The beat goes on for CCP with ‘Ragtime’

By John Lyle Belden

RAGTIME: A modification of the march with additional polyrhythms coming from African music, usually written in 2/4 or 4/4 time with a predominant left-hand pattern of bass notes on strong beats and chords on weak beats accompanying a syncopated (“ragged”) melody in the right hand. Ragtime is not a “time” in the same sense that march time is 2/4 meter and waltz time is 3/4 meter; it is rather a musical style that uses an effect that can be applied to any meter. – from Wikipedia

How appropriate that “Ragtime” is the title of the first show for Carmel Community Players after losing its previous home: The beat of the theatrical season goes on, as events turn ragged with a stage search resulting in a nicer venue – though outside Carmel and further from Indy. A large and immensely talented cast and crew adapt quickly, making props and actor movement serve a larger space, singing their hearts out as seasonal health issues threaten.

Yet it all works.

It is worth the drive up to Noblesville to see this compelling glimpse of an America that, a century later, still casts its shadows on the events and issues of today.

This Broadway musical is largely the story of three families – Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Ronald Spriggs) and Sarah (Angela Manlove), the woman who fell in love with him; Jewish Eastern European immigrant Tateh (Thom Brown) and his daughter (Ali Boice), seeking any possible opportunity in America; and the wealthy white suburban family finding themselves in the middle of upsetting but inevitable social, historic and cultural changes. Being what would now be called the faces of “white privilege,” in this latter group we don’t even bother with names: Father (Rich Phipps), Mother (Heather Hansen), her Younger Brother (Benjamin Elliott), Grandfather (Duane Leatherman) and Little Boy (Lincoln Everitt).

We also see some people who one might actually meet in early 1900s New York, including anarchist Emma Goldman and Civil Rights icon Booker T. Washington, powerfully portrayed by Clarissa Bowers and Bradley Lowe, respectively. Celebrities include Harry Houdini (Jonathan Krouse), popular magician and escapist; and Evelyn Nesbitt (Molly Campbell), the Kardashian of her era.

Appropriately, the most critical roles give the strongest performances – Manlove and Spriggs bringing us to tears, Brown confronting crushing problems with wry humor, and Hansen struggling to reconcile her “perfect” life into a more just worldview.

Also notable are Guy Grubbs as unrepentant bigot Willie Conklin, and – at the opposite end of character appeal – little Gavin Hollowell steals our hearts in the final scene.

In addition, I must give kudos to Everitt for, as frequent narrator and our future-generations point of view, ably carrying such a big role on his small shoulders.

This musical has seen some controversy, particularly in its period-appropriate use of the N-word, but the horrors of racism should disturb us, and in the end this is not just a story about groups, but individual men and women, like us, dealing with the still-continuing evolution of this thing we call America.

Performances are this Friday through Sunday (April 27-29) at Ivy Tech Community College auditorium, 300 N.17 th St., Noblesville. Information and tickets at carmelplayers.org.

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Foreign affairs are hilarious with Mud Creek’s brilliant ‘Amorous Ambassador’

By Wendy Carson

Mud Creek Players are sending their 2017-18 season out on a very high note with their production of Michael Parker’s hilarious farce, “The Amorous Ambassador.” While the show is a continuation of the saga of “The Sensuous Senator” (which Mud Creek staged in 2016), you need not have seen the previous production to enjoy this play.

The story centers on “Hormone Harry” Douglas, who, after losing his bid for the Presidency, was appointed as Ambassador to England. He and his family have now set up household in a nice little cottage in the countryside, complete with a butler. As we join the family unit, they have each decided to take off in separate ways for the weekend. Prior to leaving, though, each of them confirms that Perkins, the butler, will be “the soul of discretion” should anything occur. So daughter Debbie is off to make memories with her girlfriends; Lois, his doting wife, is off to the spa; and Harry plans to play golf in Scotland.

Once the wife and daughter have left, Harry and sexy neighbor, Marian, begin their tryst, including costumes to fulfil their fantasies: Marian’s is a French maid. But as soon as they exit the stage, Debbie reappears with her boyfriend, Joe, for their own little weekend of togetherness. Add to this, a bomb threat at the embassy suddenly brings security chief Captain South and Harry’s ditzy secretary, Faye, on site to turn the cottage into a temporary Embassy – complete with a total lockdown of the perimeter. Now Marian has to pretend to be a real servant, while Debbie adds a wig and dress to her friend, “Josephine.” The result is a sidesplitting evening of confusion and overall silliness.

