ATI back in the habit

By John Lyle Belden

“Nunsense” is habit forming – the clever slogan, and title of one of the show’s songs, is quite apt. A sure-fire crowd-pleaser since opening Off-Broadway nearly thirty-seven years ago, this musical by Dan Goggin has had thousands of productions worldwide, and the show’s official website has at least eight sequels and spin-offs if you want to see the Little Sisters of Hoboken doing something different. The more than 25,000 actors who have donned the habit could petition the Pope to be named their own order.

This is all to say that the classic “Nunsense,” done afresh this month by Actors Theatre of Indiana, may be a bit familiar to y’all reading this. If you haven’t seen the show, or at least not in a while, by all means, go! Goggins’ humor, with just a touch of absurdity, doesn’t get too sacred and is never profane. You don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate this, but if you are, be warned that Reverend Mother has her clicker!

The Little Sisters are in a bind, needing to raise funds quickly to bury deceased nuns (inadvertently poisoned by the convent cook), put on a show displaying their own varied talents. That’s all you need to know going in, as well as the fact that there will be a pop quiz – with prizes – at one point.

Suzanne Stark is our Rev. Mother, Sister Mary Regina. A veteran of nun roles in “Sound of Music” and “Sister Act,” she is right at home as the boss of this little sisterhood. Asserting her authority without coming off as stiff or mean, she guides this show with a steady hand – except when she doesn’t, in a hilarious encounter with a mysterious little bottle.

Illeana Kirven is Sister Mary Hubert, the second-ranking nun. She tackles this project with unflagging joyous energy, suppressing as best she can her feelings about Rev. Mother using part of their last windfall to buy a giant TV.

Katelyn Lauria is street-tough Sister Robert Ann, who drives (and repairs) the convent vehicle. Her gregarious style and frequent funny bouts of scene-stealing are nicely countered by the moment she describes her spiritual path, revealing genuine devotion.

Rachel Weinfeld is Sister Mary Leo, the novice who feels there’s room in her vows for also becoming a celebrated ballerina. Her dancing is sweet, her manner charming.

Stephanie Wahl is the ever-popular Sister Mary Amnesia, who can’t remember who she is, and is otherwise a few beads short of a rosary. Wahl, who is also dance captain, handles this special character well, keeping us laughing with her more than at her. She also does an excellent job wielding the puppet Sister Mary Annette.

Directed by Karen Sheridan with choreography by Anne Beck, this production also features the all-priest onstage band of Greg Wolf, Greg Gegogeine, and music director Jay Schwandt, as well as production assistant Gillian Norris lending a helping hand as a student from Mount St. Helens School.

See the Sisters sing and dance their way to their miracle in ATI’s season opener, through Sept 25 at the Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get information and tickets at atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

ATI show truly Works

By Wendy Carson

In the early 1970s, Studs Terkel set out to interview various people about their jobs. The result was the book, “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.” In 1977, it was turned into a musical by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso, with songs by artists including James Taylor.

Much has changed since then, so in 2012, a revised version was created to include a few newer occupations and songs, with the help of Lin-Manuel Miranda. This updated version of “Working: The Musical” is what Actors Theatre of Indiana presents for us.

The performance consists of six actors playing a number of varied personas. With a supremely talented cast and an ever-changing roster of characters, picking out highlights can be challenging, but here are the moments that echoed with me.

Don Farrell flexes his range by giving us an unapologetic yuppie investor and later, Joe, who is searching for purpose and his memory now that he is retired.

Cynthia Collins is at the top of her game as the sassy waitress who considers her work to be the epitome of quality.

Adam Tran’s turn as Joe’s caretaker in “A Very Good Day” is so sweet and moving it may drive you to tears.

The determination to be more than their job and give their children a better future is shiningly evident in Aviva Pressman’s take on “Millwork,” as well as Lillie Eliza Thomas on being “Just a Housewife” (with Pressman and Collins) and her ode to family history in “Cleaning Women.”

