ATI tells important ‘Story’

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.

ATI: Ruth sure is missing out on a great show

By Wendy Carson

Ambition. It’s all that drives some people. Even though they have talent and skills, they strive to be recognized and adored for it. How far will a person go to get what they want?

This question is the main premise of the show, “Ruthless: The Musical,” presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana. It is a musical parody of classic noir “The Bad Seed” and “All About Eve,” with a whole lot of campy fun thrown in.

Judy Fitzgerald nimbly portrays Judy Denmark, a doting mother who, while abundantly proud of her daughter Tina, possesses a fierce drive of her own. John Vessels delivers with all of his vamping glory as Sylvia St. Croix, who will do anything to be part of show biz – again.

Suzanne Stark’s portrayal of viciously bitter reviewer Lita Encore channels Madeline Kahn and Megan Mullally in evoking the requisite Evil Wielder of the Poisonous Pen (we’ll try not to take it personally).

Laura Sportiello brilliantly pulls off the gawkiness and questionable talent of Tina’s rival, Louise Lehrman, while also proving she is not one to be underestimated. Meanwhile, Cynthia Collins is fun as the put-upon Miss Thorn, a third-grade teacher whose own showbiz aspirations were crushed by stark reality. Her self-written musical about Pippi Longstocking and questionable casting choices provide the fodder to set this chaos in motion.

Finally, we turn to Nya Skye Beck’s performance as Tina Denmark, the talented and seemingly perfect child whom we all wish we had. Only a fourth-grader, Beck’s level of talent at acting, singing and dance is amazing. During the show, my partner John said, “She is the real deal,” and I heartily agree. I hope to see her in many more productions in the coming years, before the call of Broadway whisks her away.

The first act more reflects “Seed,” with Act Two taking aspects of “Eve” with Sportiello in an alternate role. Satire abounds – there’s a big musical number called “I Hate Musicals” – secrets are exposed, and it all comes down to an ending to die for. On the whole, this show is hilarious and highly entertaining.

“Ruthless” runs through Feb. 17 at the Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. ATI notes the content is relative to a PG-13 rating. For info and tickets, visit atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

ATI earns its wings with ‘Wonderful’ radio play

By John Lyle Belden

The bottom line with this show is fairly simple: If you like the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” — or are open to, if you haven’t seen it — you will enjoy the live Radio Play. It is popping up around central Indiana, but I saw the Actors Theatre of Indiana production, playing at the Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel (by the Kristkindlemarkt).

Done in the style of radio dramas performed in the 1940s (when the movie takes place and was released), an upbeat ensemble, accompanied by a sound-effects artist, provide all the sounds of a “playhouse of the air” so that families gathered around the radio sets in their homes can fill in all the details in their minds. Thus, if you close your eyes you still get the full story, almost like watching the classic Frank Capra film. With eyes open, you can see the performers mug and gesture their way through the show, giving those who braved the weather to see it in person a little extra — not to mention seeing all the tricks employed to make every noise from footsteps to stormy winds.

The script is true to the film’s story: Clarence the Angel (Second Class) is dispatched to help George Bailey, a man who spent his whole life helping others and desperately needs help himself. We get the backstory on George’s “wonderful life” so when he wishes he “had never been born” we can see how different things would be without him. In the end, we see the difference one person can truly make — Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!

ATI’s founding trio of Cynthia Collins, Don Farrell (voicing Clarence and other characters) and Judy Fitzgerald (who plays Mary, George’s wife) are joined by Adam Crowe (narrator, villainous Mr. Potter, etc.), Paul Tavianini (George), and Luca Arive, Sadie Cohen, Lincoln Everitt and Annabelle Pfeiffer in children’s roles, to perform the story. Fox59 TV personality Sherman Burdette literally provides the bells and whistles, working all the sound effects like a pro.

For a fresh, festive take on a holiday classic, performances of “It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” run through Dec. 23. For information and tickets visit atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

ATI opens with hijinks of another ‘Tenor’ farce

By John Lyle Belden

You don’t need to have seen the Ken Ludwig farce “Lend Me a Tenor” (though you really should when you get the chance) to understand the sequel, Ludwig’s “A Comedy of Tenors,” now in its local premiere at Actors Theatre of Indiana.

In the original, we met world-famous tenor Tito Merelli – with ego and appetites to match his talent – performing in Cleveland. Now, a few years later, former Cleveland mayor Henry Saunders and his son-in-law Max (also characters from the earlier play) are managing Tito in a Three Tenors extravaganza in Paris. Max, a rising star in opera, is listed as the third.

Suddenly, the number two on the bill cancels, sending Saunders and Max scrambling. Meanwhile, Tito’s relationship with wife Maria is tempestuous as ever – and then there’s his free-spirited daughter Mimi. Also, Tito’s biggest operatic rival, Carlo Nucci, is in the hotel. And finally, a hot-blooded Russian soprano with whom Tito once had a fling, Racon, is in town. Summon the singing bellhop, and let the slamming-door fun commence!

Melodrama and misunderstandings get under way from the first scene. The laughs come steadily, with plenty of physical comedy, as the plot rolls with its own twists that differentiate it from the previous play.

Don Farrell plays Tito as a runaway train of emotions – then in the second act, he has to work twice as hard, an exhausting performance that pays off hilariously. Mark Fishback plays Saunders as nonstop neurotic, the control freak with nothing under control. Nic Eastlund’s Max is the softer counterpoint to his boss, a character less fearful than in his prior appearance, but now distracted by the impending birth of his first child. Amy Bodnar puts plenty of fire in her portrayal of Maria, and the same spark is in Jenny Reber’s Mimi. Brynn Tyszka also brings the heat as Racon, working it to comic effect. As Carlo, hunky Jacob Gerard Barnes pratfalls as good as he looks, And when Farrell, Barnes and Eastlund sing, you know this show was cast perfectly.

A fun start to the ATI season, “A Comedy of Tenors” runs through Sept. 30 at The Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Box office at 317-843-3800 or thecenterpresents.org, or visit atistage.org for information.

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 July 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.