Ronan Marra does a great job at keeping Harry’s lustful advances going while appearing to be in charge. Colin Landberg is masterful through the trio of characters he is given to embody – Joe, Josephine and “Marc Anthony.” Sara Castillo Dandurand handily keeps Debbie believing in her father’s virtue even while seemingly compromising her own. Katie Carter’s portrayal of “Maid Marian” shows that she is certainly up for anything. Tom Riddle brings all of the pomp and ruggedness that Captain South’s character demands, with a delightful slapstick turn. While Sherry Compton’s character of Lois is not on the stage for very long, she shines brightly in those moments that she is performing.

While everyone does a wonderful job of playing their roles for all that they are worth, I would like to highlight two exceptional performances:

  • Ann Ellerbrook’s take on the hot, blonde, airhead secretary, Faye, shows the amazing range that a seemingly one-note character can become under the correct actor’s interpretation of a role. She truly brought her character to life in a way that really made me wish I could see more of that character’s story.
  • Craig Kemp is likewise amazing for keeping his character of Perkins, the properly stogy English butler, from going too far into camp mode. While making sure that his character’s upper lip stayed as stiff as one would expect it to be and a slightly raised eyebrow could cause you to wither, he managed to keep Perkins a warmly accessible grandfatherly figure. That sort of depth in what, again, should have been a simple one-note character shows great range and depth of talent.

With everything happening right now, we can all use a spot of silliness and a good laugh, and this show presents it in spades.

Performances are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, through May 5 at the Mud Creek Players “Barn,” 9740 E. 86th St. (near Geist). Get tickets and info at www.mudcreekplayers.org.

‘It is, it is a glorious thing!’ Agape kids plunder another classic

By John Lyle Belden

A year after their triumphant production of “Les Miserables,” the children and teens of Agape Performing Arts Company take on something much lighter, the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operetta, “The Pirates of Penzance.”

In this classic piece of British silliness – with its biting satire of Victorian devotion to class, honor and duty – our hero Frederic concludes his indenture as a Pirate (he was to become a sea “pilot,” but there was a misunderstanding). His duty done, he leaves the ship to do what any good English citizen would do: Fight piracy. When he sees the dozen daughters of the local Major General, Frederic dumps his middle-aged nurse, Ruth, and seeks to woo the girls. Naturally, they refuse, except for nightingale-voiced Mabel, who takes pity on him. But as romance blooms, we find we aren’t yet done with the Pirate King and his crew, especially when Ruth reveals a technicality that could bring Frederic back into their ranks for the rest of his life.

As this large production features so much young talent over its two-week run (ending Sunday), many of the roles were double-cast. The leads I saw, in the “Gilbert Cast,” included Alex Bast as Frederic and Carlynn Berners as Mabel. Maura Phipps was impressive as Ruth, and Tekoa Rea-Hedrick nimbly recited the popular patter of the “Modern Major General.” In the “Sullivan Cast,” these roles are played by Aidan Morris, Christina Canaday, Sabrina Duprey and Luke Proctor. Working with both casts are Eli Robinson as the charming and energetic Pirate King, and spry Carter Dills, showing his dancing skill as Sergeant of the reluctant Constables dispatched to confront the pirates.

While the youths and their adult mentors take their stagecraft seriously, evident by the choreography, excellent costuming, and commitment to the comic bits, no matter how slapstick, there was a definite air of fun throughout. Thus, you won’t find this reviewer nitpicking – no doubt flaws and technical issues are being addressed as I write this, readying this crew to sail afresh on Friday. Speaking of which, it is notable that during the curtain call after each performance, all backstage crew members are called on stage to take a bow as well. Everyone’s hard work is appreciated.

Direction is by Kathy Phipps, with student assistant Mikaela Smith; musical director April Barnes, with Alex Bast. Choreography is by Faith Anthony and Arabella Rollison.

Performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday (Sullivan), 3:30 p.m. Saturday (Sullivan), 7:30 p.m. Saturday (Gilbert) and 3:30 p.m. Sunday (Sullivan) at McGowan Hall (Knights of Columbus #437), 1305 N. Delaware in downtown Indianapolis. Info and tickets at www.agapeshows.org.

