ATI’s truly beautiful ‘Bird’

By John Lyle Belden

La Cage - Michael Humphrey, Greg Grimes, Tim Hunt, Kenny Shepard and Don Farrell - photo credit - Zach Rosing
From left, Michael Humphrey, Greg Grimes, Don Farrell (as ZaZa), Kenny Shepherd and Tim Hunt on the stage of “La Cage aux Folles,” presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana at Carmel’s Center for the Performing Arts through Oct. 1. (Zach Rosing photo)

Hours after seeing the musical “La Cage aux Folles” (literally “The Birdcage,” its original film was also popularly mistranslated “Birds of a Feather”) presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana through Oct. 1, Wendy and I discussed whether this was truly a perfect performance.

Of course, anything can and does happen in live theatre, but without going into pointless nitpicking (issues only we noticed or that evaporate between weekends), this production can only be described as flawless – like the faux female stars of the nightclub of the show’s title, a hotspot on the French Riviera in the late 1970s.

Bill Book and Don Farrell are wonderful as the couple who own, run and live above La Cage, its emcee Georges and star diva (the Great ZaZa) Albin, respectively. Book is in top form, and Farrell is definitely the leading lady. Good thing, too – as the role of saucy butler/maid Jacob has “scene-stealer” written all over it, and Daniel Klingler plays it to the limit, with uproarious results.

Our happy couple is thrown into turmoil when their son, Jean-Michel (Sean Haynes) comes home engaged to – a woman! – Anne (Devan Mathias), the daughter of anti-gay government minister Mr. Dindon (Ken Klingenmeier). To make matters worse, Dindon and his wife (Mary Jane Waddell) would be arriving with Anne for dinner at their house the next day. The young man’s plan is for Georges to “straighten” up and for Albin to stay out of sight – but, of course, nothing ever goes as planned.

Again, great performances by handsome Haynes (Wendy said she could get lost in his eyes) and bubbly Mathias. Klingenmeier is appropriately stiff, and Waddell so nice as the wife who secretly yearns to cut loose; the couple also smoothly play the proprietors of a local cafe.

Speaking of supporting roles, the versatile John Vessels has fun here, especially as stage manager Francis. And then there are the beautiful Les Cagelles: singing, dancing “illusions” played by Greg Grimes, Michael Humphrey, Tim Hunt and Kenny Shepard. Chez magnifique!

Judy Fitzgerald completes the cast, shining as fun-loving restaurateur and welcome friend Jacqueline.

La Cage aux Folles” was first a French play in 1973, then a film in 1978, and brought to Broadway (adapted by Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman) in the early ’80s. You’d think that after 40 years, a story like this would feel quaint and dated; alas, it’s as relevant as ever. This production, directed by Larry Raben with choreography by Carol Worcel, lets the weight of its subtext float on an atmosphere of fun. Scene changes are swirling dance routines, a laugh is never far from the tear, and the arch-conservative does get his well-deserved comeuppance. The songs include timeless anthems “I Am What I Am” and “The Best of Times (is Now),” each as defiant in their own way as they are memorable – and wonderfully executed here.

It’s a good time to go “bird” watching: Performances are at the Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get tickets at thecenterpresents.org. Find info on this and other ATI shows at atistage.org or facebook.com/ActorsTheatreOfIndiana.

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ATI hosts one wild wedding

By John Lyle Belden

“It Shoulda Been You” is a freewheeling comedy musical in a single movie-length act, presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana through Feb. 12 at The Studio Theater in The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

The setting is a wedding held at a hotel, with all its comic potential – especially when the bride and groom come from different backgrounds. Rebecca Steinberg (Laura Sportiello) is from a middle-class Jewish family, while her fiancé Brian Howard (Michael Ferraro) is from well-to-do WASPs. Tasked with not letting this blessed occasion become a disaster is Rebecca’s unmarried older sister Jenny (Karaline Feller), who fortunately has the help of magically fabulous wedding planner Albert (John Vessels).

Bring on the inevitable clash of personalities between Rebecca’s parents, Murray (Matthew Reeder) and Judy (Judy Fitzgerald), and Brian’s parents George and Georgette (Bill Book and Cynthia Collins); and mix in Maid of Honor Annie (Teneh B.C. Karimu) and Best Man Greg (Jeff Pierpoint) – who are more a part of the upcoming marriage than anyone suspects – Rebecca’s ex-boyfriend Marty (Nic Eastlund), and the assorted roles played by Paul Hansen and Holly Stults, and you have a volatile combination that results in hilarity with a welcome happy ending for all.

