Musical of Dahl novel ‘Matilda’ gets brief Indy premiere

By John Lyle Belden and Wendy Carson

If you want to see the hit musical “Matilda” before the Civic Theatre stages it next year, you have just three chances this weekend.

McDuffee Music Studio bursts onto the theatrical scene with its ambitious all-youth production. Note this London and Broadway hit is by two of the most devious minds to write material safe for children: the late author Roald Dahl and comic songwriter Tim Minchin. While the story is dark at times, the sheer absurdity of all the characters and situations keeps it light.

In this musical, with book by Dennis Kelly, the Wormwoods – a Latin dance-obsessed wife and proudly unethical used-car dealer husband – prefer their children to be like their son, Michael, comically ignorant and male. Surprise-baby Mathilda is definitely neither. She insists on reading books, visiting the library and telling stories. And when she’s had enough mistreatment, she tends to be “a little bit naughty.” Perhaps some abuse at the local school, led by wicked Mrs. Trunchbull, will cure her of that.

Having an all-student cast is easy for this show, as most of the roles are children, but some local teens ably step up to fill the “adult” shoes.

William Baartz as the viciously imposing Trunchbull manages to fully embrace the extreme silliness of the role. The teen-boy musculature stuffed into an Olympic women’s hammer-thrower form only adds to the look – equal parts threatening and cartoonish.

On the other end of the scale, Kamdyn Knotts is so very charming as teacher Miss Honey, a mousey woman struggling to find her voice to help Mathilda. Her willingness to show weakness and work to overcome it ironically makes her the most (if not only) mature character in the show. Krissy Brzycki as librarian Mrs. Phelps is another ray of sunshine in Mathilda’s life, practically starving for the girl’s story that may or may not be fiction.

Josh Hoover impressively shows range in dual roles as a vapid dance partner and an “escapologist” in love.

Ayden Cress and Kennedi Bruner are both a hoot as Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, despite their neglectful and somewhat abusive nature. Wesley Olin as Michael shows that rare natural talent at playing an imbecile so entertainingly he can’t help but steal the scene, even just shouting one word.

As for Kate Honaker as Mathilda, to us she looks and sounds straight off the Cast Album. Honaker holds focus and makes us believe in this girl with so many brains (yet they “just fit”) and a little bit “extra” that her stressful journey brings out.

The other children are more than just chorus to Mathilda’s story, as they learn to deal with a cruel yet silly world. Colton Woods as Bruce Bogtrotter gets to revel in being an unlikely hero. Brilynn Knauss as Nicole gets a quick lesson on improvising one’s way out of trouble. And Izzy Napier’s hyper Lavender declares herself Mathilda’s “best friend,” then takes on one of the more notorious pranks on the Headmistress.

We would like to assure you that no newts were harmed in the making of this show, but you can buy (a rubber) one at the concession stand, as well as chocolate cake.

While the production does have its technical flaws, it is energetic and earnest. Remember that one of the main tenets of the story (like most of Dahl’s work) is that not all stories have a happy ending. But it does manage to keep a positive outlook even at the grimmest point.

If you have any children in your care this weekend, especially those of grade-school age, they will be practically falling out of their seat with laughter and delight at the show. Performances of “Mathilda: The Musical” are 2 and 7 p.m. Today, 2 p.m. Sunday (May 25-26) at Lutheran High School, 5555 S. Arlington, Indianapolis. Tickets are $10, $12 for premium seats. Visit www.mcduffeemusic.com.

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LAFF mocks ‘Fellowship’ journey

By John Lyle Belden

It’s the third month and third show for Loud and Fast Funny, and, speaking of trilogies, LAFF tackles the first chapter of the Lord of the Rings film saga with “Fly, You Fools.”

Like the Jurassic parody done earlier this spring, this one-hour silly reenactment of the blockbuster “Fellowship of the Ring” is originally by Recent Cutbacks, a New York troupe with Hoosier roots. Once again we get LAFF members Jim Banta, Christian Condra and Pat Mullen taking on various roles, frequently doubling up (Condra as Merry and Pippin!), assisted by Olivia Schaperjohn at the Foley table with sound-effects, as well as stepping in as a certain Elven queen. The props are once-again low-budget — almost too much so in the Mines of Moria — adding to the humor.