Adam Sledge embodies the blue collar worker throughout most of his songs, including Taylor’s “Brother Trucker,” showing the pride one takes in work we usually never even think about.

Direction is by ATI newcomer Lysa Fox.

The show is perfectly summed up in the closing number, “Something to Point To,” where we are reminded that all any of us really wants is something we can show others that we had a hand in making.

Adjust your personal work schedule to fit in this delightful tribute to the working men and women who built our great land, and you just might catch your own personal story being played out onstage.

“Working” is on the job through May 22 at the Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get info and tickets at atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

NOTE: There was an edit to the original post to correct a singing credit.

ATI goes ‘Big’

By John Lyle Belden

“The Big Bang: The Musical,” presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana, has nothing to do with the similarly named sitcom that recently ended its TV run. Instead, picture a cross between “The Producers” and “History of the World, Part 1” — sans Mel Brooks, but still funny.

Written by Jed Feuer and Boyd Graham, who staged it Off-Broadway in 2000, the show is a presentation for potential New York backers (us in the audience) of what Jed (played by Darren Murrell) and Boyd (Jon Vessels) promise will be the next sure-fire musical smash.

Imagine this borrowed Manhattan apartment as a full Broadway stage, and accompanist Albert (Brent Marty) as a full orchestra, as a cast of hundreds (portrayed by our two manic creators) bring to life the entire history of Western Civilization, from Adam and Eve – with their hit number, “Free Food and Frontal Nudity” – to the present. Fortunately, we get just the “highlights” of this extravaganza/trainwreck in a hilarious 90 minutes.

Chock-full of cheesiness, dated references and over-the-top slapstick, Murrell and Vessels still manage to “sell” this show, even if it’s obvious the fictional backers shouldn’t buy in. “The Big Bang” is a satire of creator hubris and naked pandering in the Big Apple, as well as a silly farce that even steals/homages a Carol Burnett gag. The more you like Old Broadway, the more you will love this mock musical, directed by New York-based entertainer Michael Blatt.

Performances run through Feb. 20 in the Studio Theatre in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. For tickets and information, visit atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

ATI’s ‘Lombardi’ victorious

By John Lyle Belden

Whenever we hear or see Vincent Lombardi in a picture or old game film, or read or hear one of his numerous quotes, he seems larger than life, football’s Zeus or Apollo. But he was a man – and a devoted Catholic, so claiming no godhood – and as we see his very human aspects in “Lombardi,” presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana, we can’t help but respect him even more.

The Broadway play by Eric Simonson, from the book “When Pride Still Mattered” by David Maraniss, captures a week in the Green Bay Packers’ 1965 season. Look magazine sends reporter Michael McCormick (played by Adam LaSalle) to Wisconsin to write a profile on the coach, who never had a losing season in the NFL (up to that point, or thereafter). Aside from Lombardi (Don Farrell) and his wife Marie (Judy Fitzgerald), we meet Packers greats Dave Robinson (Joel Ashur), Paul Hornung (Christian Condra) and Jim Taylor (Mat Leonard), who all refuse – at first – to speak to the reporter.

Without any special makeup tricks, perhaps through force of will, Farrell becomes Lombardi – in face, stance, voice, and attitude. When he speaks, always at or above a shout, all must listen. His style as coach and general manager was uncompromising, but in his subtle, paternal way his compassion for both the game and its players comes through. And as he would bellow at his wife, Fitzgerald’s Marie would always give as good as she got, with a knowing grin on her face and drink in her hand. Their scenes include flashbacks, showing how they made their way to Green Bay (including the road atlas).

McCormick is an able narrator; being a character from the non-football world aids his role as audience proxy. Ashur, Condra and Leonard also give strong performances, worthy of working under a legendary coach.

Jane Unger, who last gave us another bit of history in “Alabama Story,” directs. Efficient stage design by P. Bernard Killian seems to expand the limited space of the Studio Theater, hinting at grand scale within an intimate setting.

