Civic: Here we go again!

By John Lyle Belden

It’s hard to imagine anyone not knowing about the musical “Mamma Mia!” Between the popular film (which recently launched a sequel) and the various touring productions through the years since it premiered on Broadway in 2001, practically everyone with an interest in this show has seen it. And it stands as one of those theatre experiences people eagerly go to again and again, perhaps bringing along children or hold-outs unfamiliar with its goings-on.

Since rights recently became available for local productions, it is naturally popping up — now “Mamma Mia!” is at the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, through Oct. 19.

Directed and choreographed by Anne Beck, this edition of the musical — featuring an engaging romantic comedy plot, and twenty-two hits by 70s-80s superstars ABBA — takes advantage of its large stage and generously-sized volunteer cast to really go big on the singing and dancing, while simultaneously embracing the show’s use of simple sets, employing a couple of small set pieces and a rotating center stage that is put to effective use. 

Thanks to Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan’s efforts on the big screen, the karaoke nature of the musical doesn’t require perfect singers, still Civic didn’t skimp on the talent. Becky Larson stars as Sophie Sheridan, a girl who invites three men to her wedding, knowing only that one of them is her father. Her mother, Donna, is portrayed wonderfully by Kara Snyder, while her best friends and “Dynamos” are fun roles for Civic favorites Laura Lockwood as cougarish Tanya and Marni Lemmons as free-spirit Rosie. Our three possible papas are sharply played by Clay Mabbitt as Sam the architect, Ethan Mathias as “Headbanger” Harry the banker, and Parrish Williams as Bill the travel writer. Joseph David Massingale is more than a handsome face as the prospective groom, Sky.

Also great are Cameron Hicks and Nate Schlabach as Sky’s buds, Pepper and Eddie; Jessica Linxwiler and Julia Ammons as maids-of-honor Ali and Lisa; and supporting ensemble Matthew Altman, Tanner Brunson, Sydney Chaney, Tyler Hartman Derry, David Johnson, Jonathan Katter, Emily Lantz, Dani Morey, Miles Morey, Kipp Morgan, Jacquelyn Rae, Emily Schaab, Caitlin Stacy, and Tiffany Whisner.

Taken as a whole, this show is so much fun. There are moments fraught with possible heartbreak (and sad songs), but it all ends well, of course. We all have our favorite scenes — such as the frog-dance of “Lay All Your Love on Me,” or Tanya strutting her stuff in “Does Your Mother Know” — and there’s always the “Megamix” at the end with the outrageous costume reveal and bonus track (“Waterloo”). 

Civic is “having the time of their lives;” it would be a shame to miss the party. Get tickets and information at 317-843-3800, civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

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NoExit’s ‘Birds’ flock to Central State

By John Lyle Belden

We’re a long way from Bodega Bay. Members of NoExit Performance have speculated what happened in the years after the events of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” and crafted a theatre experience that tells a story from the animals’ point of view.

The bird uprising came at a time of nuclear conflict, leaving avians and humans alike struggling to scratch out a living in the resulting wasteland. Rapid evolution has given the birds speech, and the ability to think tactically and plan, but this leaves them struggling to hold on to their instincts. 

The Midwest flock has gathered at the former grounds of Central State in Indianapolis, where we, the audience, are the few humans allowed to witness their proceedings. The birds don’t trust us, and herd us (as we would them) from scene to scene in this unusual drama.

All are worried about their prospects for survival. Food is in short supply, eggshells are dangerously thin, and though there have been gains in the war against the humans, they come at a cost. Hadrian (Ronn Johnston) reluctantly carries the role of leader, as fellow raptors Antinious is dead and Ikarus (Dave Pelsue) is missing, assumed to be a traitor. His advisor Grebe (Becky Lee Meacham) tries to bouy his confidence, while fellow Council member Krone (Callie Burk-Hartz) has drastic plans of her own. 

Meanwhile, young Ave (Gaby Padilla) is the only one to whom the spirit bird Horus (a large shadow-puppet, likely a gull as it refers to the first attackers from the film) will speak. Inquisitive and empathetic, she is told she is the key to the future of all birdkind. This worries her sister Poly (Stephanie Wilson).