Though so much of what we remember from the Rings films happens in the second and third movies, there was still a lot, and much to mock, in the one that started it all. From celebrity casting to the oddities of a fantasy world, to a man’s distinctive chin, nothing is off-limits. Even the “eagle question,” popular among online fans, is addressed. 

For a good laugh, and a reminder of how cool it was to see Tolkien done live-action on the big screen, take off to see “Fly You Fools,” performances 8 and 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through June 8 on the intimate cabaret stage of the District Theatre, 627 Massachusetts Ave. Get info and tickets at www.indyfringe.org. Follow the fellowship at facebook.com/LAFFshows.

 

New telling of old stories at Footlite

By John Lyle Belden

Footlite Musicals presents the biblical musical “Children of Eden,” which tells stories from the early chapters of Genesis in a loose, storytelling style similar to “Godspell.”

In the Beginning, Father (played by Allen Sledge) commands Creation into being, setting aside a garden he calls Eden for his prize creations, Adam (Mitchell Hammersley) and Eve (Nina Stilabower), where they spend their days in perfect splendor, while Adam names all the animals, and Eve grows increasingly curious about the one tree they are not to eat from.

The familiar story goes from there — but with some variation from the exact wording of scripture. After the Fall, Adam and Eve give birth to Cain and Abel (Katherine Sabens and Amelie Zirnheld as children, later Keane Maddock and Jonathan Krouse). In this telling, Adam believes he can win his way back into the Garden, and forbids his family to wander. But Cain has his sights on the horizon, and in the fight that ensues, tragedy sends him into exile, cursed along with his progeny by Father.

The second act quickly goes through the “begats” and gives a version of the story of The Flood with Hammersley and Stilabower as Noah and his wife, Todd Jackson II as Shem, Krouse as Ham, and Maddock again the nonconformist as Japeth, who chooses servant girl Yonah (Yasmin Schancer), who has the Mark of Cain, as his bride.

The cast also includes about 20 “Storytellers” who help relate the narrative, and portray all manner of animals, as well as wind and water. The Serpent in the Garden takes five of them (Schancer, Shelley Young, Donamarie Kelley, Presley Hewitt and Maggie Lengerich) sharing their sung and spoken lines to mesmerizing effect. The best scene is the “Return of the Animals” to the Ark, with practically everyone getting into the act, miming all sorts of creatures, with the aid of colorful costumes by Chris Grady. Lauren Johnson directs.

This musical by John Caird and Stephen Schwartz is a unique experience, retelling the old stories in a manner that emphasizes our connectedness and yearning for redemption when those connections are broken. It’s a true ensemble effort, but Stilabower and Maddock do stand out, as well as — appropriately — Sledge, as the loving, stern and mysterious paternal figure.

“Children of Eden” runs through May 19 at 1847 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis. Call 317-926-6630 or visit footlite.org.

Catalyst’s ‘Class’ in session

By John Lyle Belden

Nan Macy is a master of portraying strong mature women, and shows this to brilliant effect in the current production of Terrance McNally’s “Master Class,” presented by Catalyst Repertory in association with the Indianapolis Opera Company and The Switch Theatre.

Macy portrays legendary opera soprano Maria Callas, who, late in her career, is giving the titular class for young vocal students. Callas’s career was notable not only for her exceptional voice, but also tabloid-style scandals including rivalries with other singers and her affair with shipping magnate Aristotle Onasis. Here we see this brash, blunt diva with a well-established chip on her shoulder from having been looked down upon for her Greek heritage and her weight (she underwent drastic weight loss at the peak of her career, a boon to her casting but possibly hurting her voice). She is far too proud to acknowledge her declining vocal ability, living the adage of “those who can’t do, teach.” Regardless, she gives her charges a lot to learn about presentation and passion.  

With such serious subject matter, and her lapses into troubled memory, it’s easy to forget until you see this how incredibly funny this show is. For instance, Macy’s timing is perfect in saying “let me stop you there,” the moment a poor student opens her mouth.

As for her “victims,” we get some nice vocals from Abigail Johnson, Shederick Whipple, and Rachelle Woolston. And we see, as they do with Callas, that there is more to great opera than just knowing the words. Sean Manterfield is Manny, the piano accompanist. Thomas Smith is a stagehand badgered by Callas, but also turns the tables portraying Onasis in her recollections. Director Tony Johnson also has other cast members drift in and out of her memory as figures from her past.

