Bobdirex’s ‘Notre Dame’ rings true

By John Lyle Belden

Upon hearing that Bob Harbin and his Bobdirex productions are staging “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” a musical featuring the Alan Menken/Stephen Schwartz songs of the 1996 Disney animated film, you might wonder (as I did): Bob likes to go big and take chances, but didn’t the movie “Disney-fy” the Victor Hugo novel, making it too saccharine with an entirely-too-happy ending?

Take heart, purists. While there are a number of similarities to the animated version (and nearly all performed versions through the years have taken some liberties with Hugo’s text), this musical – originally produced in Germany by Disney Theatricals in 1999 – embraces the darker aspects of the story and doesn’t shy from its tragic elements.

This show effectively uses multiple members of the cast as narrators through the story, but most of that job falls to Clopin (Keith Potts), king of the Gypsies. We begin with how Frollo (Bill Book), the Archdeacon of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, came to adopt and raise Quasimodo (Jacob Butler), a severely deformed young man who lives sheltered among the church bells, tasked with ringing them. With no living human friends, he talks to the bells, the Saints’ statues and his fellow grotesques, the Gargoyles (Curtis Peters, Matt Rohrer and April Armstrong-Thomas).

The annual Festival of Fools draws Quasimodo out into the church courtyard, where, after meeting beautiful dancer Esmeralda (Shelbi Berry), he is crowned by Clopin as “King of the Fools.” But this king is mocked rather than honored, and Quasimodo returns to his bell tower.

The gypsy girl’s beauty draws the notice of not only the Hunchback, but also the Captain of the Guard Phoebus (Logan Moore) and Frollo. The Archdeacon struggles to convert his carnal longings into a desire to save her soul, and decides that if he can’t make her pure in his hands, he’ll have it done by fire.

The result is a stirring story of struggle between the sacred and profane, and how the line blurs between them. An ever-present choir punctuates scenes with chants like Kyrie Eleison, completing the atmosphere of the well-built Gothic set. The show’s Disney influences give it energy and welcome touches of humor, but isn’t overdone.

Harbin has not let us down, as we get excellent performances from all, especially Book and Potts, each charismatic in their own way. Berry is stunning. And Butler gives an award-worthy performance as our unlikely hero.

Once again, Bobdirex has delivered a must-see show, with performances Thursday through Sunday (June 29-July 2) and July 7-9 at the Marian University Theatre, 3200 Cold Spring Road, Indianapolis. Thursday, June 29, all military members get in free, with discounts for their companions. For more information, call 317-280-0805 or visit bobdirex.com.

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Girl seeks protection from the forces of history in ‘Golem of Havana’ at Phoenix Theatre

By John Lyle Belden

Just the title of the new musical playing at the Phoenix Theatre, “The Golem of Havana,” suggests the complex nature of its story, but the various threads weave together into a fascinating historical tapestry, set in Cuba during its 1950s Revolution.

The title entity is dreamed up by a Jewish girl in Havana, inspired by the legends her family brought with them from eastern Europe (having survived the Nazis and gotten away from Soviet occupiers). Rebecca (Lydia Burke) creates a homemade comic book about the Golem – a giant clay guardian crafted and enchanted by a Rabbi to protect the people – that followed the Jews across the ocean to continue its service.

Her father, Pinchas (Eric J. Olson), is a struggling tailor living on dreams, while her mother, Yutka (Lori Ecker), tries to keep his ambitions grounded. Meanwhile, family friend and government policeman Arturo (Carlos Medina Maldonado) promises to help them through his connections.

Rebecca befriends the family’s black Cuban maid, Maria (Teneh B.C. Karimu), who worries about the fate of her son, Teo (Ray Hutchins), who has joined the Revolutionaries. While praying for her son’s safe return, Maria introduces Rebecca to her faith in the goddess Yemaya, and at a time when the Hebrew god seems so distant, this local deity feels more responsive when it seems, at first, that things are changing for the better.

But the faith and humanity of all are tested when Teo arrives at the family home, injured, and hunted by authorities seeking to execute him. Yutka confronts conflicting urges to protect the man or to turn him away and protect her family, while remembering what happened to her and her sister (Betsy Norton) when they were betrayed to the Nazis in Hungary.

The cast also features Wheeler Castaneda, Rob Johansen, and Paul Nicely as Cuban President Fulgencio Batista.

