as Fromme, Tolzmann, Draves, and Wood) or deeply angry/pained (such as Wood, McDuffee, and Fleshood). Everyone is up to the challenging task (Zangara even has lines in Italian), which makes these characters so real. While their entire background can’t be conveyed in 90 minutes, the show inspires some homework—a mark of a production that entertains while making you think.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Book of Merman” at the Phoenix Theatre

4 stars

Generations clash in The Book of Merman, a musical-comedy mashup of the 2011 Tony Award-sweeping musical The Book of Mormon and Broadway darling of the ’30s to ’70s Ethel Merman, of Annie Get Your Gun and Gypsy fame, whom Time Out New York named in the top 25 greatest divas of all time.

While it’s purported that Merman died in 1984, in The Book of Merman, now playing at the Phoenix Theatre, two Mormon missionaries ring her present-day doorbell and hilarity ensues.

Merman was memorable for her brassy personality, but friends also described her as “vulnerable” and “childlike.” Even in her later years, every event was exciting, including the mundane ones. Jolene Mentink Moffatt captures this mixture of wonderment and cheekiness, a pairing seen not just in her character but also in the show itself. Tyler Ostrander and Lincoln Slentz shine with fresh-faced naiveté even if their songs reek of unsubtle innuendo (“If It’s Not Hard, I Don’t Like It”).

Fans of Merman and Mormon will appreciate the slips of music each is notable for that are incorporated into the show. Ostrander’s character, Elder Shumway, sees Merman as a goddess, which opens the door for Moffatt to belt out some Merman-esque tunes—and for Elder Braithwaite to do some soul searching. “She’s Ethel Merman” is a direct parody of “I Believe,” and a lively rap number uses “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” from The Pirates of Penzance as its base.

Emily Ristine directs Moffatt, Ostrander, and Slentz in their affable characterizations with Jay Schwandt as musical director. The trio’s interactions (quartet if you include Jay) are a joy to watch. Glen Bucy’s set of a residential neighborhood is a realistic backdrop that doesn’t hog all the stage space, giving the actors room to sway and pout. Friday night’s performance had a few off notes, but the show is a crowd-pleaser with feels; no matter which generation you identify with, you’re bound to be a convert by the end.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Merry Wives of Windsor” at Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project

5 stars

Don’t fear Shakespeare. Spumoni-ice-cream colors, lawn-dart head ornaments, a mish-mash of retro clothing, a doctor who looks like Hitler but speaks with a French accent, ukuleles, and a bubble-gum-blowing, hula-hooping object of desire. These people are pros. You will get it, and you will laugh your ass off while doing it.

Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project brings together a collection of thespians that includes renowned Indianapolis-theater favorites for a non-standard staging of The Merry Wives of Windsor, which they have tagged as “the original Desperate Housewives.” Anchoring the cast and crew is director Bill Simmons, who hits a ringer with his premiere shot at directing a Shakespearian play.

The Merry Wives of Windsor is considered one of The Bard’s weaker plays, which means nothing but fun with few bothersome moral lessons for audiences. As with most of his comedies, it involves mistaken identity, practical jokes, and love—both bawdy and true. Reset from its original location of Windsor Castle to the Windsor Hotel, Falstaff (Adam O. Crowe), also seen in two Henry IV plays, needs a sugar mamma, so he tries his luck with two married women who also happen to be best friends, Mistress Ford (Amy Hayes) and Mistress Page (Claire Wilcher). Concurrently, the Page family is trying to marry off their daughter, Ann (Chelsea Anderson), but Mistress Page favors Dr. Caius (Gari Williams) and Page (Josh Ramsey) prefers Slender (Kelsy VanVoorst). (In a nod to Shakespearian time, when men playing women was the norm, here women often play men.) Ann, however, wants Fenton (Benjamin Schuetz).

The characters’ machinations toward each other make for uproarious scenes. Saturday night, Rob Johansen, as Ford, gave “chewing scenery” a whole new meaning by deflowering Hayes’s ears in his enthusiasm (his passionate kiss knocked her floral earrings right off). His physical comedy knows no limits—even when it comes to personal space. Crowe is spot-on as the bellowing Falstaff, gamely throwing himself into a “buck basket” (laundry bin) or fleeing the scene of his (continuously) unlucky rendezvous disguised in women’s clothing. Hayes and Wilcher are thick as BFFs in their scheming, with copious underhanded help from Carrie Schlatter as Mistress Quickly. Really, each cast member is top-notch here. I could easily run down the program and give out individual accolades if I had the space.

Sets and costumes deserve a quick mention as well, from Sara White and Peachy Kean Costuming, respectively.

I don’t give out five-star reviews willy-nilly. This show sincerely deserves it.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Gypsy” at Footlite Musicals

2.5 stars

The semi-biographical 1959 musical Gypsy is one of Stephen Sondheim’s most popular collaborations, featuring such enduring songs as “Everything’s Coming up Roses” and “Together Wherever We Go.” The story, set in the 1920s and ’30s, is about a “stage mom” who vicariously lives out her dreams by shackling her two daughters to showbiz. The second act is the most compelling, when Rose thrusts her eldest daughter, Louise, into burlesque, and the story gets into the grit of mother-daughter dynamics.

Footlite Musicals’ current production, under the direction of Tim Spradlin and vocal director Jo Read Trakimas, suffered from some opening-night glitches, but hopefully, these will be resolved as the run continues. The production is carried by Susan Boilek Smith as Mama Rose and Elise Annette Delap as Louise.

Boilek Smith is a powerhouse on stage, not only with her stunning vocals but her portrayal of a fierce woman who won’t take no for an answer. Her rendition of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” brings the house down. Delap is her foil, maintaining her sweet-natured, accommodating demeanor compared to her smothering mother. While her vocals are also strong, her delivery reflects Louise’s gentle charm in the face of her mother’s steamroller approach. Her vocals are crystal clear and communicate Louise’s optimistic view of life.

Also of note is Rich Baker as the girls’ manager/Rose’s love interest; his is a loveable underdog. Though only spotlighted briefly as Tulsa, one of the background singers/dancers for the girls’ act, Noah Nordman deserves mention for his excellent performance of “All I Need Is the Girl.”

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Bat Boy” at Theatre on the Square

4.5 stars

I said it before in 2002 when Bat Boy: The Musical had its Indianapolis premiere at the Phoenix Theatre, and I am going to say it again: Any show that is able to include a stuffed-animal orgy has got to get all kinds of props. Nothing is quite like watching interspecies animal hand puppets banging on each other while the god Pan encourages them in song. (Interesting side note: Not only was Pan renowned for his sexual prowess, but he was also considered the god of theatrical criticism by the Greeks.)

Theatre on the Square is presenting this campy musical for its third Indianapolis staging, this time under the direction of Zach Neiditch. While the above-mentioned scene is perhaps the funniest (tears—tears running down my face from laughter), there is more. The show is filled with astonishing mullets, melodramatic secrets, outrageous songs, a glowing cross, and British pantomime-inspired characters (as in cross-dressing). Most people are familiar with the 1992 Weekly World News series, and the musical aims to shed some light on Bat Boy’s origins in a dust speck of a hick town in West Virginia.