An inspiring look at an American icon, “Lombardi” runs through Nov. 21 at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Following the Sunday, Nov. 7, performance, former Purdue star and Colts quarterback Mark Herrmann will join the cast for a talkback.

Get info and tickets at atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Star encounter opens ATI return to the stage

By John Lyle Belden

Think of your favorite singer. Imagine that person – someone whose voice spellbound you, someone you could listen to every day for the rest of your life – came to your town. Then, you found yourself talking one-on-one with that person like you’d been friends all your life. And then after joining her on stage, she came home with you for a few hours.

Impossible? For divorced working mom Louise Segar of Houston, Texas, it actually happened.

Quite a character on her own, Louise discovered country music legend Patsy Cline during the singer’s appearances on Arthur Godfrey’s morning television show in the 1950s. She quickly became Patsy’s biggest fan in Houston, constantly pestering the local country radio DJ to spin Cline’s records. When, in 1961, the star was to play a local honky-tonk, Louise made sure to arrive early. Patsy did as well, sent to travel alone by her apathetic record label. Segar’s pushy personality would come to Cline’s rescue, ensuring fair treatment by the venue’s staff and giving her a place to relax (Louise’s kitchen) after the show. She even got Patsy an impromptu interview with the radio station.

This is remembered and relived in the popular Off-Broadway musical, “Always, Patsy Cline,” by Ted Swindley, which opens the 2021-22 season for Actors Theatre of Indiana. ATI co-founders Judy Fitzgerald and Cynthia Collins portray Patsy and Louise, respetively, the former with sweetness and latter with lots of sass.

They are accompanied by an excellent on-stage ensemble of “Bobs,” musicians Nathan Perry, Matt Day, Michael Clark, Greg Gegogeine, Kathy Schilling, and Greg Wolff. The audience also gets involved a bit.

The show is directed by Bill Jenkins, with musical direction by Terry Woods, featuring a wide range of 50s-60s hits including Cline’s chart-toppers (“I Fall to Pieces,” “Crazy,” “Walkin’ After Midnight”).

Third ATI co-founder and artistic director Don Farrell announced on opening night, “Intermission is over!” This fun and sentimental production marks a strong return to regular live theatre. Performances of “Always…” run through Oct. 3 at The Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get tickets and info at atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

ATI and CSO combine for one killer production

By John Lyle Belden

Today’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” at the Palladium of the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel – a first-time collaboration of Actors Theatre of Indiana and the Carmel Symphony Orchestra – explores the full potential of its dramatic and musical experience.

This popular musical is an inspired choice, with its blending of the macabre, dark humor, and tragic and romantic love, backed by an operatic aural tapestry.

The ATI company — including members of its 2016 “Sweeney” production including director Richard J. Roberts — and the CSO, under the baton of Janna Hymes, are joined by the Indianapolis Arts Chorale with area singers including members of the Indianapolis Children’s Choir. Their powerful vocal presence is like another section of orchestra, on par with the strings or wind instruments. Taken together they provide a properly dense dramatic atmosphere for the actors upon the stage to flourish.

The ATI co-founders reprise their roles. Don Farrell totally disappears into the wig, makeup, and scowl, so that all you see is Sweeney, the barber unjustly exiled so that a corrupt judge could take his wife. Now Todd has returned for vengeance; his plan includes giving the best shave in London – if you survive it. Judy Fitzgerald likewise transforms into Mrs. Lovett, baker of the “worst pies in London,” but the problem isn’t her talents, but her lack of good flesh for the meat pies. Mr. Todd’s impulsive nature with his silver razors presents her with a ghoulish opportunity. Cynthia Collins returns as the mad Beggar Woman, ever present and revealed to be more than just the one to babble “Mischief! Mischief!” outside Lovett’s shop.

