‘Poppins’ returns, live on stage, to Civic Theatre

By John Lyle Belden

The Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre has displayed a “practically perfect” sense of timing by presenting the Disney Broadway musical “Mary Poppins” just as the sequel hits the movie theaters. Before watching the follow-up on the screen, see the story of the original Banks family and the magical nanny who changed their lives for the better, delivering serious lessons in her “spoonful of sugar” style.

Jeremy Shivers-Brimm is Bert — narrator and everyone’s friend — who was once told to learn a trade, “so I learned ‘em all” (including, famously, a chimney sweep). He nimbly embraces all the character’s likable aspects, helping it step out of the shadow of Dick Van Dyke’s film persona. Devan Mathias is our Mary (she also took the role in Civic’s previous “Poppins” production), sharply confident — both actor and character — seizing and holding our trust and affection every moment she’s on the stage.

The various supporting roles all have a touch of whimsy, from pleasantly blustery Admiral Boom (Rory Shivers-Brimm), neighbor Miss Lark (Katie Stark), the Policeman (Ben Angelo) on the street, to the efficiently-choreographed staff of the bank, making the central family feel comparatively normal and relatable. Father George Banks (J. Stuart Mill) has a good heart, but keeps it restrained by a drive for precision and order; mother Winifred (Mikayla Koharchik) has made her sacrifices as well. Son and daughter Michael (Ben Kistner) and Jane (Sydney Pinchouck) resist their parents’ desire for discipline, requesting a nanny on their terms. What surprises await when they get precisely what they asked for!

While the children meet interesting characters including Bert, the Bird Woman (Mary Margaret Montgomery), word merchant Mrs. Corry (Kendra Randle) and friendly statue Neleus (Alex Smith), it’s hardly a surprise that even Queen Victoria (Susan Smith) shows up. But if the lessons don’t sink in, an alternative nanny, the cruel Miss Andrew (Smith), could be called.

All performances are “spit-spot” polished, including the gentle antics of house servants Mrs. Brill (Ragen Sanner) and Robertson Ay (David Cunningham). Young performers Kistner and Pinchouck have a natural ease on stage that belies their age.  

Wonderful steps-in-time were arranged by director Anne Beck, providing the big singing and dancing spectacle one would expect, including a bit of flight and other wire work. For fans of the P.L. Travers books, note there are aspects of them not in the original Disney film (such as Neleus and Miss Andrew) and a little different order of events — you hardly notice the penguins are missing.

Performances are through Dec. 29 at the Tarkington theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Call 317-843-3800 or visit civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

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An evening with the marvelous Melissa Schott

 By John Lyle Belden

I remember in 2005 seeing the Footlite Musicals production of “42nd Street,” and being blown away by the performance of Melissa Schott in the lead role. I had no idea that — like her character, ingenue Peggy Sawyer — she had just taken her first big chance on a major stage role, and come out on top. All I knew was that she lived in New Palestine, within the coverage area for the Greenfield Daily Reporter, the paper I wrote for.

Melissa SchottWith such a talented “local” to watch for, I soon saw her perfect portrayal of the legendary singer in “Always, Patsy Cline.” So, it was no surprise when — again nearly on a whim — she tried for and got entertainment work in New York.

And this year, for one wonderful weekend, she came “home,” recently performing her first cabaret revue, “Songs in the Key of Me,” at The CAT in Carmel, presented by Magic Thread Cabaret.

Schott said the show’s title refers to how, in taking so many roles as other people, “it’s easy to forget your own voice.” To find those pieces of herself, she brings out the works of people who have influenced her, from Karen Carpenter to Sara Bareilles.

She set the mood by opening with “That’s Life” and “Ain’t We Got Fun,” but also touched our hearts with Cline’s hit “Crazy,” as well as “Pretty Funny” from the musical of “Dogfight.”

Being a classic triple-threat, Schott brought out her tap shoes for a couple of numbers, including — naturally — “42nd Street.”

She shared the stage with old friend Scott Harris of Nashville on the piano, but took over the keys to start the second act, singing and playing Bareilles’ “Gravity.” She also invited Broadway performer Cory Lingner up for a duet of “Only Us” (from “Dear Evan Hansen”).