Of course, the star of the show is Bat Boy, who is soon renamed Edgar, portrayed by Justin Klein. Klein does a spectacular job of transitioning from a cave-dwelling, grunting wild child to an eloquent, proper young man, complete with a British accent. Not only is his transformation remarkable, but he occasionally lets the Bat Boy’s mannerisms slip out when he is scared or confused. This nuanced piece of theatricality reminds the audience of Bat Boy’s duel with his new persona.

Bat Boy is flanked by the town veterinarian Thomas (Dave Ruark, who was also in the 2002 production but in a different role), his wife Meredith (Mindy Morton), and their teenage daughter Shelley (Devan Mathias). Ruark captures Thomas’s gradual decent into murderous mayhem while enabling Bat Boy’s thirst for blood. His vocals were a bit sharp Saturday night, but I’ve seen Ruark in scores of productions, and I’m betting that he just had an off night. Morton is perfect as the long-suffering wife, and Mathias’s mixture of angst and idealism reflects a teen to a T. (She also gets to bust some moves.)

The supporting company in various roles plays their parts up for hilarity, and vocal director David Barnhouse teases impressive performances out of the whole cast. Don’t forget about the hard-working band behind the curtain under the musical direction of Jeffrey Bowen. Scenes, makeup, lighting, sound direction—it’s all good. This is quite an accomplishment for TOTS.

My only nitpicks are the small areas the cast had to work with and the mics being turned on and off for songs and dialogue respectively. The stage felt cramped during large numbers, and while the mics picked up the actors’ voices beautifully, I was too aware of the switch. However, that could easily just be me being a nag.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at Theater at the Fort

4 stars

Adult children taking care of their parents is a growing phenomenon, with the AARP estimating that over 22 million households care for a family member over fifty. So, it’s easy to imagine that audience members could relate to playwright Christopher Durang’s 2013 Broadway hit, in which he speculates what happens to the children after their parents pass and the children had put their own lives on hold for decades.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, at Theater at the Fort, follows the unfortunately named siblings Vanya, Sonia, and Masha (victims of community-theater parents with a particular love of Chekhov—audience members with a similar interest will pick up on other Chekhovian nods as well). Masha, portrayed by Nan Macy, escaped the family home by becoming something of a movie star through a series of slasher flicks. Vanya, Jim LaMonte, and Sonia, Kathy Pataluch, stayed home to care for their aging parents. Now that their parents have passed and the siblings are in their 50s, Vanya and Sonia are left reflecting on the melancholia of a life never lived. When Masha shows up unexpectedly, she, too, exhibits an unspoken fear for her future as an aging actress, manifested by the boy toy named Spike (Rahshe Byrd) she brings to the house with her. Complementing the titular characters are Jenni White as Cassandra, the gypsy housekeeper, and Megan Nicole Smith as Nina, a young woman (probably in her late teens) visiting next door who aspires to be an actress and idolizes Masha.

LaMonte and Pataluch’s characters are the highlights in the cast, with the most depth and definition. LaMonte’s quiet, acquiescing portrayal of Vanya captures his acceptance of his lost potential. Pataluch’s dotty Sonia is more vocal, begrudging her role as the forgotten adopted sister. The two have wonderful interactions, and both get opportunities to really shine in the second half. Pataluch especially gets to show off her acting finesse when she takes on an alter ego.

Macy conveys the insecurity behind her exaggerated, plastered-on smile. Masha knows her lifestyle is tottering on the edge, and Macy uses body language and voice inflection in her intentional disregard of others and incessant hold on Spike. Byrd’s role is primarily that of eye candy, which he delivers in spades.

Smith is extremely sweet as Nina, and White is hilarious as Cassandra. White often takes over a scene with her dominating presence and acerbic commentary. Director Jeremy Tuterow utilizes these actors’ strengths as much as the main cast’s, and costuming (love Sonia’s costume-party outfit!) and sets are equally charming.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“The Diviners” by Casey Ross Productions

5 stars

Everyone loves a connection to his or her city, state, or alma mater. The Diviners, now on stage through Casey Ross Productions in association with the Carmel Theatre Company, is set in a small Indiana town in the 1930s. It was written by Hanover College graduate Jim Leonard Jr., who also co-founded the Bloomington Playwrights Project, and it premiered at Hanover.

This isn’t the first time The Diviners has graced a Carmel stage. In June of 2012, it was staged at the Carmel Community Playhouse. At that time, then-Arts Editor Scott Shoger had an opportunity to speak with the playwright, and Leonard commented on audiences relating to his play: “Well, it’s got a big, bold story and characters that people can identify with. And the fact that it’s set at an iconic time makes it something that translates across years; people can continue to identify with it.”

The story’s main characters are Buddy, a mentally challenged 17-year-old with a natural gift for dowsing, and C.C. Showers, an ex-pastor who shows up in Zion, Indiana, trying to find a new way of life. Pat Mullen is a sweet, simple, sincere Buddy, a character plagued by aquaphobia due to his mother’s death while saving him from drowning as a toddler. Mullen’s Buddy is likable, and Mullen avoids becoming a caricature. Davey Peluse, playing C.C., also worked with director Casey Ross in Tortillo! earlier this year. As believable as his character was in Tortillo!, he is significantly more so here in a serious role. Peluse exhibits the bearing and clear, booming voice of a man who has spent his adult life behind a pulpit. While C.C. professes to have left preaching, Peluse gives C.C. a confident demeanor and easy with people, harkening back to C.C.’s past life.

The cast is rounded out by townspeople, minor characters who add the “slice of life” element to the show and help propel plot and provide background and motivation. These are charming, often humorous characters: Zach Stonerock as Ferris, a mechanic, father to Buddy and Jennie Mae, and C.C.’s employer; Allyson Womack, Buddy’s older sister and caregiver; Basil, a local farmer/doctor who also serves as narrator; Kathryn Comer Paton as Luella, Basil’s wife; Paige Scott as Norma, a Bible-thumping dry-goods-store owner; Heather R. Owens as Darlene, her niece and Jennie May’s friend; Audrey Stauffer Stonerock as Goldie, owner of the diner; and Johnny Mullins and Tyler Gordon as Dewey and Melvin, farmhands.

One particularly absorbing part of director Ross’s stagecraft is the underwater scene. A combination of slow motion and David C. Matthews’s lighting depicts action when the characters are underwater, cut with moments that they surface with normal motion and lighting. This scene is impressively effective.

The production is performed in a black-box theater, so Chris Plunkett and Peluse’s set is minimalist but serves its purposes well, as does Marina Turner’s anachronistic costumes (they still capture the style of the time).

In the beginning, some of the actors speak a little too quickly, but that is the only nitpick I can find in this touching show.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Bridge and Tunnel” at Indiana Repertory Theatre

4 stars

Milicent Wright is no stranger to one-woman shows; Bridge & Tunnel, now on stage at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, is her fifth. Being the only player on stage for 90 minutes straight is daunting enough, but Wright also takes on fifteen characters—child to senior, male and female, and varied ethnicities—complete with complementary costume accessories.

The characters are participants in a poetry gathering for immigrants. They present their personal stories and poetry, some of it commentary on the life of an immigrant but also insights into the person as just an individual. These snippets remind us that immigrants aren’t the enemy; they are our fellow human beings with emotions and experiences everyone can relate to. The play also challenges Americans’ perception of immigrants, including one woman from Australia—not the sort of ethnicity many people call to mind when thinking of “immigrants.”

Wright is amazing on stage, and with direction from Richard Roberts, she transitions from personality to personality, giving each one a distinguishing characteristic and accent. Costume designer Katie Cowan Sickmeier completes the effect with a visual clue over Wright’s multipurpose black-on-black foundation.