This is a “class” you won’t want to skip, as hilarity and tragic depth occupy the stage in equal measure, wielded by a master, portraying a master. Brava!

“Master Class” performances are Friday through Sunday at 10029 E. 126th St., Fishers. Get tickets at theswitch.yapsody.com.

At the District: Travel from Waukegan to Mars on a bicycle

By John Lyle Belden

When one has access to an age-altering carousel, why let a little thing like death stop you? After all, Mr. Electrico told him he would “Live forever!”

To understand what I mean by this, see the Midwest premiere of “Ray Bradbury Live (Forever)” at The District Theater, presented by IndyFringe – in just two more performances, today and tomorrow (May 4-5), before continuing its national tour.

Bradbury wheels onto the stage, played by lifelong fan and Emmy-winning actor Bill Oberst Jr. He then removes a tarp from a lecture stand, places it on his bicycle, and proceeds to talk to us about his life, career and feelings on topics such as writing and the importance of libraries. We get a glimpse of his growing up in Waukegan, Ill. (“it’s not ugly to a child”), and Los Angeles (near Hollywood, which he often visited). We even meet his charming wife, Maggie (played locally by Jenni White).

The “science fiction writer who never drove a car” also engages us with mesmerizing dramatic excerpts from “A Sound of Thunder” (from whence we get the term “butterfly effect”), “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” and “The Martian Chronicles.” Oberst’s skill makes Bradbury’s words come alive, helping us feel the greatness imbedded in these stories, and what they say about being human and the human desire to mess with forces they barely understand.

In fact, Oberst crafted the entire show from the words of Ray Bradbury — from his texts, to letters and interviews. The script was vetted by the Ray Bradbury Estate, as well as Dr. Jonathan Eller, Director of IUPUI’s Center For Ray Bradbury Studies, who attended the opening performance. We hear such nuggets as, “I don’t predict the future, I try to prevent it;” “I write fantasy because I believe in fantasy;” and from a poem: “Give book, Give smile.”

Oberst said after the show that he tried for years to get friends who more resembled Bradbury to portray him on stage before finally deciding to take on the role himself. Wearing a comfortable suit, appropriate hairstyle, trademark black-frame glasses, and a friendly and enthusiastic demeanor, he does just fine. Behind the sparse stage is a large screen that shows facts and trivia about Bradbury prior to the show (come early, none of the slides repeat), and supporting scenes and illustrations during the performance. Note there are some strobe-effects during the telling of “Sound of Thunder.”

This excellent premiere – first performances since opening in Los Angeles – came about in part with the help of IndyFringe CEO Pauline Moffatt, who said she saw Oberst in a previous Fringe and encouraged him to return, aided by the perfect synergy with the Bradbury Center here in Indianapolis.

For devoted fans, casual fans, or anyone interested in discovering this American literary master, you have two more chances in Indy: 8 p.m. today and 4 p.m. Sunday at The District (former location of Theatre on the Square), 627 Massachusetts Ave. downtown. Call 317-308-9800 or visit IndyDistrictTheatre.org or IndyFringe.org.

For those who can’t make it, or are reading this on or after May 6, find info and future performances at raybradburyliveforever.com.

IRT revisits the radical notion of doing what makes you happy

By John Lyle Belden

As for the appropriateness of bringing out the classic comedy, “You Can’t Take it With You,” I’m tempted to say “in times like these” – but really, there will always be distress and drama around us, thus it is always a good time to see this funny, heartfelt show.

So here we are, with the Indiana Repertory Theatre giving us its finely crafted production. While the Great Depression continues outside their beautiful house, “Grandpa” Martin Vanderhof (Robert Elliott) and his brood are feeling quite fine, thank you.