Joining the cast for this spectacular: Matthew Conwell is the charming and aptly-named Anthony Hope, who repays his off-stage rescue by wooing and rescuing Sweeney’s long-lost daughter Johanna (bold beauty Elizabeth Hutson). Conwell’s voice is superb, filling the song “Johanna” with harmonious longing. David Cunningham is wonderful as the tragically naive Tobias Ragg. Mario Almonte III is sharp as rival barber Adolfo Pirelli.

For the villians, Tim Fullerton plays judge Turpin as one whose growing madness makes him increasingly dangerous, a true rival to Todd. ATI veteran Michael Elliott presents Beadle Bamford with easy slimy charm.

Rory Shivers-Brimm reprises his earlier turn as characters including madhouse keeper Jonas Fogg, truly triumphant considering his recent recovery from health issues. Karaline Feller completes the cast in roles including the Bird Seller. Thanks to Roberts’s direction and effective use of costumes by Katie Cowan Sickmeier, various players easily morph into supporting roles, such as the pie shop customers, giving the illusion of a larger cast.

Scenic designer Paul Bernard Killian and prop master Amanda Pecora make creative use of this unique setting, with simple set pieces, only the infamous baking oven being instantly recognizable. As for what could be the true “star” of the show, the Barber Chair is deceptively simple. Painted blood red, it takes its proper place on the stage, but doesn’t pull focus from the brilliant work of its human costars. Roberts makes great use of the space as well, further including the orchestra as part of the production by having characters encircle it and making use of the Palladium’s rear balconies.

Did I say “today” at the beginning of this? Yes, for those looking online on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, you have the opportunity to make the second of two performances tonight at 8 p.m. (Tickets at thecenterpresents.org or Palladium Box Office). Friday celebrated a triumphant “opening night” (with jokes that they were “halfway through the run”).

For those who can’t make it or read this later, note this as a shining example of what future collaborations can be. Hymes noted after Friday’s show that they had only two weeks of rehearsal to put the various components together – a testament to the level of talent and dedication local theatre performers and musicians put into their work for you, the Central Indiana audience.

ATI: Duo hits all the right notes in musical mystery

By John Lyle Belden

Do you like great comedy? How about an interesting whodunit? A pair of actors taking on numerous roles throughout? A clever musical? Even skillful four-hand piano playing? Well, has Actors Theatre of Indiana got a show for you!

In the Indiana premiere of Off-Broadway hit “Murder for Two,” by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair, Adam LaSalle primarily plays Officer (on the verge of being Detective) Marcus Moscowitz, and David Corlew plays nearly everyone else — AKA “the Suspects” — in the home of famed mystery author Arthur Whitney — AKA the victim. Both actors also play the piano that sits in the middle of the room — sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes switching off or together, always with a high degree of skill.

A surprise party for Whitney takes a shocking turn when, as he enters the front door, he is shot in the forehead!  His wife is naturally distraught, as someone has stolen the ice cream, and all the other guests, including a talkative psychiatrist, a beautiful prima ballerina, a bickering old couple, Whitney’s highly inquisitive niece, and a three-member Twelve-Member Boys Choir, are all acting suspicious as each one has a motive to off the author. Enter “Detective” Marcus and his unseen partner, Lou (two actors can only do so much). The officers were instructed to secure the scene until the actual Detective arrives, in an hour, but Marcus seizes the opportunity to crack the case and win his promotion.

This show is loaded with laughs, wacky character switching (sometimes seeming to catch the actors off-guard), piano work that’s a cross between Victor Borge and the Marx Brothers, and well-timed fourth-wall moments that work wonderfully in the intimate confines of the Studio Theater. Corlew’s skills as a circus performer (a “quadruple-threat”?) aid the physical comedy, and he and LaSalle have excellent chemistry, despite the fact they first met at rehearsals.

Corlew is based in Chicago, and LaSalle in New York; director Tony Clements said after a triumphant opening night, “I was so glad they got along so well from the beginning.” Clements also noted that despite many free-wheeling moments, the script only allowed for a few points of possible improvisation. Still, one would be hard-pressed to find where in all the controlled chaos they actually winged it. 