Some situations are sober, such as the Pakistani host’s harried phone conversations with his wife concerning a federal investigation, which frames the show, but Wright’s exuberant interpretations of the light-hearted performances are laugh-out-loud worthy. Wright truly appears to be enjoying every moment in the spotlight, and her enthusiasm is infectious.

I was disappointed that the host’s story didn’t end with some clue as to what would happen next, and some of Wright’s accents blended too close together. However, her standing ovation was well-deserved.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Porno Stars at Home” at Theatre on the Square

2.5 stars

Theatre on the Square’s current offering, Porno Stars at Home, isn’t as juicy as you might think given the title. By today’s standards, the show, which premiered in 1976, is comparatively tame.

Under the direction of Bill Wilkison, the cast plays out the events of one night when five porn actors and actresses gather to celebrate their matriarch’s birthday. Fueled by alcohol (and what is either a massive dose of coke or a debilitating case of ADD for one actress), drama, drama, and more drama ensue. The script is a sequence of non-sequiturs featuring neck-wrenching mood swings.

Leading the cast is Lisa Marie Smith as Georgia, the maudlin-to-the-max birthday “girl.” Think Effie in Hunger Games. Grating as her character may be, Smith allows Georgia moments vulnerability. Smith is comfortable in Georgia’s skin, even when Georgia feels her most broken—and everyone in that apartment is broken to some extent. Frankie Bolda as Norma Jean is the porn version of the Energizer Bunny, exhibiting the energy of a toddler on Red Bull. Jay Hemphill as Montgomery passes for the closest to normal in the gathering, and Miranda Nehrig as Uta is the most pedestrian.

Opening night felt jerky and unsure. The characters didn’t come across as having been coworkers for years, which, when combined with copious amounts of alcohol, would lend them a more relaxed attitude. Lines were often hesitant, and body language was often clumsy. Strangely, the high point of hilarity came when Todd Kenworthy, as Barry, seemed to go off-script for what I suspect was an improvised description of a personal body-function issue. He had not only the audience roaring with laughter but also the two fellow performers on stage, who had to fight to keep from breaking character, which made the situation even funnier. Given his history with improv and success with the scene, maybe more of this would improve the show.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“On Clover Road” at the Phoenix Theatre

3.5 stars

Twist ties would envy the plot arc of On Clover Road. It forces you to put on the mental brakes and back up to reevaluate what you just saw, but by the time you’ve wrapped your mind around something, another curve leaves you reeling. While this makes for an exciting mental exercise and good entertainment, it does detract from the play’s serious subject: parent-child dynamics and the pseudo-acceptance lure of cults. Just set that aside and enjoy the ride.

On Clover Road is the Phoenix Theatre’s latest offering as part of the National New Play Network rolling world premieres. This is the second play by Steven Dietz that the theater has produced through the program (the previous was Rancho Mirage).

The show is grounded in excellent character portrayals by Jen Johansen (as the mother, Kate, of a runaway daughter who was sucked into a cult), Rob Johansen (as Stine, a “deprogrammer”), Mara Lefler (a teenage cult member), and Bill Simmons (as cult leader Harris McClain). Director Courtney Sale has the characters tearing at each other—physically and emotionally. The three “adults” express their flawed natures willingly or not, but Lefler, as an innocent, gets to wow the audience with her changeable acting chops.

That’s not to say that the Johansens and Simmons aren’t up to snuff. The three actors have lauded reputations in Indianapolis’s theater community for good reason. Rob is intense to the nth degree, making you wonder if he’s as nuts as the cultists are. Simmons again gets to explore the deviant side of humanity, following in the steps of his previous predatory character in The Nether at the Phoenix. He comes across just as confidant, alluring, and smarmy here as he did there. Jen is a hot mess as a single mom and recovering alcoholic who is willing to do anything in her desperate attempt to do the right thing. The actors add nuance to characters that aren’t as fleshed out on paper as they could be, creating a tense and riveting story because you just can’t wait (or anticipate) what they will do next.

Jim Ream created a set—a decaying room in an abandoned motel—that captures the rotting integrity of the four souls on stage.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“The Importance of Being Ernest” at Garfield Shakespeare Company

3 stars

The best thing about the Garfield Shakespeare Company’s production of The Importance of Being Ernest is David Santangelo’s wicked Cheshire-cat grin. Santangelo, as Algernon, captures author Oscar Wilde’s roguish appetite for gleefully scorning the frivolous structure of Victorian upper-class society.

The company members, under the direction of Chris Burton, embrace the farcical nature of the play, some better than others, but laughs are garnered at most of the appropriate places. Spencer Elliott is consistent as the foppish, flustering Jack Worthing, a foil to Algernon’s easygoing personality. The women, Kate Ghormley as Lady Bracknell, Ashley Chase Elliott as Gwendolen Fairfax, Bita Eisenhut as Cecily Cardew, and Christy Walker as Miss Prism, exhibit the expected affectations of ladies of the time.

Since the play is staged in the Garfield Park Arts Center’s gallery, set pieces are minimal but utilitarian, which unfortunately brings attention to the unflattering costumes for Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen Fairfax. While not strictly reflective of the period, the rest of the cast was better attired.

Tickets are free (though reservations are encouraged), making this a good opportunity to experience Wilde’s most popular play.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Fences” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre

4.5 stars

Fences, the 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama and the 1987 Tony Award winner for Best Play, is number six of a 10-part series, known as the “Pittsburgh Cycle,” by American playwright August Wilson. Each segment of the cycle examines the evolving social status of African-Americans in the 20th century by decade, Fences being set in the late ’50s/early ’60s. The Indiana Repertory Theatre is presenting its fifth production out of the 10 (Fences was also staged by the IRT in 1996), and it has the advantage of Lou Bellamy, founding artistic director of Penumbra Theatre Company in St. Paul, Minn., directing this installment. Bellamy and Wilson were both friends and cohorts, giving Bellamy intimate insight into Wilson’s plays.

Fences tackles questions regarding the familial bond, responsibility, and forgiveness as well as the standing of African-Americans in this time period. Wilson’s plays include memorable laughs to balance out the serious work of social examination, but this one is also dark—betrayal, in many forms, is a key element here.

The stellar cast is headed by David Alan Anderson as Troy, the main character. Anderson seems to effortlessly oscillate between Troy’s moods; on the outside, Troy is jovial and full of life, but at his core, he is self-serving and bitter. Anderson portrays Troy as a raucous, physically expressive character, though Anderson often speaks so fast it’s hard to catch each line.

Kim Staunton as Troy’s wife, Rose, unwaveringly demonstrates Rose’s strength. While the audience may wonder why she continues to stand with Troy, we never doubt that she can. Edgar Shanchez, as Troy and Rose’s high-school-aged son Cory, captures the arrogance and vulnerability of that age. He is at his best as an antagonist; his later scenes as a Marine are a little too stiff (even for a Marine), but when he softens toward his half-sister, Elise Keliah Benson, it is a touching transformation.

Marcus Naylor as Troy’s friend Bono and James T. Alfred as Troy’s eldest son Lyons may be playing auxiliary characters that help propel story and character development, but neither plays his part as minor. Alfred especially gives Lyons the feel of a full personality. Similarly, Terry Bellamy embraces the part of Gabriel, Troy’s brother who suffered a head wound in the war that left him mentally damaged.