The songs are snappy, adding to the punchlines and helping the story along. The cast is excellent in voice and comic form. Vessels puts his scene-stealing skills to excellent use, and you can’t help but feel for Sportiello’s Jenny from the moment she opens the show through to when she utters its last line.

Having this play in the intimate confines of the Studio Theater adds to the close familial atmosphere, and even facilitates one actor’s entrance. To get everyone in the mood, there is a Guestbook as you enter the theater, and ushers let you know as you are seated whether you are on the bride or groom’s side. A necessary salute, then, to director Bill Jenkins and the crew for a fun production, including an elegantly simple, yet simply elegant set by P. Bernard Killian.

And by the way, I’m leaving out a surprising plot twist – see it for yourself!

For information and tickets, call 317-843-3800 or visit atistage.org.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Incredible ‘Cabaret’

NOTE: As the Word/Eagle is in flux with the renaming and corresponding change in official website, John is putting his reviews here — for now.

By John Lyle Belden

The Actors Theatre of Indiana production of Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret” is one of those “even if you’ve seen it before” shows that you absolutely should see.

And if you are only familiar with the Joel Gray/Liza Minnelli movie version of the musical, you haven’t seen it like this – as ATI and director Billy Kimmel opt for the “revival” version of the production. This perfectly suits the brilliant Ben Asaykwee as the randy Emcee (in the Tony-winning style of Alan Cumming).

Asaykwee struts and coos his way through the story of American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Eric J. Olson) and wayward English singer Sally Bowles (ATI co-founder Cynthia Collins) in Berlin just as the Nazis are seizing power. Collins is appropriately brash and charismatic and in great voice. Olson tackles an everyman role (though gay, or at least bisexual) with the perfect touch, our proxy to events that are at first unbelievable in a fun and entertaining sense, then chilled with approaching calamity.

Patrick Vaughn is smooth as the deceptively charming Ernst Ludwig, Debra Babich is strong yet sweet as landlady Fraulein Schneider, and Darrin Murrell as Jewish shopkeeper Herr Schultz makes you ache to know that such a wonderful man is unwilling to see the growing danger around him. Also notable are Judy Fitzgerald as working-girl Fraulein Kost, Nicholas Roman and Kenny Shepard as sensuous bookends Bobby and Victor (and other roles as needed), the BEAUTIFUL Kit Kat girls Nicole Bridgens, Jenee Michelle, Ashley Saunders and Carol Worcel (who also choreographed) and the BEAUTIFUL orchestra.

As history lesson, allegory, love story and brilliant entertainment, this show works on all levels. See it through Nov. 20 at the Studio Theatre (next to the Tarkington) in The Center for the Performing Arts, 4 Center Green, Carmel. Call 317-843-3800 or see www.atistage.org. Note there are a few table seats right next to the stage; inquire with the box office as to availability.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor at The Eagle (formerly The Word), the central-Indiana based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Thanks a ‘Million’

NOTE: As the Word/Eagle is in flux with the renaming and corresponding change in official website, John is putting his reviews here — for now.

By John Lyle Belden

On a December day in 1956, something extraordinary happened.

And the fact that it did happen, and occur largely spontaneously, is practically unbelievable – but then, there’s the sound recordings, and that famous photo. On that day, in the little studio of Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn., four legends – Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis – held an impromptu gospel/country/rockabilly jam session that a local newspaper would declare the “Million Dollar Quartet.”

The Broadway musical of that same title, commemorating that day, is presented locally by Actors Theatre of Indiana at The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel through Oct. 2.

In the play’s dramatization, Perkins (Jeremy Sevelovitz) and his brothers are in a recording session, trying to come up with his next hit, when Sun’s owner and producer Sam Phillips (Don Farrell) surprises him with the label’s latest signee – a hyper Louisiana boy, Lewis (Taylor Gray), who is days away from his own first hit. Phillips wants to add boogie-woogie piano to enrich Perkins’ rockabilly sound – which the guitar legend resists, at first.

Meanwhile, Cash (Brandon Alstott) is expected to stop by; Phillips has a surprise contract extension for him, but Cash has a surprise of his own. Then, Presley (Adam Tran), who started with Sun but sings for RCA, stops by with his latest girlfriend (Betsy Norton), and can’t resist picking up a guitar and joining in. All four singers, and even the young woman, sing solos and harmonies of familiar songs from the era, including the stars’ biggest hits.