Also notable are worrisome Moa (Tracy Herring), presumptuous Asha (Audrey Stonerock) and war-party leader Apollo (Tristan Montgomery). Other members of the flock are played by Nicole Kelter, Katie Carter, Owen Harp, Jenny Allan, Ashley Youmell, Kimmie Icenogle, Katherine Boyles Ogawa, and Lesli Butler. Horus is presented by Tracy Herring, Wilson, Stonerock and Pelsue.

The story, written and directed by Ryan Mullins, has the feel of great Greek and Shakespearean dramas. But its presentation is restrained from full anthropomorphization. Just as cast members of the musical “Cats” have to go to “cat school,” so have the NoExit players apparently gone to “Bird School” — their movements are constantly birdlike, squawks and other bird cries are mixed in their speech, when idle they peck and scratch at their surroundings, and each player stays true to a particular species in its actions. They never break character, even during intermission. 

Makeup and loose costuming, designed by Kat Robinson, Traci Snider and Asha Patel, which involve fabric strips rather than feathers, aid their motion and suggest their form, letting the characters within hold our attention rather than be distracted by artificial beaks or other obvious bird-features.

Even more effective than their look is their sound, as the actors effectively emulate the fluttering, flapping noise that was so unnerving in the movie.

The play is set mostly outdoors, with the occasional real bird observing from the rooftops. Audience members are advised to bring lawn chairs — much of the play takes place in one area — but a limited number are available on site.

“The Birds” have a lot to teach us, and some hard lessons to learn. Performances run through Oct. 13 at the Power House on the grounds of Central State Village off West Washington Street. For information and tickets, visit noexitperformance.org

Shakespeare vs. six-shooters in Westfield

By John Lyle Belden

Upon seeing that Main Street Productions in Westfield has produced “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” one might think that someone dusted off an old script — after all, the John Wayne/Jimmy Stewart movie, and the popular song, came out in 1962. But this play was written in 2014 — by Jethro Compton, based more on the original Dorothy M. Johnson story than the film. And this Western, set toward the end of the 19th century, has a lot to say to us in the 21st.

Rance Foster (Matt Hartzburg), a scholar seeking his fortune out West, is beaten and left for dead by Valance (Adam Davis) and his gang. Rescued by local cowboy Bert Barricune (R.C. Thorne), Foster is brought to a saloon owned and run by Miss Hallie Jackson (Sabrina Duprey) in the tiny town of Twotrees. The local Marshal (Kevin Shadle) isn’t much help as he feels the small bounty on Valance’s head isn’t near worth facing his gun. 

As Foster recovers, he discovers that “Reverend” Jim (Xavier Jones), the black boy who grew up with Hallie, has perfect memory — having earned his nickname by memorizing the Bible just from hearing it, despite being illiterate. Foster decides to teach Jim — and Hallie, and anyone who’s interested — to read, with the help of books he carries with him, including a volume of Shakespeare sonnets.

Hints of civilization don’t set well with Liberty Valance, who wants to keep the territory as lawless as possible for as long as possible, while enriching himself and his gang. So, he comes to visit Twotrees, setting in motion the events that lead to his final showdown.

The play is directed by Veronique Duprey, Sabrina’s mother. She said that when she found the script a couple of years ago and looked for an opportunity to stage it, she had not thought of her daughter to take the role of Hallie. But now, the casting seems perfect. An experienced young actress, Sabrina convincingly holds her own with the men — much like her character.

Other roles are also well-cast. Hartzburg wins us over as the idealistic tenderfoot; Thorne projects strength even standing still; Davis is perfectly chilling; Jones is outstanding in a surprisingly complex character; and Shadle takes what could be a comic role and stays true to the drama, playing the Marshal on the fine line of pragmatism and cowardice. Supporting roles are played by Cody Holloway, Alex Dantin, Robert Fimreite, Rich Steinberg and Rob Stokes.

Tom Smith lends his strong voice and presence as the Narrator, sort of a living embodiment of the Spirit of the West.

More than the events surrounding a legendary shootout, this is a story of love and loyalty, finding the strength to make one’s self and world better, and bravery beyond the ability to hold a gun steady.

And drinking a lot of fake whiskey (it is set in a saloon, after all).

Note the play includes coarse language and the use of loud blanks in the pistols (the venue is kind of small). Main Street Productions will break ground on a new playhouse in downtown Westfield later this month, but for now performances are still in the old former church building at 1836 W. State Road 32, through Oct. 13. Call 317-402-3341 or visit westfieldplayhouse.org.