Scenic designer Vicki Smith envisioned a stunning backdrop for the action. Her representations of the claustrophobic feeling of the run-down row houses are a physical manifestation of the characters’ own feelings of being trapped.

While the play is long, just short of three hours, and examines painful subjects, the ending is satisfying, and the growth of the characters leaves the audience uplifted in the face of these characters’ grueling challenges.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“The Importance of Being Ernest” at Garfield Park Arts Center

3 stars

The best thing about the Garfield Shakespeare Company’s production of The Importance of Being Ernest is David Santangelo’s wicked Cheshire-cat grin. Santangelo, as Algernon, captures author Oscar Wilde’s roguish appetite for gleefully scorning the frivolous structure of Victorian upper-class society.

The company members, under the direction of Chris Burton, embrace the farcical nature of the play, some better than others, but laughs are garnered at most of the appropriate places. Spencer Elliott is consistent as the foppish, flustering Jack Worthing, a foil to Algernon’s easygoing personality. The women, Kate Ghormley as Lady Bracknell, Ashley Chase Elliott as Gwendolen Fairfax, Bita Eisenhut as Cecily Cardew, and Christy Walker as Miss Prism, exhibit the expected affectations of ladies of the time.

Since the play is staged in the Garfield Park Arts Center’s gallery, set pieces are minimal but utilitarian, which unfortunately brings attention to the unflattering costumes for Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen Fairfax. While not strictly reflective of the period, the rest of the cast was better attired.

Tickets are free (though reservations are encouraged), making this a good opportunity to experience Wilde’s most popular play.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Avenue Q” at Footlite Musicals

4.5 stars

Even after seeing Avenue Q many times, it still makes me hoot with laughter. The R-rated puppet show, which spoofs Sesame Street characters as adults, is a riot, and it won Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score at the 2004 Tony Awards for good reason. It’s still a favorite among audiences, and Footlite Musicals’ staging delivers in every expectation. When you take into account that everyone in the show—cast and staff—is a volunteer, this is quite an achievement.

Under the co-direction of Kathleen Clarke Horrigan and Ed Trout, the cast—Phil Criswell (Princeton), Emily Schaab (Kate Monster), Damon Clevenger (Rod), Graham Brinklow (Nicky), Ryan England (Trekkie Monster), Zarah Miller (Lucy), Leigh Alexovich (Bad Idea Bear and Mrs. T), Dejuan Jackson (Bad Idea Bear and the “newcomer” at the end), Chris Meek (Brian), Nathalie Cruz (Christmas Eve), and Ervin Gainer (Gary Coleman)—is exceptional. Really, pointing out any musical numbers or scenes as “the best” isn’t possible—every voice, every note is superlative. I was floored by the quality of the show. This also includes the orchestra, which often doesn’t get the attention it deserves: conductor Kristen Cutler with musicians Ainsley Paton, Larry Molnar, Bill Musick, Amy Johnson, Jen Hallbert, Jimmy Wingget, Rhonda Collins, and Matthew Tippel.

The high-quality puppets the actors use were acquired through an Adopt a Puppet program, making them the equivalent of the ones used in professional productions. I only have two small quibbles that made me take off half a star. First: the bouncing some of the actors employ while the puppets “walk” jars the suspension of disbelief. Imagine children with puppets or dolls and the exaggerated movements they use when playing pretend. Second: the lighting was of the night I attended. Actors were often left in a shadow or a spotlight was off mark.

These miniscule details aside, you don’t want to miss this show. And for those of you who know the music well, you will appreciate the substitution in the closing number for the original line that included “George Bush.” I was anticipating what they would put in its place, and their choice is not just funny as hell but also apropos.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Killer Joe” at Theatre on the Square

4 stars

Oral rape with a “KFriedC” chicken leg.

This is a summation of the lewd lack of morality found in Killer Joe, the first play by Tracy Letts, who went on to pen the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama-winner August: Osage County. Theatre on the Square stages this playwright’s inaugural exploration into his penchant for darkness in its cabaret theater, which puts the audience claustrophobically close to exposed buttocks and graphic fight scenes.

Calling this “family” dysfunctional, psychopathic, or trailer trash is an insult to those labels. The Smiths plot to have the estranged ex-wife of Ansel whacked in order to collect her insurance money, an idea motivated by Chris’s (Ansel’s son) desperation to avoid being whacked himself by his drug pushers. (However, if they recycled the astronomical amount of beer cans they accumulate in any given day, they would quickly raise the money.) Enter the play’s namesake, Killer Joe Cooper, a detective nefariously moonlighting as a hit man.

These are raw characters, and director Lori Raffel mines the cast for that rawness. Nate Walden as Chris and Lisa Marie Smith as Sharla, Ansel’s second wife, have a twisted sense of entitlement, exhibiting the same casual blood lust that winds Joe so tightly, though Chris and Sharla seem incapable of outward self-control, which is Joe’s (usual) default. (Smith’s and Walden’s characters would be excellent candidates for a tabloid talk show if their shouting matches, their favored conversational tone, didn’t destroy their vocal chords after five minutes.) Ben Asaykwee executes his cruelties with Hannibal Lecter-type calm, but when he gets really angry, his pent-up rage is a physical explosion. Asaykwee is at his best in these hands-on moments. What is supposed to be a steely disposition often comes off as just flat.

Smith’s Sharla is glorious in her Texas-drawling, big-haired glory. Her Sharla would pick fights in the Walmart clearance aisle. Dan Scharbrough is a benignly distracted Ansel and seamlessly refocuses on his static-y TV. He is a foil to Walden’s excitable Chris. Scharbrough affects baffled simple-mindedness, and when Ansel is willing to sacrifice his son to save his own hide, his turn is believable.

While Joe should be the most disquieting character given his disposition and side work, Jaddy Ciucci’s Dottie is the most enigmatic of the group. She is obviously mentally disturbed, which her father, in his naive way, speculates could be due to her virginity. She is disassociated but observant at the same time, sleepwalking (often literally) through most of the action and murmuring occasionally creepy non-sequiturs (“I can’t sleep with Mamma in the room.”). This character could be seen as a throwaway (how her family sees her) with her one-note persona, but Ciucci makes her sympathetic and somehow fascinating.

The play could be viewed as a study of misogyny: the crafty women are punished; the vulnerable one is bartered. Sharla takes the brunt of the crude: in the first scene, her stepson Chris complains of her beaver hanging out, and she is the victim of the above-mentioned fellatio.

Even the second-weekend run of the show was packed, so make reservations early for its final weekend.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Pulp” at the Phoenix Theatre

3 stars

The Phoenix Theatre is part of the National New Play Network, which presents “rolling world premieres” of new scripts. The play is produced in three or more theaters within a 12-month period. This gives the playwright an opportunity to work with different creative teams and fine-tune the script. Pulp by Joe Zettelmaier, on stage now, is part of that process, so whereas most reviews’ primary focus is on the actors and production, a few words on the story are apropos here.