Revealing yet another facet of her talent, Schott played a song she wrote, “Worlds Away,” inspired by her longing for home while on tour.

Her musical journey had many stops that felt personal to her, including “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “On a Bus to St. Cloud.” She sang “She Used to be Mine,” from Bareilles’ hit musical “Waitress,” then noted that she would be playing a waitress herself, briefly, on a future episode of the Emmy-winning streaming TV show “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”   

Hopefully being a long-time fan doesn’t make me too biased, but her charm, talent, dancing and singing are still superb. And with her residence in the Big Apple, Melissa Schott is one casting-call away from true stardom. Wherever you happen to be able to see her perform, by all means do; and hopefully, she will bring her “Songs in the Key of Me” to another stage very soon.

She closed the show with a medley of tunes from Broadway’s “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” A few days ago, I heard one of the songs from the official cast album, and — meaning no disrespect to a Tony winner — Schott was just as good.

Follow Melissa’s showbiz adventures at melissaschott.com or on Facebook. See magicthreadcabaret.com for future showcases of local talent, presented by Tom Alvarez and Dustin Klein (kleinandalvarez.com).

CCP adds more girl power to ‘Pageant’

By Wendy Carson

I remember in high school we had a huge problem picking out shows because 80 percent of our auditioners were female, up for only about a third of the roles. It seems that this gender disparity has not changed, because when Carmel Community Players held auditions for “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” most of the actors who turned up were female. So, in a brilliant casting twist, Director Lori Raffel decided to change the genders of several of the roles, mainly affecting the dreaded “Herdman clan” — it worked out beautifully.

The Herdman children, a grubby, ill-mannered, bunch of bullies, end up taking over all of the major roles in the church Christmas Pageant, much to everyone’s dismay.

Beth Bradley (Dana Hackney), our narrator, relates that her brother Charlie (Sam Vrtismarsh), whose favorite part of church is the fact that it is the one place without torture at the hands of the Herdmans, inadvertently causes this catastrophe to occur.

Stuck in the hospital from an accident, the pageant’s usual director, Mrs. Slocum (Lee Meyers) gives directing duties to Charlie’s mother, Grace (Deb Underwood), including constant phone calls “reassuring and advising” her.

Enter the Herdmans: Ruby (Jayda Glynn in the former “Ralph” role) takes the part of Joseph. Imogene (Maya Davis) usurps the role of Mary, which had always been played by Alice Wendleken (Avery Pierce) and relegating poor Alice to the Angel Choir. Loretta (Delaney Soper in “Leroy” role), Ellie (Ellianna Miles in “Ollie” role) and Claude (Austin Helm) grab the roles of the Wise Men. Rounding out their family unit, little Gladys (Abigail Smith) plays the Angel of the Lord bringing the good news to the shepherds – “Shazam!”

Add to these characters a couple of gossipy church women, Mrs. Armstrong (Ginger Home) and Mrs. McCarthy (Nikki Vrtis); the Pastor (Joe Meyers); and the petulant rest of the pageant cast – Maxine (Sophia McCoskey), Elma (Christina Whisman), and Hallie (Megan Holliday); not to mention Charlie’s ever-suffering Father (Steve Marsh), who keeps trying to get out of attending the pageant in the first place.

How this whole mess turns out, and changes those in attendance, is a Christmas miracle that has warmed audience hearts for years all over the country. It just looks a little different here.

While the cast on the whole does an admirable job, a few standouts that must be mentioned: Holliday’s dance solo was a delightful display of budding talent. Hackney did a nice job shifting her focus between telling the story and trying to survive the insanity all around her. Pierce excellently portrays her character’s “Holier than Thou” attitude throughout. Davis adds depth as Imogene finds connection with The Virgin’s plight. However, it is Smith’s turn as the fiercely indomitable Gladys Herdman that shines the brightest. I expect we will be seeing a lot more of her talents in the future.