Agape Performing Arts is a program of Our Lady of the Greenwood Catholic Church, Greenwood, Ind.

Observe a witness to history at the IRT

By John Lyle Belden

An exceptional treat for theatre fans and history buffs, the James Still masterpiece, “Looking Over the President’s Shoulder,” has returned to the Indiana Repertory Theatre through May 6.

Aspiring opera singer – and proud native of Lyles Station, Indiana – Alonzo Fields took one of the few jobs available to a black man in Boston in the 1920s: a household servant. Then a chance encounter with First Lady Lou Henry Hoover leads to a position at the White House, where he ascends to Chief Butler. As he says in the play, Fields planned to only work through the winter before returning from Washington to Boston and his music – “That ‘winter’ lasted 21 years.”

David Alan Anderson transforms fully into Fields, recounting his career to us as he waits for the bus after his last day at the White House. Through him – and Still’s researched work, based in part on Fields’ memoir – we gain an insight into the lives and personalities of four presidents and their wives, as well as visiting British prime minister Winston Churchill.

The political scene is largely beside the point, though the racist policies of of the era can’t be ignored. Fields remembers encountering segregated facilities, and reflects on President Harry Truman’s orders to integrate the military. Serving through the end of Herbert Hoover’s term and 12 years of Franklin D. Roosevelt gave him a unique perspective on the White House during the Great Depression, as well as World War II.

The most striking thing about the narrative is the focus on the presidents and their families, their humanity and the way they conducted themselves in public and private. In this context, the Executive Mansion becomes a fully fleshed-out character as well. Adding to the context of history we may already know, we gain a deeper understanding of the Hoovers, the Roosevelts, the Trumans, and the Eisenhowers. And, in turn, we get the measure of this man before us, our unassuming hero, as well as the hard-working staff who invisibly keep the White House running smoothly, allowing our leaders to do their jobs as best they can.

The IRT is at 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indy, next to Circle Centre. For information and tickets, call 317-635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.

BCP hosts the original version of ‘Dolly’

By John Lyle Belden

Buck Creek Players presents, “The Matchmaker,” the Thornton Wilder farce that inspired the hit musical, “Hello Dolly” – and it’s easy to see how, as there were several moments in this non-musical comedy that I found myself thinking, “a song would go nice here.”

Set in the 1880s, this satire of society and attitudes of the era has a Yonkers, N.Y., merchant, Horace Vandegelder (C. Leroy Delph), hiring matchmaker Dolly Levi (Gloria Bray) to find him a wife, while denying his daughter Ermengarde (Sami Burr) permission to marry her true love, artist Ambrose Kemper (Manny Casillas). Meanwhile, Horace’s top clerk, Cornelius Hackl (Ben Jones) and his bumbling assistant Barnaby (Evan Vernon), fed up with a lack of respect at their jobs, decide to spend a day in nearby New York City – where, of course, everyone else will end up. The adventure begins at the hat shop of Irene Malloy (Brigette McCleary-Short), who Horace had sought to woo, but Dolly has someone else in mind for the rich man’s bride.

Bray holds the center well as the title character, never holding back on the clever charm and wit. McCleary-Short is also impressive in a character who would feel right at home among the independent women of today’s New York. Otherwise, Wilder apparently had trouble writing for the women, as Ermengarde has few lines, and Irene’s shy assistant Minnie Fay (Katie Thompson) practically none – though she makes up for it with effective physical comedy.

Jones truly shines, making his supporting role feel like a lead, his excellent comic timing and delivery aided by the slapstick skills of Vernon, as they play well off of McCleary-Short and Thompson’s characters.

I must also commend stage first-timer Nickie Cornett for her charming moments as the Cook for Flora Van Huyson (Kassy Cayer, a study in melodrama), Ermengarde’s aunt, at whose home the farcical situations reach their climax.

The play includes the device of various characters, notably Dolly, speaking directly to the audience. It’s hard to say whether that, or a lot of the humor, has aged well. (There was, however, a bit of unexpected amusement by younger audience members, associating Ermengarde’s name with the “Ehrmagerd” internet meme.) The show also features clever stage design by Dan Denniston, with setpieces for a number of locales easily moved in and out of the scene.

One weekend remains of “The Matchmaker” at Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road Exit off I-74); call 317-862-2270 or visit www.BuckCreekPlayers.com.