Powerful ‘Ragtime’ at Footlite Musicals

By John Lyle Belden

Since it launched in 1996, Terrance McNally’s musical “Ragtime” — based on the E.L. Doctorow novel — has become an American “Les Mis,” a great sweeping epic of national identity and tragic power. And now it graces the stage of Footlite Musicals.

Set in the first decade of the 20th century, an upper-middle class family in New Rochelle, N.Y. find themselves at the crossroads of a number of intersecting stories, blending historical figures and events with characters who were a reflection of the era in various ways — good and bad. 

One can’t dispute the star power of such roles as ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Allen Sledge), who faces one racist indignity too many; his tragic girlfriend Sarah (Angela Manlove); extraordinarily kind Mother (Heather Hansen), discovering liberation despite society’s constraints; her headstrong Younger Brother (Jared Gaddis), whose search for meaning takes him to radical extremes; and immigrant Tateh (Daniel Draves), whose artistic soul keeps reaching for the American Dream until he finds it. 

Another impressive performance is by Edgar, the Little Boy, who acts as one of the play’s narrators as well as involvement in numerous scenes — a big task for a young actor, which Lincoln Everitt carries out well.

The “real” people in the show include Henry Ford (W. Michael Davidson), J.P. Morgan (Bryan Padgett), Harry Houdini (Josh Cox), and anarchist Emma Goldman (Lauren Laski) — as well as two whom history would remember in completely opposite ways. Evelyn Nesbitt (Hadas Yasmin) was the Kim Kardashian of her time, a style icon with more notoriety than talent, only known now by her inclusion in Doctorow’s book; while civil rights icon Booker T. Washington (Jerry Davis) is widely celebrated to this day.

Directed by Paula Phelan, this production has solid performances throughout, including from characters who don’t come off quite as heroic in the narrative — such as Father (Mitchell Hammersley) who means well, but finds himself distanced from his family (even when he’s with them) and lost in the changing times; and bigoted fireman Willie Conklin (Josh Cornell), the biggest villain of the show.

A last-minute addition to the cast, Truman Peyton charms as little Coalhouse Walker III in the finale.

The split-level set is used to good effect, with excellent light effects and projections to punctuate scenes, and a nice representation of a Model T to drive across the stage. Zak Techiniak directs the live orchestra.

Part of the impact of this very powerful musical story is in the unflinching look at the treatment of minorities of the era, including the use of vicious language, in context. It is disturbing, as it is meant to be — a visceral reminder of how far we have come in a century, yet how close we are to falling back.

Performances run through Oct. 13 at 1847 N. Alabama St.,near downtown Indy. Call 317-926-6630 or visit footlite.org.

Secrets abound at BCP

By John Lyle Belden

Want to know a secret?

They don’t want me to tell. They don’t want any details leaking of “Trap,” the suspenseful hybrid of documentary, found footage and cutting-edge theatre, by Stephen Gregg, now playing at Buck Creek Players. They don’t want me to tell you what really happened at the Oak Box Theater in Menachap, California, why it’s haunted, why this is important. So many deaths, so many unconscious and dying.

So many cast members who are new to BCP. So many who are apparently 16 — this is also important. Have you heard of them? Do you know Dylan Albertson, Steven Allen, Ken Cutshall, Kirsten Cutshall, Ray Gron, Lauren Johnson, Stacy Long, Brigitte McCleary-Short, Rebecca D.M. McVay, Toni Riera, Lauren Ruddick, Ericka Dianne Ward, Caleb Weir and Rhiannon Wiggs? They make a good ensemble, playing multiple characters as the narrative demands, notably McCleary-Short as Detective Heche, Allen as the first-responder who refuses to give up, Ruddick as the one who knew something was going to happen, and Long as the one person who didn’t succumb in the “event.” 

To me, at least, the ending seemed predictable, but we let it come anyway. It was so interesting, a picture of infinity turning in on itself — where have I heard that? Anyway, ninety minutes of the first (only?) act, and then we are just let go. Or were we?

Something happened there. Perhaps you should find out as well, before the run ends on Oct. 6. The playhouse is at 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74); call 317-862-2270 or visit www.buckcreekplayers.com.