There is one weekend left of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” through Dec. 9. So, gather the whole family, scoot over to the Ji-Eun Lee Music Academy, 10029 E. 126th St. in Fishers, and enjoy a fun Christmas show. Get info and tickets at carmelplayers.org.

Also, make sure you bring a few extra dollars to purchase one of the lovely pasta angels handcrafted by the troupe. They are quite lovely and will make a wonderful accent to your tree for years to come.

Buck Creek presents sweet ‘Gift’

 

By John Lyle Belden

Sometimes you don’t want a lot of heavy drama, especially at Christmastime. As a remedy for the noise, bustle and bad headlines, Buck Creek Players presents “The Unexpected Gift.”

Jack (Tom Smith) had resigned himself to another Christmas Eve alone in his cabin in the Upper Peninsula, his eighth such holiday since his wife passed away. But suddenly at the door is daughter Kate (Michelle Tasker), who must drop off his grandchildren — almost-10 Sarah (Bailey Cline) and teen Jonathon (Mason Tudor) — while she travels for business. He reluctantly agrees, and the kids then have to get to know the grandpa they barely remember.

Cline’s Sarah sparkles with curiosity and desire to live up to her mother’s glowing memories of days spent in the cabin, while Tudor’s Jonathon is age-appropriately surly and blunt about having to dwell in “the Stone Age” with no TV, no phone, and outdoor plumbing. Smith as Jack wears only a thin layer of gruffness, a grand-paternal teddy-bear more than a grizzly. He also gives as good as he gets with Jonathon’s quips, latching on to his modern use of the word “sweet.”

And that word does best describe this holiday play — sweet — like a live Hallmark Channel show. Like the Christmas tree they set up, decorated with cleverly improvised ornaments, it’s light on substance but heavy on charm and emotional resonance.

Being the BCP holiday show, there is also its annual fundraiser for the Blaine Jarrett Memorial Scholarship Fund. You can bid on a silent auction of various themed baskets, including a “Mystery Basket” offered at every performance.

This cozy Christmas diversion runs through December 16 at the Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74). Call 317-862-2270 or visit BuckCreekPlayers.com.

Mud Creek hosts hilarious holiday hostage hijinks

By John Lyle Belden

Christmas should not be this funny, should it?

From the beginning scene, Mud Creek Players’ “In-Laws, Outlaws, and Other People (That Should Be Shot)” starts firing off the zingers, as holiday host Thomas Douglas (Ronan Marra) and teen daughter Beth (Audrey Duprey) discuss frankly the odd behavior of the relatives who will gather for their traditional Christmas Eve dinner.

There will be redneck Bud (Tom Riddle), his wife Bunny (Jennifer Poynter), a Jersey girl with no sense of personal space, and their super-achiever daughter Tracy (Alaina Moore); as well as elderly New Yorkers Aunt Rose (Kerry Mitchell) and Uncle Leo (Robert C. Boston Jr.) who never stop talking — either to bicker at each other or to name-drop and reminisce from days gone by. Tom’s wife Janet (Margie Worrell) is also expected, but her business flight from Vermont is late.

The Douglas home is caught in an unexpected snowstorm, but that doesn’t stop neighbor and local busybody Mrs. Draper (Veronique Duprey) from coming over to complain that Tom hasn’t turned on his holiday lights. Soon, they have bigger problems — unexpected guests Tony (Brock Francis) and Vinny (Connor Phelan), a pair of robbers hiding from police patrols. At gunpoint, Tony insists that everyone have a normal evening meal, but he soon finds that “normal” has no place in this house.

The home becomes more crowded with hostages as neighbor kid Paul (who is sweet on Beth) shows up, followed later by his sister Emily (Rylee Odle), then their mother (Jennifer Kaufmann). The robbers try to contain the situation by putting men and women in separate rooms, but that only spreads out the madness. Also, good-natured Vinny seems to be succumbing to a sort of reverse Stockholm Syndrome.

Add Aniqua ShaCole’ as the inevitable visiting police officer, and you have a situation ripe with comedy.  Yes, being a Christmas play, the Steve Franco script does include a bit of heart — and maybe a happy ending — but I also found a lot of moments of laughing until I nearly passed out. Francis, Phelan and Moore especially get to stretch their comic muscles, as this whole ensemble shines in an uproarious good time. You may even see a little of your own relatives in this bunch, or at least have something to compare to when holidays at home get extreme.