The songs and music (under the musical direction of Karimu) flow nicely with the story. Under the steady hand of director Bryan Fonseca, the gripping drama of people caught in the changing tides of history keeps the focus on the heroic and tragic stories of individuals rather than the background events – a good thing, since neither the doomed Batista regime nor the imminent Castro victory are celebrated by history.

Burke gives us an appealing and endearing character. Hutchins reveals the pain that informs Teo’s choices. Olson’s happy optimist and Ecker’s pragmatic pessimist show how opposites do attract and make a family we can root for. Maldonado also does well in his layered portrayal of a man of mixed loyalties. Nicely shows his skill in revealing just enough humanity in a cold-hearted character to make him truly frightening.

As Rebecca says, stories matter, and “The Golem of Havana” matters not just as a Jewish story or a Cuban story, but also as a human story. It runs through July 16 on the Phoenix mainstage at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) in downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

KCT ‘Slingbacks’ about more than perils of being gay in high school

By John Lyle Belden

I had the good fortune to not only see the new comedy, “Another Man’s Slingbacks,” presented by Khaos Company Theatre through June 24, but also to see it with playwright Andrew Black.

In this play – set in fictional Lincoln High School, Anderson County, U.S.A. – the very masculine star quarterback Killer Kerrigan (Donovan Whitney) leads fellow jocks Romeo (David Alfonzo) and Meatwad (Josh Weaver) as they hit on the girls, Barbra (Sabrina Lang) and Lana (Gorgi Parks Fulper); pick on the New Kid, Devon (Kyle Dorsch); and torture gay classmate Ricky Malone (Andre Guimaraes).

Fed up with the abuse, Ricky wishes that Killer could be made to feel what it’s like to be homosexual. This brings the attention of a Fairy Godmother (David Malloy), complete with fabulous wings, glitter and a smoker’s voice, who presents Ricky a lengthy contract for a Standard Transformation Spell. Disregarding all the small print, the desperate boy signs.

Suddenly, Killer understands fashion and Broadway, and feels aroused by his teammates. Will he still be Big Man on Campus?

Gay playwright Black, who had been working on this play since 2010 (some references were updated to set it in this year), didn’t settle for just indulging in queer stereotypes. The resulting story explores the fact that to come of age, all teens need to “come out” of the expectations and roles set for them by the social constraints of high school.

“What could a straight person learn?” from being gay, Black said he asked himself. “When you discover you are attracted to your own gender, you have to rewrite the rules for yourself. You have to make strong choices.”

Killer is forced to adapt to a new mindset, but he’s not the only person who needs to change and grow, as Ricky finds when simply wishing revenge on his tormentor doesn’t make his own life better.

Whitney bravely takes on all aspects of Killer’s character. Lang is also excellent, as Barbra tries to adjust to Killer’s changes making him more attractive, yet more distant. Weaver as “the Meat Man” turns his simpleton into a scene-stealer. Molloy solidly commits to his no-nonsense magical persona, yet it is Dorsch who looks natural in high heels. Guimaraes, having just graduated high school in real life, is familiar with its uncertainties. Alfonzo ably embodies a go-along-to-get-along character. Fulper surprises with her devious role. And kudos to James Mannan for playing various grown-ups.

Direction was provided by KCT artistic director Kaylee Spivey Good, in one of her last jobs before going overseas later this summer to earn her Masters in theatre.

There are two more performances scheduled, 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, at KCT’s new stage 1775 N. Sherman Drive on Indy’s east side. Get info and tickets at www.kctindy.com.

Zach & Zack’s ‘Great Bike Race’ returns to TOTS

By John Lyle Belden

I’ve heard friends in Fringe shows say it’s hard to constrain a whole play to 40 minutes, so it must have been a relief for writer-director Zack Neiditch to let “The Great Bike Race.” his 2014 IndyFringe comedy hit, play out a full 70 minutes on the stage of Theatre on the Square, weekends through June 24.

The Race of the title is the 1904 Tour de France. After the success of the inaugural Tour the previous year, the ’04 bicycle race attracted a lot of attention and opportunistic riders. It became infamous for its widespread sabotage and cheating – including a competitor using a train as a “shortcut.”

Bringing that action to today’s audiences, Neiditch and Zach Rosing present a “cleverly anachronistic” (their characters told me to write that) play with the aid of antic actors, pantomime bicycles and a big projection screen.