And kudos to Lou; we didn’t see a single flaw in his performance. 

ATI serves up “Murder for Two” through Feb. 16 on its stage at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. For info and tickets, call 317-843-3800 or visit atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

*

P.S. ATI will also present a two-night special event, a special production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” with a full cast joined by the Carmel Symphony Orchestra, Feb. 21-22 at the Palladium in the Center for the Performing Arts (north side of the ice rink). Performers include ATI founders Don Farrell as Sweeney, Judy Fitzgerald as Mrs. Lovett, and Cynthia Collins as the Beggar Woman, as well as Elizabeth Hutson (Joanna), Rory Shivers-Brimm (Jonas Fogg), Karaline Feller (Bird Seller), Mario Almonte III (Pirelli), Tim Fullerton (Judge Turpin), Matthew Conwell (Anthony), David Cunningham (Tobias), Michael Elliott (Beadle), and an 80-member chorus from the Indianapolis Arts Chorale. See the above contact information for tickets.

 

ATI tells important ‘Story’

Update, Jan. 18, 2021: This production is available online pay-per-view through Feb. 14. See atistage.org for details.

By Wendy Carson

“This is a story about two rabbits.”

Seven innocuous words that begin not only a beautifully illustrated children’s book, but also a major political ballyhoo about race and censorship.

“Alabama Story,” a play by Kenneth Jones making its Indiana premiere with Actors Theatre of Indiana, is based on a true story of one simple book that sparked a major racial controversy due to its depiction of a white bunny marrying a black bunny. 

The setting is 1959 and even though George Wallace (“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”), has yet to be voted in as Governor, he is the leading political voice of Alabama. Racism is a fact of everyday life and the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement are just starting to stir. Rosa Parks had recently sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was still a local pastor. 

Enter Emily Wheelrock Reed (Cynthia Collins), the state librarian, and her diligent assistant, Thomas Franklin (Samuel L. Wick). Franklin brings the initial hubbub over “The Rabbits’ Wedding” to her attention, but Reed dismisses it until Senator E.W. Higgins (Don Farrell) starts pressuring her to remove the book from the library system. 

We also see the story of two children who grew up together. Lily Whitefield (Maeghan Looney), the daughter of a cotton plantation owner and Joshua Moore (Cameron Stuart Bass), the son of one of the Whitfields’ servants, descended from their slaves. They meet up again as adults, in exchanges that echo the book, but overshadowed by painful events of their past.

Overseeing all of this is the book’s author and illustrator himself, Garth Williams (Paul Tavianini). He takes on all of the supporting roles as well as giving his personal insight to the drama. Williams reiterates that he only chose the black and white colors for the rabbits due to his love of Oriental artworks which draw on those two colors for balance. He never meant for his tale to become what many believed to be a subversive indoctrination of their children into believing that interracial marriage was normal.

Bass’s performance shows that even though Franklin is living a better life himself, he never forgets the trauma and struggles he went through and his people are still enduring. Looney does a commendable job of showing the naiveté of the privileged class during these changing times.

Collins shows the strong, stalwart woman that Reed was, holding her own and never wavering no matter what came her way. Wick is endearing as Franklin, a free-thinking young man who was raised to be prejudiced but refuses to succumb to the hatred.

Tavianini brings a “Mr. Rogers” -type warmth to Williams, who also wrote and illustrated numerous other children’s books (including books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and E.B. White), none of which sparked any controversy.

However, the standout performance is by Farrell. He oozes all of the slick sliminess of a typical Southern politician. His soft-spoken words hold a thousand brutal attacks within, the demure and friendly smile hiding the fangs that are ready to strike you down with their poisonous barbs. He does such a great job embodying the character, you will likely want to punch him (but please don’t). 

ATI chose this play to be their first foray into serious drama and they have done an excellent job of it, under the direction of Jane Unger. This show is important to give you context as to this country’s history and what our future could be again should we glorify the past instead of learning from it.