Find this farce at the Mud Creek Players Barn, 9740 E. 86th St. (between Castleton and Geist), through Dec. 15. Call 317-290-5343 or visit mudcreekplayers.org.

 

Phoenix goes bananas for ‘Xmas’

By John Lyle Belden

You know, it’s just not Christmas season without a visit from Anna Banana!

..Said no one ever. (But don’t tell Anna!) Now that she’s the fourth-most-popular female holiday icon (since most people can’t think of more than three) she gets to host “A Very Phoenix Xmas 13: Merry Superstitious” at the Phoenix Theatre.

As you can already tell, the oddball tone of the previous 12 incarnations of this holiday tradition is still very much alive. However, this edition — directed by quirky Q Artistry founder Ben Asaykwee — features an all-female cast. Past Phoenix stars Jolene Mentink Moffatt, Phebe Taylor, Jaddy Ciucci and Jenni White are joined by Shawnte P. Gaston, the powerhouse presence of Tiffanie Burnett, the instrumental prowess of Beef & Boards regular Sarah Hund and the manic energy of ComedySportz star Frankie Bolda.

While they all play multiple roles, it’s Bolda in the banana outfit, and Ciucci makes a feisty Virgin Mary. But while the comedy is a bit irreverent, the content doesn’t get sacrilegious or too mature. Something amiss does happen to Santa, though, that reverberates through the show.

The series of sketches has numerous authors, including Asaykwee, Jean Childers-Arnold, Lou Harry, Steven Korbar,  Zack Neiditch, and Steffi Rubin. Mariel Greenlee choreographed a touching dance scene, performed by the ensemble, inspired by a historic holiday event.

There are also witches, a history lesson, a look back at a (sorta) famous kick-line, breaking news, surprising mashups, and (in Harry’s contribution) what could be described as “Law & Order: Scriptural Victims Unit.” Plus, the cast tell us what’s on their wish list this season.

For an unusual — What other Christmas show has a talking banana? — funny and fully entertaining holiday treat, check out this “Very Phoenix Xmas,” with performances through Dec. 23 on the mainstage at 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

ATI earns its wings with ‘Wonderful’ radio play

By John Lyle Belden

The bottom line with this show is fairly simple: If you like the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” — or are open to, if you haven’t seen it — you will enjoy the live Radio Play. It is popping up around central Indiana, but I saw the Actors Theatre of Indiana production, playing at the Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel (by the Kristkindlemarkt).

Done in the style of radio dramas performed in the 1940s (when the movie takes place and was released), an upbeat ensemble, accompanied by a sound-effects artist, provide all the sounds of a “playhouse of the air” so that families gathered around the radio sets in their homes can fill in all the details in their minds. Thus, if you close your eyes you still get the full story, almost like watching the classic Frank Capra film. With eyes open, you can see the performers mug and gesture their way through the show, giving those who braved the weather to see it in person a little extra — not to mention seeing all the tricks employed to make every noise from footsteps to stormy winds.

The script is true to the film’s story: Clarence the Angel (Second Class) is dispatched to help George Bailey, a man who spent his whole life helping others and desperately needs help himself. We get the backstory on George’s “wonderful life” so when he wishes he “had never been born” we can see how different things would be without him. In the end, we see the difference one person can truly make — Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!

ATI’s founding trio of Cynthia Collins, Don Farrell (voicing Clarence and other characters) and Judy Fitzgerald (who plays Mary, George’s wife) are joined by Adam Crowe (narrator, villainous Mr. Potter, etc.), Paul Tavianini (George), and Luca Arive, Sadie Cohen, Lincoln Everitt and Annabelle Pfeiffer in children’s roles, to perform the story. Fox59 TV personality Sherman Burdette literally provides the bells and whistles, working all the sound effects like a pro.

For a fresh, festive take on a holiday classic, performances of “It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” run through Dec. 23. For information and tickets visit atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.