Permit yourself to enjoy ‘Forbidden Broadway’

By John Lyle Belden

That beloved but misnamed (not actually on a “Square”) spot on Mass Ave. has returned to life with a wonderful send-up of the world of Broadway musicals.

Actors Theatre of Indiana presents “Forbidden Broadway’s Greatest Hits” all this month at the District Theatre (former home of Theatre on the Square), its first production under new name and management. ATI regulars Cynthia Collins, Don Farrell, Judy Fitzgerald and Logan Moore, with Brent Marty at the piano, give us the parodies made famous in the off-Broadway show that has been savaging its on-stage neighbors since 1982 – no one is safe, from Bob Fosse to “Les Mis” to Spongebob.

It’s impressive what gets made fun of – lay-offs of the cast of “Beauty and the Beast,” the rotating stage of “Les Miserables,” those massive headpieces in “Lion King.” Wendy loves that one of her pet peeves, actors reliant on visible microphones, gets skewered by a big-singing stage legend.

Speaking of legendary actors, they get parodied as well, including some girl named Carol and this guy named Mandy.

The result is so very funny. The more you know about the source material, the more hilarious it all is, but this show had everyone laughing.

And these five people playing it all are practically legend-level themselves – they should beware, lest someone down the street at IndyFringe makes fun of them!

Performances through June 29 at the District, 627 Massachusetts Ave., downtown Indianapolis. (ATI then returns to its home in Carmel to start its 2018-19 season, which concludes with more Forbidden Broadway next summer.) For info and tickets, see atistage.org.

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Once upon a time, at Footlite…

By John Lyle Belden

Off to the blog
To post a review;
The show was great,
You should see it, too…

Footlite Musicals adds to this summer’s entertainment with its young adult production of Stephen Sondhiem’s “Into the Woods.”

As many know, thanks to the recent film, this musical mashes up several popular fairy tales, which all happen in or near a particularly enchanted forest – The Woods. To this mix of Red Riding Hood, Jack (of Beanstalk fame), Cinderella and Rapunzel are added the fairytale-adjacent Baker and his Wife. A Witch, the Baker’s neighbor, offers to reverse her curse that made them childless, but it will require items possessed by characters in other stories.

So, it’s “off to the Woods” for lots of wacky interactions as each person’s narrative winds toward its well-known conclusion. But then comes the Second Act, when we find that “happily ever after” is the true myth – and you didn’t think that killing a giant would come without consequences, did you?

This is the part
Where John heaps praise
Upon the folks
Who walked the stage…

Given the production values and level of talent in high school and college theater programs across the state, it’s not a detriment to note this is a “student” production, but rather sets the bar higher given the cast’s young energy and dedication. In fact, I’ve seen some of these faces on stage before, and look forward to seeing many on the boards again.

Notables include: Tara Sorg, whose look and delivery as the Baker’s wife reminded me of Broadway’s Joanna Gleason. Kyle Cherry as the Baker was like the movie’s James Cordon, but more talented. I’d note that Paige Brown – our Witch – reminded me of Lady Gaga at her fiercest, but in the future I might compare stars to her. If this play were just the Red Riding Hood story, it would still be worth the ticket as Hannah Bullock as Red has great stage charisma, and, well, we had to kill the Wolf, Christian Condra (recently seen in “Priscilla”), as he was not only eating people but stealing the show. As for Jack, Noah Fields plays that impulsive little brother you want to smack some sense into, but love anyway.

Erin Elliott and Halle Catlow shine as Cinderella and Rapunzel. Zachary Hoover and Joseph Massingale are charmingly haughty as their Princes – providing great comic moments in their “Agony.” Shout-outs for the maternal madness of Ellen Vander Missen as Jack’s Mother, Alyssa Klingstein as Granny, and Olivia Ash as Cinderella’s stepmom. And then there’s Josh Vander Missen as a leaf-covered Mysterious Man, an interesting character to be sure.

The “older kids” involved are director Kathleen Clarke Horrigan, who has a knack for these summer shows, and her assistant Ed Mobley, who filled in as the musical’s Narrator on opening night.

The young crew, which include some cast members, built an excellent stage set, which even gets graced by live horse (a beautiful Arabian, Inshal Amir).