“Pulps” were the successors of the penny dreadfuls: sensationalistic, fictional stories in ratty magazines that were popular through the 1950s. Zettelmaier sets his story in 1933 around an alcoholic, washed-up private investigator, Frank Ellery. He is approached by a “dame,” pulp romance writer Desiree St. Clair, to solve the murder of her agent. Besides St. Clair, the other suspects are the deceased’s only other clients: sci-fi writer Bradley Rayburn (a nod to Ray Bradbury?), super-hero wannabe Walter Cranston-Smith, and horror fanatic R.A. Lyncroft (an homage to H.P. Lovecraft?). The play is a collection of stereotypes, reflecting the shallow characterization often found in the cheapest of the cheap pulps. While it’s meant to be a send-up, from a script standpoint, it doesn’t deliver. Something of this nature should have more humor written into it, and it should be self-conscious of its own cheesiness. (And yes, I got the point that the author hates critics.)

That being said, the saving grace of the show is the excellent work by its actors and designers. In other hands, it could have fallen flat.

The production opens with period video footage and a look at the revolving stage’s four sets featuring each character. This is a riveting setup from director Bryan Fonseca, lighting designer and technical director Jeffery Martin, and set designer Bernie Killian. Fonseca goes on to direct Eric J. Olson (Ellery), Joshua Coomer (Rayburn), Michael Hosp (Cranston-Smith), Ian Cruz (Lyncroft), and Angela R. Plank (St. Clair) through scene-chomping after scene-chomping scene. Each actor takes his or her character to the limit of camp. Hosp and Cruz especially commit to making their characters so over-the-top that their scenes help propel the languid plot, the gangly Hosp as his bumbling, masked alter ego The Cloak and Cruz as a maniacal summoner of sleeping demon-gods.

The show is worth seeing for the outstanding talent of the performers and creative team alone. And the amazing raspberry coconut cookie-cakes at the concession stand.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Sweeney Todd” by Actors Theatre of Indiana

4.5 stars

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has been a Stephen Sondheim audience favorite since it premiered in 1979 and swept the Tony Awards. And for good reason. Setting aside any moral/social commentary that can be gleaned from it, the show has a dark but fascinating plot, bizarre characters, and intricate and exquisite music.

I could break out the superlatives to describe Actors Theatre of Indiana’s production, but the bottom line is, it’s excellent—probably one of if not the best I’ve ever seen, and since Sweeney is a popular musical staple, I have seen my fair share. ATI presents one amazing voice after another in its deliciously macabre production.

One element that sets this show apart is its location. The Studio Theater at Carmel’s Center for the Performing Arts resembles a black-box theater all grown up. From my vantage point in the front row, I had the disconcerting experience of actors being so close that I felt as if they were invading my personal space, which added to the surreal atmosphere. ATI maximizes its use of the small stage. One main set piece (scenic designer P. Bernard Killian) is multipurposed for every scene, embellished occasionally by a few chairs or tables.

Don Farrell as Todd is downright ghoulish (the white face and exaggerated black eye makeup completing the characterization thanks to makeup designer Daniel Klinger). His portrayal of the madman is only trumped by every one of his sublime musical numbers. Disturbing as Todd may be, when you examine character motivation, the one with the evil soul is the sociopathic Mrs. Lovett. Judy Fitzgerald plays a perfect foil for Farrell’s insanity: a cheerful, motherly, practical woman who, without breaking character, is ready to take out Toby (Caleb Wertz) immediately after their moving duet “Not While I’m Around.” Director Richard J. Roberts makes Lovett and Todd stark contrasts: one inherently evil and unaware of it; the other crazy and all too aware of it. This emphasizes that Lovett is, in fact, the villain, not Todd. Another inspired turn is the placement of Todd’s victims in the theater’s ceiling grating toward the end—another satisfyingly eerie touch.

Additional main cast members John Collins as Anthony, Paul Nicely as Judge Turpin, Craig Underwood as the Beadle, Elizabeth Hutson as Johanna, and John Vessels as Pirelli and the off-stage orchestra—and really, everyone both on and off stage whom I haven’t mentioned by name—exhibit their own virtuosity as well.

The only quibble I have, which made me take off half a star, is that only about half the cast uses accents. I believe in all or nothing. It’s a Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves thing.

You only have one more weekend to see this show. Go.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“To Kill a Mockingbird” at Indiana Repertory Theatre

4 stars

One of the most striking elements of the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s production of To Kill a Mockingbird is its integration of on-stage musical accompaniment. The original music and traditional arrangements by Tim Grimm (who also plays Heck Tate), performed by Grimm on acoustic guitar and Christopher Waltz (who also plays Boo Radley and Judge Taylor) on banjo, reflect and then heighten the emotional investment of the characters, and therefore the actors, and their subject matter. This seemingly small but powerful element, combined with the feeling of wide-open spaces by scenic designer Bill Clarke, set the tone for the show in a subtle and persuasive way.

The theater chose to revisit one of the most-challenged stories of the American fiction canon with the release of Harper Lee’s equally controversial Go Set a Watchman last summer. However, the topics that Lee explored 56 years ago—racism and human dynamics—remain relevant today.

Under the direction of the IRT’s Executive Artistic Director Janet Allen, Lauren Briggeman as the adult Jean Louise “Scout” Finch narrates and comments on the events that occurred during her childhood in 1935 Maycomb, Alabama. She watches as her younger self (Paula Hopkins), her brother Jem (Grayson Molin), and friend Dill (Mitchell Wray) experience the trial that became the center of the community’s and her family’s attention and activity since Scout’s father, Atticus (Ryan Artzberger), defender the black man, Tom Robinson (Daniel A. Martin), who was on trial for the rape of a white woman.

Hopkins, Molin, and Wray handled well what can be a taxing production for kids, as they take up a majority of the stage time. Artzberger convincingly portrays Atticus’s weariness as a man diligently fighting what he knows is a lost cause—but also as an older, single father who tries to lead by example in teaching his kids to do what is right.

Robert Neal is an effective bully as the bullish redneck Bob Ewell, father to the accosted girl (Katherine Shelton). Millicent Wright finds just the right balance between motherly and disciplinarian in Calpurnia, the Finches’ housekeeper. A host of other talents make up the many other characters, who all come together to tell this complicated story masked by its simplicity.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Skylight” at Theatre on the Square

3 stars

Theatre on the Square’s current offering, Skylight by David Hare, took home a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play last year. While having a Tony (or Oscar or whatever) as a credential may seem like an overwhelming endorsement, remember that there are often elements besides merely entertainment in the workings.

In this case, the play is hard. It’s hard to watch because save for two brief scenes, the entirety of the show is up to two actors: Sarah McGee as schoolteacher Kyra and (Bill Simmons as her much-older and former boss/roommate/sugar daddy/lover Tom. The two have to carry the show through lots and lots (and lots) of talk, broken only by the previously mentioned scenes, in a single setting (a small flat in London). It’s also hard to watch because at times, you want to slap one, two, or all three of the characters for being idiots/self-righteous/ political proselytizers/any number of other unbecoming human traits. And it’s hard because at the core of all this talk is something everyone can relate to: the inability to move on. Including Tom’s 18-year-old son, Edward (Tyler Ostrander), each character is stuck in the past for his or her own reason: wanting to atone, looking for absolution, or seeking a missing familial bond.

Simms as the bombastic Tom looks overly dramatic in contrast to McGee’s stark lack of emotion. While a case could be made that she is showing restraint in the face of unbridled narcissism, the two feel unnaturally unbalanced when viewed as a “couple.” She finally lets loose a bit in the second act, perhaps driven by the character’s guilt over committing the same act that caused her to flee Tom’s home. However, that same contrast permeates the entire show: fidelity versus adultery, poor versus rich, nurture versus abandonment. Moreover, Simm’s swaggering allows for a few moments of levity in a long and sometimes ugly conversation about people and their motivations.