Penelope Sycamore (Millicent Wright) taps away at a typewriter that was accidentally left at their doorstep years ago, while her husband Paul (James Leaming) works on innovating large-display fireworks in the basement with Mr. DePinna (Ansley Valentine), a delivery man who never got around to leaving. Daughter Essie (Mehry Eslaminia) pursues ballet dancing, without quite catching it, under Russian ex-pat Boris Kolenkhov (Joey Collins), with her husband Ed (Carlos Medina Maldonado) accompanying on xylophone while printing whatever phrase sounds clever on his little press. Maid Rheba (Brianna Milan) happily prepares whatever meals the family’s whims dictate, from corn flakes to canned salmon, while wooed by handsome Donald (Adam Tran) who is helpful, but no too much as he’s “on relief.” Speaking of romance, the Sycamores’ other daughter, Alice (Janyce Caraballo), is about to marry her boss, Tony Kirby (Aaron Kirby, coincidentally), but she frets at the prospect of his parents (David Lively and Carmen Roman) meeting her not-quite-“normal” family. And on an evening when everyone is just being themselves, joined by friend and tipsy actress Gay Wellington (Molly Garner), they do.

In addition, we get visits from characters played by Scott Greenwell, Michael Hosp and Zachariah Stonerock, as well Jan Lucas as the Archduchess Olga.

For the unfamiliar, I can’t help but describe this play as “The Addams Family,” but without the creepy aspects – partly because the recent Addams Broadway show borrowed a lot of the same plot points. At the core of it all is the notion that there shouldn’t be something wrong or embarrassing with doing what feels right, along with the gentle lesson that one needn’t be doing what makes them miserable, either.

All performances are spot on and appropriately hilarious. It would be a crime not to have someone as talented as Wright in the lead, and her being in an interracial couple in the 1930s only underlines the exceptionally open and accepting nature of the central family. Also, Maldonado gets to show off his musical side.

Being the IRT, the whole look and feel is perfect, including scenic designer Linda Buchanan’s busy-yet-orderly set decoration. Peter Amster directs.

Do something that makes you happy – like check out this show. Performances are through May 19 on the IRT mainstage at 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indianapolis (near Circle Centre). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

Civic: Good News(ies)

By John Lyle Belden

Though based on little-known history and a film that bombed, Disney’s “Newsies” has built a strong following. And now the Tony-winning musical is locally produced in central Indiana by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, running through May 11 at the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel.

The story is based on the New York Newsboys’ Strike of 1899, during which impoverished children revolted at price hikes on the papers they sold for publishing moguls Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst – and won. Disney dramatized it musically for cinemas in 1992, without success (despite starring a young Christian Bale), but the film found fans through its video release. Disney finally put it on the stage (where arguably it always belonged) in 2011 – on Broadway in 2012 – with a fresh book by the legendary Harvey Fierstein while keeping and expanding the music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman.

Although the plot does lean on a mix of fictional and real characters, the overall history rings true, even moreso in the Civic production with the addition of “newsgirls” (boys and girls both hawked papers at the time and participated in the strike).

Our eventual hero, Jack Kelly (Jake Letts) and unfortunately-nicknamed Crutchie (David Cunningham) are among the more respected of the Lower Manhattan Newsies. They are mostly orphans, except for newcomer Davey (Joseph Bermingham) and little sister Les (Emily Chrzanowski), forced to be breadwinners while their father is too injured to work.

Meanwhile, Pulitzer (Steve Cruze) reasons an easy way to make up for flat and declining paper sales is to raise the price of the papers. After all, what can a bunch of poor kids do about it? Faced with possible starvation if they can’t make up their losses, the Newsies give their answer – Strike!

The children have allies: a woman reporter, Katherine (Ani Arzumanian), who wants to stop writing fluff and gets the Newsies on the front page; and Vaudeville diva Medda Larkin (Tiffany Gilliam), who hires Jack (a talented artist, by the way) to paint backdrops and hosts a Newsies rally at her theater. Pulitzer responds, flexing his considerable power, but our underdogs find a way to beat the publishers at their own game.

Other notable roles include Darrin Gowan as Wiesel, who sells the Newsies the papers; Parrish Williams as evil Warden Snyder of The Refuge, an orphanage run like a prison; and Tom Beeler as New York Gov. Theodore Roosevelt (yes, the eventual President).

The show is largely a by-the-numbers musical — complete with reluctant hero, lead characters falling in love, potential betrayal, and “just when you think all is lost…” – but those numbers, the song-and-dance numbers, are something special. Our large youthful ensemble put on several spectacular dancing scenes – directed by Suzanne Fleenor, with musical direction by Brent Marty and choreography by Anne Beck – with memorable tunes including “The World Will Know” and “King of New York.”

For a good-time musical with historical heft, the Civic’s “Newsies” is worth your dime. Call 317-483-3800 or visit civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.