While I suspect there’s a backstage bet on which of the Witch’s finger-sparks misfire, and – sorry Disney happy-ending fans – the show does get a bit dark, this is overall a fun production and perhaps the best staging of “Into the Woods” I’ve seen. Even my partner Wendy – who doesn’t really like Sondheim’s ode to Grimm stories – admits this is a great show.

The show was good,
This post is done,
Now get a ticket
And join the fun…

Two weekends remain, July 5-8 and July 12-15, at Footlite, 1847 N. Alabama St. near downtown Indy; call 317-926-6630 or visit www.Footlite.org.

Stellar Summit debut with ‘Silent Sky’

By John Lyle Belden

A century ago, a woman helped revolutionize astronomy, a perfect subject to inaugurate Indy’s new woman-centered theater company, Summit Performance Indianapolis.

“Silent Sky,” by Lauren Gunderson, playing through July 22 on the Basile Stage of the Phoenix Theatre, is the story of Henrietta Leavitt, who, shortly before 1900, joined a team of women working for the astronomy professor at Harvard College (now University) near Boston. Acting as the “Hidden Figures” of their day, Dr. Pickering (who we never meet in this play) calls these women “Computers,” a word not yet attached to the modern device, but still apt. More crudely, they were also referred to as “Pickering’s Harem.”

Though women weren’t allowed to actually use the state-of-the-art telescope, Leavitt (Carrie Ann Schlatter) finds excitement in identifying stars and celestial phenomena on its glass photographic plates. She joins no-nonsense team leader Annie Cannon (Molly Garner) and feisty Scottish immigrant Williamina Fleming (Gigi Jennewien), Pickering’s former housekeeper and his first Computer. They are supervised by the professor’s assistant, Peter Shaw (Adam Tran), a man whose heart really isn’t in his work – until he meets Henrietta.

But the ties of family beckon, as Henrietta’s dear sister Margaret (Devan Mathias) calls her to their father’s Wisconsin home when he falls ill. Even there, she continues her work, seeking to make sense and pattern of the varying brightness in the stars she studies. Margaret tires of her sister’s obsession, and finds solace at her piano – what happens next, as the saying goes, is history.

Produced by Summit founder and Artistic Director Lauren Briggeman and directed by Lori Wolter Hudson, the play makes excellent use of the Basile black-box stage, with audience on three sides, as well as projected starscapes. The props are few but beautiful, including a very functional large desk and Henrietta’s period-appropriate hearing aid. Performances are superb, especially Schlatter expressing Henrietta’s passions and regrets, and Mathias showing Margaret’s tested but true sisterly love. Garner entertainingly transforms from dour to power as a budding feminist. Jennewien is ever the kind mother figure. Tran doesn’t allow his performance to slide into buffoonery, but he is definitely not the smartest “man” in the room.

This sweet drama explores the personal cost of ambition, as well as the struggle to overcome systems set against you. As Henrietta herself says in the play, “Life is about getting appropriately upset.”

Learn about and celebrate the woman who “measured the universe.” Note that the Phoenix is now at 705 N. Illinois St., and curtain times on this stage are 7:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m. Sundays, a half-hour off the mainstage times. For info and tickets visit www.summitperformanceindy.com or www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Comfortably crazy clan at CrazyLake

By John Lyle Belden and Wendy Carson

Given the chaotic nature of world events and the pressures we face in our individual lives, it is a perfect time for the old-fashioned eccentric wisdom of the classic stage comedy “You Can’t Take It With You,” presented by CrazyLake Acting Company in Greenfield.

Every family has its peculiar quirks but the Sycamores seem to be overachievers. Mom Penny used to paint, but now writes never-finished plays, primarily because a typewriter was delivered to their house by mistake. Daughter Essie dances around the house and makes candy even though she has talent for only one of these; she’s married to Ed, an avid printmaker and xylophonist who came for dinner eight years ago and just stayed. Dad Paul makes fireworks in the basement with the help of Mr. DePinna (the iceman who also just stayed). Grandpa, Martin Vanderhof, oversees this crazy bunch (as well as a few other colorful characters) making sure that everyone is happy.

Penny and Paul’s other daughter, Alice, an executive secretary at a high-powered Wall Street firm, is in love with the boss’s son, Tony Kirby Jr., who finds everyone charming. But his overly straight-laced parents are a different story.

Add to this some harassment from the IRS over unpaid income taxes, as well as corn flakes, snakes, explosions, a revealing party game, Russian aristocracy and live kittens on stage (yes, really!) and you get the spectacle that earned a Pulitzer Prize and inspired a Best Picture film in the 1930s, and has had audiences laughing since.