Overall, director Gari Williams had satisfyingly coaxed the cast—including the maudlin character of Edward, in which Ostrander embraces the typical mood swings of a teen, especially a damaged one—through this challenging show.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful” at Indiana Repertory Theatre

5 stars

Imagine if comedian Mel Brooks and Twilight author Stephenie Meyer collaborated on a play set in eerie Hampstead Heath, England, in the early 1900s. This only begins to describe the ridiculous hilarity of The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful.

Actually, the show was conceived by the American actor-director-playwright Charles Ludlam, who founded the aptly named Ridiculous Theatrical Company in 1967. Ludlum was a pioneer in the avant-garde genre “theater of the ridiculous,” which rejected realism onstage and embraced the art of camp. Ludlam’s most successful play, The Mystery of Irma Vep, sends up decades-spanning pop culture and (then) long-held ideals about what a play should be.

The storytellers at the Indiana Repertory Theatre embrace Irma Vep’s nonsensical elements, producing one of the IRT’s most uproarious and unexpectedly deviant shows. Playwright-in-residence James Still directs longtime acclaimed theater-staple Rob Johansen and core company member at American Players Theatre in Wisconsin Marcus Truschinski (seen at the IRT in last season’s The Hound of the Baskervilles). The two play off each other flawlessly. At one point on opening night, an improvisation by Truschinski had Johansen fighting not to laugh. The duo makes melodramatic farce a new artform.

The plot (I use the term loosely) revolves around newlyweds Lord Edgar and Lady Enid Hillcrest, their servants, and the former lady of the house, Irma Vep. Lady Enid lives under the shadow (quite literally) of Irma, while the moors are the hunting grounds of what could be a werewolf. Both Lord and Lady are looking for a way to escape the dead Irma (to exorcise her and to revive her, respectively), a search that leads them into the catacombs of Egypt.

Truschinski and Johansen play all seven characters, which not only requires the intense ability of an actor to switch personalities within seconds but also includes a score of rapid costume changes, many in drag (as dictated by Ludlam in the script). (Hat off to Guy Clark, who designed costumes that made the switches possible.) Truschinski and Johansen never falter in their on- (and off-) stage bedlam. Johansen even gets to scoot his bottom across the set in a way that dog owners will recognize all too well.

Everyone involved with this production did nothing short of spectacular work. Do not miss this show: It is worth every penny and then some of its ticket price.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Becoming Dr. Ruth: An Unexpected Journey” at Epilogue Players

3 stars

Of all the quotable quotes in Becoming Dr. Ruth: An Unexpected Journey, the one that sticks clearly in my mind is “How can we know who we are if we can’t remember who we were?” Not only is this the best ever motivator for journaling, but it also sums up the raison d’etre of the show. The name “Dr. Ruth” became synonymous with sex in the 1980s and remains so today. But who is this little woman with the funny accent who became the authority on sex and sexuality?

Karola Ruth Siegel was born in 1928 in Frankfurt to a Jewish Orthodox family. After her father was taken to a labor camp, her mother and grandmother placed her on a Kindertransport train to Switzerland at age 10. She never saw her family again. From there her journey to stardom took many strange turns across three continents, from joining the Haganah (the Jewish paramilitary organization), studying at the Sorbonne, and finally traveling to America in 1956. By the time the play is set in 1997, Dr. Ruth Westheimer has a PhD, three children, four grandchildren, and two ex-husbands. She knows four languages and has recently become a widow.

The one-woman show—directed by Ed Mobley and performed by Diann Ryan, who reprises her role from last May at Theatre on the Square—is set in Dr. Ruth’s Washington Heights apartment. She is packing to move across town, and as she picks up memorabilia, she engages the audience directly with stories of her past.

Ryan plays up Dr. Ruth’s cheerful, unthreatening, grandmotherly side, though the more serious no-nonsense approach Dr. Ruth is known for when discussing sexual issues is missing. Nonetheless, she maintains her momentum (and accent) throughout the show, and captures the pain of long-ago but not forgotten memories. Ryan is at her best when recounting Dr. Ruth’s tragic early life and her failed relationships.

While much of Dr. Ruth’s biography can be found online, hearing it told in such an intimate setting makes it even more fascinating, and in the end, character and audience are left with hope for what the future will bring.

Becoming Dr. Ruth is Epilogue Players’ annual fundraiser. Tickets are free (reservations are strongly suggested), but donations are most appreciated. There are also silent auctions and raffles that differ for each night of the run, Jan. 22 and 23 at 7:30 p.m. Go to epilogueplayers.org for more information.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Sondheim on Sondheim” at Footlite Musicals

2.5 stars

The musical revue Sondheim on Sondheim has undergone several incarnations since its origin in 2000. The final product, now having its Indianapolis premiere at Footlite Musicals, hit Broadway in 2010 for a short run.

For this show, I have to agree with the initial critics that the video clips of Sondheim speaking about his works and other miscellanea are the highlights. The concert was meant to give the audience insight into Sondheim’s broad range of music, but for ardent fans, the predominance of lesser-known songs (including some that never reached the stage) becomes tedious.

That said, Footlite’s annual cabaret performance is marred by one overriding element: The vocalists cannot be heard over the orchestra. For its cabaret shows, the audience is seated on the stage for a more intimate experience, but even being a mere 10 or 15 feet away, song lyrics are often unintelligible. Furthermore, several of the cast members’ voices lack the projection needed for an unmiked performance.

The ensemble cast—Lauren Bowers, Graham Brinklow, Onis Dean, Laura Duvall-Whitson, Karen Frye, Jeff Fuller, Sarah Marone, and Larry Sommers, under the direction of Bill Hale and vocal director/conductor Paula Phelan—does present some fine moments, however. Sommers and Marone hit satisfying last notes in “Epiphany” (Sweeny Todd) and “Do I Hear a Waltz” (Do I Hear a Waltz), respectively. Duval-Whitson and Marone perform a nice mashup of “Losing My Mind/Not a Day Goes By” (Follies/Merrily We Roll Along). Duval-Whitson also performs a lovely version of the ubiquitous “Send in the Clowns” (A Little Night Music).

Sondheim on Sondheim continues through Jan. 17 (a change from the original run due to auditorium renovation). Find more information at footlite.org.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Tortillo!” by Casey Ross Productions

2.5 stars

Casey Ross Productions is presenting the “extended cut” of Ross’s 2009 IndyFringe short, Tortillo! It’s the story of employees at a snack-foods company who become caught up in a drug-smuggling, hallucinogenic-potato-chip scheme.

The show relies on a lot of crass slapstick and dick jokes. One of the main characters, Steve, played by Matt Anderson, is the image of an ADHD frat boy 15 years too old. His more practical but awkward best friend, Dave, played by Robert Webster Jr., is manhandled (literally and figuratively) into his best friend’s Tasmanian-devil-like tirades. Flanking them are Ted (Tristan Ross), a gratingly cheerful fellow employee and chip fanatic, and Patrick (Davey Pelsue), a stereotypical nerd and Steve’s intern. The most normal of the group is Dave’s crush, Juniper (Lisa Marie Smith).