Much of the Fringe cast returns, including Frankie Bolda as noble teen Henri Cornet. Paige Scott and Ben Asaykwee are the race front-runners and bitter rivals, Hippolyte Acoutrier and Maurice Garin. Carrie Bennett Fedor and Evan Wallace are Jean-Baptiste DuFortunac and Llucien Portier, two men who like each other very, very much. Sonia Goldberg is the only woman playing a woman, Alois Catteau, but she’s pretending to be a man. John Kern and Craig Kemp play other riders, while Josh Ramsey plays three from three different countries, whom at one point all get in an argument while trying to beat each other to the front of the pack.

For those who’ve seen it before, this version doesn’t feel padded-out at all. It’s still manic fun throughout its course, complete with contested Victory Dance.

Who wins? You do, by getting to see this hilarious show (whether again, or for the first time). Call 317-685-8687 or visit tots.org for tickets.

BCP’s ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ here to steal your heart

By John Lyle Belden

Is it a “spoiler” if you already know the ending?

The musical “Bonnie & Clyde” – through June 25 at Buck Creek Players – opens with our titular characters dying from a rain of bullets on a Louisiana road in 1934. But this historical fact is not what is important in this show by Ivan Menchell and Don Black with music by Frank Wildhorn of “Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical.” We aren’t given the gore of their story; this play is an exploration of what made a young man and woman from Texas into the Romeo and Juliet of Depression-era crime.

Bonnie and Clyde musical publicity shot
Joseph Massingale and Annie Miller as Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker in the musical “Bonnie & Clyde” presented by Buck Creek Players.

After the opening tableau, we turn back to see a boy – young Clyde Barrow (Jordan Anness), a child of the West Dallas slums, become a career criminal at 12 and aspire to outshine the Roaring Twenties’ outlaws. We also meet a girl – young Bonnie Parker (Lauren Sciaudone), whose family’s hard times landed her and her mother in West Dallas, but she still plans to make it big one day in Hollywood.

These kids grow to be adults (Joseph Massingale and Annie Miller) in a world of dust and hard times – at one point our couple robs a bankrupt bank. Clyde is the only one who takes Bonnie’s dreams seriously, so they fall in love so deeply that even his stays in jail can’t keep them apart. As she joins him on his “jobs,” Bonnie gives up on the movies and aspires to fame in the pages of true-crime magazines and having her poetry published.

Meanwhile, Clyde’s brother, Buck (Levi Hoffman), gets in on the action with even his upstanding wife Blanche (Miranda Nehrig) drawn into the Barrow Gang. On the other side of the law, Deputy Ted Hinton (Jonathan Krouse), who had long been in love with Bonnie, joins in pursuit of the outlaws with Sheriff Smoot Schmid (James Hildreth) under the lead of Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Kurt F. Clemenz).

The story presented neither demonizes nor glorifies the people involved, or their actions, but puts them in the context of their times and the contradictions that surrounded them – including the murderous thieves staying true to their families, going to meet them at the risk of their own safety. Some license is taken with the story, but it does stay surprisingly true to recorded events. A small video screen above the stage shows photos from the era, including mugshots, to underscore the truth of these scenes.

While rakishly handsome Massingale and charming beauty Miller excellently hold the center of the show in both voice and acting (and some resemblance to their real-life counterparts), supporting roles also shine. Nehrig’s Blanche telling Buck “You’re Going Back to Jail” is a wonderful highlight and an excellent example of the musical’s use of humor to balance the drama. Krouse gives us a heartbreaking glimpse of what Bonnie could have had in steadfast Ted. Molly Kraus is also noteworthy as Bonnie’s mother, Emma.

Director D. Scott Robinson’s passion for the show (which had a brief run on Broadway) is evident in the finished product.

Being a volunteer non-profit, BCP could “afford” to have the large enthusiastic cast and crew necessary to this musical, all “pros” in their own way. The effective yet elegantly simple stage set includes an exceptional replica of the front end of Clyde’s V-8 Ford, hand-built by set designer Aaron B. Bailey.

But the car’s fenders are clean and free of bullet holes. This is the story before that moment; a story of love and hard decisions in difficult times, the slow and steady progress of justice, and of running from the inevitable when the best you can hope for is to reach the end of the road together.

Find Buck Creek Playhouse at 11150 Southeast Ave. (Acton Road Exit off I-74); call 317-862-2270 or see www.buckcreekplayers.com.