To get everyone in the mood, CrazyLake has a trio of “Andrews Sisters” serenade you at the Ricks Centre doors. On stage we get excellent performances all around, including Chris VeHorn as charming Penny, looking like the template for all sitcom moms that followed; Trever Brown as unflappable Mr. Vanderhof, whose only standard for life is to do what makes one happy; Amy Studebaker showing comic grace in a physically challenging role; Caitlyn Mabbitt and Evan Myers as our lovebirds Alice and Tony; Frances Hull as unfazed cook and maid Rheba; and Brent Oliver as appropriately uptight Mr. Kirby.

If the plot looks familiar, a form of it resurfaced in the recent “Addams Family” stage show (and perhaps echoes in the drama “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner”), but this is the original. And director Chris Shaefer, who is used to working with silly shows (as boss of KidsPlay Inc.) gets the most out of this high-energy local volunteer cast.

It’s not that far a drive, and Greenfield has a nice downtown for those who show up early. Remaining performances of “You Can’t Take It With You” are this Friday through Sunday, June 29-July 1, at the H. J. Ricks Centre for the Arts, 122 W. Main St. (U.S. 40). Tickets are $10 each online at www.crazylake.org, on site before the show, or in advance at Hometown Comics and Games, 1506 N. State St. (SR 9), also in Greenfield.

Asch’s work rises anew in Phoenix production of Vogel’s ‘Indecent’

 

Indecent kiss
The infamous kiss — Abby Lee (left) and Courtney Spivak in ‘Indecent’ at Indy’s Phoenix Theatre.  (Provided photo by Zach Rosing)

By John Lyle Belden

 

The Phoenix Theatre has never shied from – in fact it embraces – controversial stage works. With its present production of the Tony-winning drama, “Indecent,” by Paula Vogel, it goes another layer by showing how a popular play shocked Broadway nearly a century ago.

Polish-Jewish writer Sholem Asch wrote just one play, but it became a sensation throughout the Yiddish-speaking world, and even found fame in translation throughout Europe. But when an Americanized “God of Vengeance” went on Broadway (even after playing in New York’s Yiddish theatres with no controversy), the cast and producer were quickly arrested and charged with indecency. Not only was this a Jewish play by a Jew (a troublesome thing in 1923), but it is set in a brothel and features two women falling in love, kissing passionately on stage.

According to program notes, when Vogel was approached about writing this play, she said she immediately pictured a ragged troupe of actors in an attic. That’s who we meet as the lights come up: Lemml the stage manager (played by Nick Jenkins) and his troupe portrayed by Mark Goetzinger, John Goodson, Abby Lee, Jolene Moffatt, Bill Simmons and Courtney Spivak.

Goodson spends most of the narrative as Asch, bringing his surprising new work to a Warsaw writer’s salon, taking it – with Lemml’s help – to the stage, and dealing with the fallout of the indecency trial. He embodies the role well, in all stages from an eager genius to a bitter man focused on the next phase of his writing.

Lee and Spivak are wonderful, portraying women who fall in love both within the play and offstage. Under the direction of Martha Jacobs, their sublime affections bloom beautifully. Phoenix regulars Goetzinger, Moffatt and Simmons are solid, as usual. As for Jenkins, his work is astounding, especially as we come to why we encounter the troupe as they were in the opening scene.

Indecent Lemml-Asch small
Nick Jenkins (left) as tailor-turned-stage manager Lemml and John Goodson as celebrated Yiddish writer Sholem Asch. (provided photo by Zach Rosing)

 

The multiple languages involved in telling the story are portrayed in part by easy-to-read projected captions. Often the dialogue is in English but the projected cue will say something like “In Yiddish” to maximize understanding and dramatic flow while keeping everything in context.

In the end, it’s like we’ve seen two great plays – we get a Cliff’s-notes understanding of “God of Vengeance (Got fun nekome)” as well as the full measure of Vogel’s work. But you only need to get one ticket. Performances are through July 8 at the Phoenix, now located at 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indianapolis; call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

Civic kids are ‘Peach’y

By John Lyle Belden

The weird world of Roald Dahl’s “James and the Giant Peach” comes to life at the Tarkington theater for a Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre Jr. Civic production – by kids, for kids – through Wednesday.