Ross also directs the play, and while the over-the-top affectations of Ted and Steve are funny at first, Ross has these characters taking it too far for too long. They become painful to watch, and the physical gags lose their impact. An accidental daisy chain isn’t as shocking when it lasts over a minute. Toning down the scenery chewing would give the jokes room to breathe; instead, they are force-fed to the audience. DO YOU GET IT?! HAHA! IT’S FUNNY!

Smith is the only one who is not portraying a caricature, so she stands out, but also believable is Pelsue. He gets to exhibit some acting finesse, but I can’t say how because spoilers.

Hugh S. Dehman has a cameo as the big bad, Sombrero, and Brian Kennedy as John the janitor enters the last act in a somewhat unsatisfying deus ex machina sort of way. (Keep your ears open for John’s alter-identity.)

Tortillo! continues through Jan 16 at the IndyFringe theater. For information, go to indyfringe.org.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Mary Poppins” at Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre

5 stars

It’s unavoidable; I have to say it: Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre’s production of Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s Mary Poppins is practically perfect. (Saying it was perfect would give the cast and crew nothing more to strive for, something Mary Poppins would not approve of.)

You might think that a musical with such illustrious names attached to it would be a shoo-in for the win, but while Disney’s screen-to-stage adaptations have so far been admirable (if not downright mesmerizing, i.e., The Lion King), Sir Cameron’s name (Les Mis, Phantom, etc.) doesn’t guarantee a golden ticket (i.e., the dead horse he kept beating, Moby Dick, an incarnation of which Indianapolis was subjected to in 2003). Mary Poppins enjoyed a healthy run on Broadway and garnered a best-musical Tony nomination in 2007, so if not a blockbuster, it was a qualitative success.

Unfazed by a few minuscule opening night mishaps, the entirety of the cast, crew, and orchestra exhibited such skill and performed a show of such quality that they put this community theater on par with any professional theater organization. The music itself is challenging, but the choreography demands even more of the performers, and each cast member has perfected each step, each note, and each line, working with director and choreographer Anne Nicole Beck and musical director Brent E. Marty. Ditto for the behind-the-scenes folks, such as costuming (Adrienne L. Conces), set (J. Branson), and lighting (Ryan Koharchik).

While there are differences between this and the 1964 movie, many favorites remain. “Feed the Birds” (sung by Krista Wright) reminds us of the beauty in this soundtrack—one that many of us grew up with.

As it should be, the two standouts among this exemplary cast are Jeremy Shivers-Brimm as a spry and charming Bert and Devan Mathias as the prim yet playful Mary Poppins. Both are vocal and character perfection, but they go above and beyond (ahem) as well by submitting themselves to the cable work that propels them through the air. Shivers-Brimm proves his commitment even further by taking a walk across the stage’s ceiling area upside down.

The excellent quartet of J. Stuart Mill, Carrie Neal, Anjali Rooney, and Mitchell Wray make up the Banks family. (A note about kids on stage: You often have to factor in their age when evaluating their performance, but Rooney and Wray are little stars.) These core characters are surrounded by minor characters and an ensemble that are more than just “supporting” actors—they are accomplished performers as well.

Mary Poppins at Civic is worth every dime of its ticket price.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Babes in Toyland” at Footlite Musicals

5 stars

The winter holidays are the prime time to stage family-friendly fare. Among the local offerings is the timeless favorite Babes in Toyland presented by Footlite Musicals. The show debuted in 1903, so the script is now public domain, giving Bob Harbin (the director) and Claire Wilcher the opportunity to do some rewrites for the show presented on the Hedback Theater stage. Staple songs of the holidays “Toyland” and “March of the Toys” remain intact, allowing older generations to reminisce and introducing new generations to these classics.

The quality of this show is extraordinary, and when you factor in that Footlite is an all-volunteer organization (as in, no one in the cast or on staff is paid), it becomes even more impressive.

The show depends on and delivers a strong ensemble cast, live orchestra, and behind-the-scenes support. The cast numbers over 35 and the staff over 19, and an orchestra (conducted by Damon Clevenger) fills the pit, so giving credit to each person by name would turn this article into a reprint of the program. Suffice to say Harbin guides the cast effectively through mugging for the audience and hamming up the sentimentality.

Vocal director Melissa Al-Ling Walsh coaxes lovely melodies out of lead vocalists Jonathan Krouse as Tom Piper and Claire Cassidy as Mary Contrary, as well as a convincing drag number from Krouse in “Floretta.” Jeff Fuller as the villain Barnaby dexterously rolls his alliterative lines from his slipless tongue.

The dancing (choreographed by Trish Roberds and supported by dance captains Amy Matters and Alex Vasquez) is confidently executed by the cast, including a dance line of tappers and some startling acrobatics. Standouts are the gypsy dancers and Thomas Whitcomb as Jack.

Adorable costuming was created by costume designer Rachel Hobbs Shelton and head seamstress Darlene Uggen. The layers of petticoats and pantalets for Gooseland girls and the lively and vivid costuming of the gypsies are exceptional. Set designer Will Tople provides cunning backdrops for the show.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“8 Reindeer Monologues” at Theatre on the Square

2.5 stars

If the idea of Santa Claus being a sexual deviant deeply offends you, don’t see The 8 Reindeer Monologues. If, however, you find S&M, bestiality, and dick jokes hilarious, move forward.

In true Theatre on the Square fashion, everyone multitasks. The opening-weekend night I attended, Nate Walden, script in hand, stepped in for an actor who was absent due to a death in the family. One of the actors runs the box office and concessions. The tech guy was MIA. The director, Lori Raffel, is also the sound designer (with Eric Brockett, of the above-mentioned box office, who is also the assistant director), set designer, and program designer—as well as the artistic and development director of TOTS.

Sometimes delegation is a good thing.

The show is set in the North Pole police station. One of the reindeer has made a scandalous accusation against Santa. As Cupid states, Santa is “a walking, talking, holly-jolly sex crime waiting to happen.” Each reindeer, representing broad stereotypes, is brought into the station’s office to be a sort of character witness for Santa.

The show starts off promising. First up is Will Carlson as Dasher, the lead reindeer—a grizzled, war-general type. We laugh. Walden takes the stage next as the flamboyantly gay Cupid, and we laugh hysterically. Walden barely has to refer to his script, and he plays up the character unabashedly. He’s uninhibited and physical. Brockett as Prancer, aka “Hollywood,” has a chip on his shoulder because Rudolph’s claymation cartoon casts a damaging shadow on his movie Prancer. His part is amusing, but the segment is not particularly memorable.

Before the show slows down, Paige Scott takes the stage as Blitzen, the angry lesbian. Scott and Walden split the buck’s share of good lines, and Scott doles them out with mad glee and a slightly crazed look in her eyes. Is our childhood disenchantment with Santa Claus really just the first step toward repression of visits from the perverted old elf?

Then the show gets serious. It gets dark. It’s not funny anymore. It’s making a social statement. Stop. This is boring.

Robert Webster as Comet (a reformed member of Hell’s Herd), Jim Lucas as Donner (Rudolph’s weary father, who sold his son into sexual slavery), and Amanda Bell as Vixen (the foxy victim) are saddled with material that wants to rise above the base humor and be meaningful. Director Raffel has the actors play their characters straight, and Webster, Lucas, and Bell create believable, emotionally charged characters. (Tanya Haas’s Dancer, a dumb-blonde ballet deer, doesn’t have much depth to plunge.) However, it slams the brakes on the pace of the show, leaving you empty and a little confused. Before that happens, though, Bell gives us one last nugget of comedy gold by describing a drunken Mrs. Claus attending a party in body paint, pasties, and an elf strapped to her crotch.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“The Nether” at the Phoenix Theatre

4 stars

The Phoenix Theatre’s production of the award-winning play The Nether by Jennifer Haley is a fascinating if uncomfortable—even macabre—examination of morality and a person’s true nature.