Performances run through Nov. 17 in The Studio Theater at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get information and tickets at atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Would be a crime to miss ATI’s ‘Scoundrels’

By John Lyle Belden

The criminal culture on the French Riviera of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” is an easy-going atmosphere where there is truly honor among thieves, the setting for the raucous comedy of the 1988 film (starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin) and the more recent Broadway musical, now presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana.

Polished and posh local con man Lawrence Jameson (played by TJ Lancaster) has perfected his act of posing as an exiled prince, extracting funds for his “revolution” from willing rich women, including Muriel (Judy Fitzgerald), an American all too eager to spend her ex-husband’s fortune. Lawrence’s accomplice, Andre (Don Farrell), is also the city Chief of Police, so they pretty much have it made.

But shortly after hearing that a notorious swindler, The Jackal, is in the area, Lawrence meets Freddy (Tony Carter) a crude but effective fast-talker who wants the more mature con artist to teach him his methods. They gain a grudging respect for each other, but get on each others nerves to the point that they make a wager – first to fleece their next mark for $50 thousand gets to stay; the other must leave. Enter the Soap Queen of Cincinnati, Christine Colgate (Deborah Mae Hill). The con is on!

The result is hilarious and thoroughly entertaining. Fortunately, the musical’s book by Jeffrey Lane (songs by David Yazbek) doesn’t force our leads to be copies of the charismatic Caine or unique Martin, but excellently-rendered characters that Lancaster and Carter have obvious fun embodying. They and the supremely charming Hill make the most of the show’s frequent slapstick moments. Fitzgerald fits among the criminals, stealing scenes — especially with fellow ATI founder Farrell. Supporting and chorus parts are ably filled by Michael Corey Hassel, Tim Hunt, Annalee Traeger, Brynn Tyszka and Sabra Michelle, who shines as an Oklahoma oil heiress set on marrying our faux Prince. Direction is by New Yorker Michael Blatt.

ATI opens their 2019-20 season with this show in the intimate confines of The Studio Theater at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, running through Sept. 29. Get info and tickets at atistage.org, or thecenterpresents.org.

ATI ‘Forbidden Broadway’: Here we go again!

By Wendy Carson

Upon entering the lobby for Actors Theatre of Indiana’s newest staging of “Forbidden Broadway,” we were surprised and delighted to see a blown-up copy of our previous review of the show. They also had poster copies of the other reviews — we were just happy to be among them.

So, since this show was just staged by ATI less than a year ago, you are probably thinking that you’ve already seen it and there’s no reason to see it again. That’s where you are dead wrong.

Forbidden Broadway,” created and curated in New York by Gerard Alessandrini, is a living creature that is constantly changing and evolving in new and delightful ways. Yes, some of the skits are the same ones covered in the previous incarnation, however at least half of the offerings here are different. In fact, the tribute to Carol Channing, slyly tipping its hat to her recent passing – as well as her generosity towards her legacy — is making its debut in this show.

There is even an audience sing-a-long during the tribute to Stephen Sondheim’s impending 90th birthday. Also, for those of you who have seen or are seeing The Civic Theatre’s delightful production of “Newsies,” their tribute will leave you howling.

For those who haven’t seen any of this, it is all a loving tribute to Broadway musicals and those who worked on and in them. It’s never mean – one can mock the cumbersome Lion King puppets and Les Mis rotating stage, while still understanding at the core it’s still meaningful art. While the more you know about the shows, the funnier it is, the all-in performances of ATI founders Cynthia Collins, Don Farrell and Judy Fitzgerald with Logan Moore, and Keith Potts on piano, entertain no matter how “in-house” the gags get. Note the content does get very PG-13 (those Avenue Q puppets still can’t keep their felt paws off each other).

So, get out there and prepare to laugh yourself silly at the glorious antics and talent of the latest production of “Forbidden Broadway,” through May 19 at The Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Call 317-84-3800 or visit atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.