In this musical version of the darkly whimsical children’s novel (by Benji Pasek, Justin Paul and Timothy Allen McDonald, authorized by Dahl’s widow), young James, orphaned in a freak incident, finds himself “property” of a pair of unscrupulous aunts. But a mysterious wizard, Ladahlord, appears, offering him relief in a magic potion that James accidentally spills near a doomed peach tree. The next day, an enormous peach grows on the tree, and James comes to find it grew and transformed the insect-like creatures inside. Just as the boy is getting to know these new friends, the peach’s huge stem snaps, and things really get rolling…

As a stage musical, this isn’t the greatest thing you’ll see, but it is a fun and entertaining introduction to the magic of the stage both for the young cast and the children who come to see (and grown-ups can appreciate it, too). The cast acquit themselves very well – including Ben Boyce as James, Maddux Morrison as Grasshopper, Colin McCabe as Centipede, Brayden Porterfield as Earthworm, Ava Roan as Spider and May Kate Tanselle as Ladybug. Jilayne Kistner as Ladahlord has a stage presence and vocal talent that had me wondering if she is truly as young as she looks – watch for her in the future.

Director Brent E. Marty and fellow (alleged) adult Holly Stults gleefully play awful Aunts Spiker and Sponge, frequently threatening to steal the show from their young costars.

The remaining performances are matinees, 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at the Tarkington in the Centre for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. For a nice diversion for kids home from school, get info and tickets at civictheatre.org or thecentrepresents.org.

CCP: Artist ‘dying’ to get popular in Twain farce

By John Lyle Belden

Mark Twain’s almost-forgotten farce, “Is He Dead?” has come alive in Fishers, thanks to Carmel Community Players.

Twain, the celebrated American author and humorist, wrote the play while traveling Europe and had planned on staging it in 1898, but those performances never happened. The script was rediscovered in 2002 and, adapted by noted playwright David Ives, finally reached Broadway in 2007.

Now it’s here.

A fictional version of actual master painter Jean-Francois Millet (played by Jaime Johnson) struggles to get noticed or even sell a single painting from his shabby home in Barbizon, France. His international circle of disciples, Chicago (Matt Hartzburg), Dutchy (Adam Powell) and O’Shaughnessy (Kelly Keller) recognize his genius, as do landladies Bathide (Lucinda Ryan) and Caron (Susan Hill), who don’t mind getting art for rent payments. But moneylender Bastien Andre (Larry Adams) wants real Francs in payment for debts owed, and threatens to foreclose not only on Millet’s studio, but also Monsieur Leroux (Keven Shadle), whose daughter he desires. However, Marie (Morgan Morton) is repulsed by Andre and is in love with Millet. Meanwhile, her sister Cecile (Monya Wolf) has her eye on Chicago.

Desperate for a way to quickly raise thousands of Francs, our artists get an idea after a clueless English art buyer (Dave Bolander in one of a number of hilarious roles) states that genius is only rewarded after the artist has died. Chicago then talks Millet into “contracting an illness” so horrible as to guarantee publicity of his impending “death.” Meanwhile, Millet appears in a dress as his twin sister, the Widow Tillou, to inherit the inevitable riches.

This being a comedy, of course, things don’t go entirely as planned.

Twain’s wry humor is woven throughout this satirical farce, and little moments of 19th-century style silliness work in the overall context. Johnson plays Millet as a down-on-his-luck everyman who just wants what’s due him, playing it straight against the comic antics of his students – and his scenes in drag are “Some Like it Hot” hilarious. Chicago, our lone American character, appears to be Twain’s surrogate in the story, a fast-talking charming schemer in the mold of Tom Sawyer, and Hartzburg turns on the charm in the role. Powell is like a caricature of a caricature, but is so likable it works. Wolf gets in some great moments with the old girl-disguised-as-man gag. And Johnson is delectably “boo-hiss!” worthy as our top-hatted melodrama villain, complete with twirled mustache.

Direction is by Mark Tumey, who said he came to love the play while portraying Andre in a production in Arizona.

The show’s social commentary on art and fame resonates a bit today, but mostly this is just a fun evening with the work of one of America’s greatest writers. As CCP is still seeking a full-time home, performances for this play are at Ji-Eun Lee Music Academy, 10029 E. 126th St., Suite D, in Fishers, through June 24. Call 317-815-9387 or visit carmelplayers.org.