Set in the near future, people now spend the majority of their time in 3D online virtual worlds that offer them complete sensory immersion. They work, go to school, and find entertainment in fabricated “realms” that can provide them infinite varieties of experiences, including some that are no longer available in the physical world, such as spacious gardens and forests of trees. Some people are so addicted to this alternate universe that they become “shades”: a body on life support while the mind becomes a permanent resident of The Nether.The Hideaway is the most sophisticated realm, and it comes under the scrutiny of Detective Morris, who has uncovered its covert and perverse purpose: It is an outlet for pedophiles. The “children” are actually avatars for adult employees of The Hideaway, but it still begs the question of whether acting out an immoral compulsion in a controlled environment remains immoral.

Under the direction of Bryan Fonseca, Bill Simmons manifests an unsettling intensity as the sociopathic Papa. What could be taken for sincere affection toward his favorite chimera, a nine-year-old named Iris, Simmons exposes as an affectation—Papa’s own fantasy that he could feel real emotions toward his targets. To justify this, he encourages (and even forces) disassociation between client and product through virtual murder of the child.

Paeton Chavis as Iris is amazing. Though she is in her early 20s, she is completely convincing as the little girl. Even her laughter is realistic—not a forced imitation that grates on the ears. Her manners and speech are genuine; her transformation into a child is seamless.

Doyle, played by Rich Rand, is a client addicted to his depravity. Instead of the expected pervert, Rand shows us a heartbroken man. Doyle is a schoolteacher on the brink of retirement with a wife and grown daughter. Rand exemplifies a person crippled by his own needs, having denied himself his innermost desires because they were considered unacceptable. He arrived at The Hideout searching for not only an outlet but also for nonjudgmental love.

Scot Greenwell’s Woodnut, the undercover detective sent into The Hideout to confirm his agency’s suspicions, is timid yet mesmerized by the world he has entered. In this place, Greenwell reacts with his own child-like delight to the strangeness of the environment, and he is drawn into the sanctuary of The Hideout.

Sarah McGee as Detective Morris lacks convincing emotion in her role, but it does not detract from the intensity of the characters’ interaction. Their proclivities may be aberrant, but the play challenges you to think deeper about subjects that remain unexplored.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“April 4, 1968: Before We Forgot How to Dream” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre

3 stars

Longtime playwright-in-residence at the Indiana Repertory Theatre James Still details the day Martin Luther King Jr. died from the perspective of an African-American family in the world premiere of April 4, 1968: Before We Forgot How to Dream. Still gleaned first-person stories from over 50 Indianapolis residents over five years, and the characters in the play represent an amalgamation of the experiences he collected.

The play is set in the home of the African-American, working-class couple John Henry (James T. Alfred) and Addie (Tracy N. Bonner) and their two daughters, Geneva (Christina D. Harper) and Johnna Rose, aka “Baby Sister” (Nia Simmons). Sixteen-year-old Geneva is passionate about Bobby Kennedy’s campaign for president. Her father, a devout nonvoter, refuses to let her participate. Finally, her mother offers to go with her, and while they are at the rally, Kennedy preempts his planned speech with heart-felt words on MLK’s death. Before leaving, Geneva and her mother pick up an abandoned white college student (Nick Vidal), whom they take home with them.

While the show is primarily an examination of race and identity, director Courtney Sale and the cast do not see the characters as mere mouthpieces. The deep love John Henry and Addie share is dexterously translated by Alfred and Bonner in their comfort with each other. Their intimacy and familiarity is demonstrated through touch and facial expressions, expertly conveying the bond between the two. Alfred also imbues his character with the volatile nature of an artist, and Bonner consistently keeps her character strong as his more practical complement. Ultimately, they create the most realistic and multilayered characters and anchor the dabs of humor that add levity to the show.

Harper, as Geneva, often goes over-the-top during her tirades like a teenage drama queen. She stomps and screams enthusiastically with the know-it-all attitude endemic to the age. Vidal earnestly captures the over-eager protester, Nick, a civil rights supporter who is well-meaning but inherently cannot relate to the personal struggle of African-Americans. However, he and Harper rely too much on volume to validate their opinions. Simpson makes her auxiliary character Miss Davine congenial yet sassy, but she capably exhibits Davine’s steadfast integrity in the end. In contrast, Simmons’s character (Baby Sister) doesn’t have much to do, and her role feels like a non sequitur, little more than that of an annoying and distracting sibling.

Overhead, composer Michael Keck provides the soundtrack for the events as a deejay at TLC. Scenic designer Russell Metheny provided a minimalist and lovely backdrop of flat, wooden stick houses to cradle the action on stage.

The show gets repetitive, which makes it longer than it needs to be. However, with a tighter script, it could be a much more engaging production and would be a wonderful introduction to students who need to ground the concept of this piece of history.

Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“The Game’s Afoot” at Civic Theatre

3 stars

The Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre’s production of Ken Ludwig’s The Game’s Afoot is an intentionally melodramatic and comedic who-done-it.

The show begins with the last scene of William Gillette’s play Sherlock Holmes, which he has been performing and living off for twenty years. During the curtain call, Gillette is shot, and thus, the game is afoot. Gillette hosts a Christmas weekend with his cast at his home, intending to take his role as Sherlock Holmes to a more literal level and discover who shot him.

Director Michael J. Lasley has the actors not just chew but devour the scenery as if it were a gluttonous buffet for velociraptors. (Tempting, as the set, designed by Ryan Koharchik, is lavish.) This and the physical comedy make for a light-hearted show about murder.

The choice piece of that scenery meat goes to the theater critic Daria Chase, played by Christine Kruze. Her stage time is limited compared to the other characters, but Kruze makes the most of it, strutting in her sense of entitlement and arrogantly gloating over her presumption of power over actors.

Josh Ramsey as Gillette captures the smugness of an actor who is quite pleased with himself yet thinks he is gracious due to his assumption that everyone agrees with his self-assessment. Ramsey never lets Gillette’s composure waver because Gillette’s confidence in his deductive abilities is rivaled only by Sherlock’s.

Jean Childers Arnold is a gem as the sharp-tongued Madge Geisel. Her performance in the séance scene is one of the most gratifying comedic parts of the show. Bill Book as Madge’s husband, Felix, approaches his role in a more straightforward manner than the other characters. Book portrays him as funny yet endearing and sincere. He does not shirk from the physical comedy though. He (bodily) throws himself in to shoving and shuffling a corpse around in his character’s ill-fated attempts at hiding it.

Alex Ray as Simon Bright believably comes across as an cheerful, naïve young man. His new wife, Aggie Wheeler, should also emit a sense of wide-eyed innocence, but Emily Hollowell just seems uncomfortable. However, when her character takes a turn, she seems to loosen up and embrace the role.

Carrie Ann Schlatter as Inspector Goring is congenial in her role and maintains an air of efficiency even though the character indulges in her admiration of the stage. Finally, Wendy Brown depicts Martha, Gillette’s mother, as a dotty, innocuous old woman.