Of course, there’s also a little drama as Cash and Phillips need to resolve conflicting plans, Jerry Lee gets a little too brash, and Phillips seriously considers the future of his struggling operation. We also get flashbacks to show what the Sun boss first saw in each of these eventual legends. But overall, the music is what drives the show.

And what a wonderful show it is. Gray was understudy for Lewis on the musical’s national tour, but is overjoyed to be the number one Killer for ATI, as are we who see him expertly capture the energy and raw talent of Jerry Lee. Sevelovitz, also no stranger to his role, plays the heck out of his guitar as Perkins, recreating the look, sound and attitude of the original man in Blue Suede Shoes. The local actors: Alstott seems right at home as the Man in Black, Tran radiates The King’s charisma, and Norton is as charming as ever as beautiful Dyanne (based on Elvis’s actual companion; her name was changed to avoid confusion with another personality of the era). ATI co-founder Farrell ties it all together as the man in charge. The talents of Kroy Presley as Brother Jay on stand-up bass and Nathan Shew as Fluke on drums ably round out the cast. Direction is by the nationally-renowned stage and TV director DJ Salisbury.

The action takes place in one movie-length act, ends with a rousing encore for the curtain call, and is satisfying throughout. The content is family-friendly (aside from period-appropriate stage cigarettes) and even includes a couple of sacred songs.

Performances are Sept. 23-25 and Sept. 30-Oct. 2; call 317-843-3800 or visit atistage.org.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor at The Eagle (formerly The Word), the central-Indiana based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

At ATI: A salute to another era, and some sweet stories

By John Lyle Belden

Actors Theatre of Indiana is easy to overlook, with its home space being The Studio Theater, next to the bigger Tarkington stage in the Center for the Performing Arts up in downtown Carmel. Yet this little company produces some excellent and worth-seeking shows.

“The Andrews Brothers,” which played just in time for Veterans’ Day, was a valentine to the old USO shows that kept GI’s, sailors and Marines’ spirits up during World War II (and the organization is a valuable resource to service members to this day).

Three men (played by Michael Dotson, Jay Emrich and Don Farrell) – conveniently, brothers with the last name “Andrews” – who couldn’t make the cut for service due to health reasons, but still wanting to do their part, want to move up from being USO stagehands to performing on that stage. When illness prevents the Andrews Sisters from making a South Seas gig, the Brothers get their big break in a way they hadn’t imagined.

Our trio, with pin-up girl Peggy Jones (Mary Jayne Waddell) sing and dance their way through many memorable hits from the era, both as guys, and, hilariously in the second act, as the “Sisters.” It’s all a lighthearted affair, and was a fun trip down memory lane for many in the audience who remembered those days. This led to many wonderful conversations between them and the cast after the show.

As for myself, I and Wendy fell ill in the following days and the distraction of fighting the flu (yes, I had my shot, so I guess it could have been worse!) kept us from writing a timely review.

But ATI is on stage again, and while the previous show was for the young-at-heart, this one is a treat for actual little ones (and the parents and caretakers who read them their bedtime stories): “A Year With Frog and Toad.”

I remember reading the sets of short stories about best-friend amphibians by Arnold Lobel to my son years ago, and can even recall a few favorites. Those scenes are there in the live musical play, crafted by Willie and Robert Reale. The lead characters are brought to life excellently by Bradley Reynolds and Don Farrell, with the help of some supporting critters (Kyra Kenyon and Shelby Putlak), including a very eager snail (Tim Hunt).

If you or your kids are at all familiar with these woodland companions, make plans to visit them on Friday, Saturday or Sunday through Dec. 27. Call 317-843-3800 or visit atistage.org.

Review: A ‘Fantastick’ show

By Wendy Carson

Once upon a time, there was a boy, a girl, their two fathers and a wall. Thus begins “The Fantasticks,” a little fairy tale of love, deception, desire, foiled plans and happiness presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana.

From the opening strains of the show’s most famous song, “Try to Remember,” you are whisked back to a time when the world was filled with dewy-eyed optimism, and happily-ever-afters can be found at every turn. Therefore, it is very easy to see why this show holds the unbeatable record of running continuously for 42 years and 17,161 performances.

In fact, the aforementioned song is performed by El Gallo, who serves as the narrator and possible villain of the story. Joining him in his unfurling of the story is The Mute, who not only sets the mood by providing props and ambiance to help set each scene but also presents our storyteller with a sounding board of sorts with which to judge the proceedings.

As the beginning of the show approaches, the audience is privy to the standard calls to the cast and crew that are generally kept backstage for only them to hear. All of the main characters enter wearing all black clothes and are provided with a few articles of color by our narrator and his assistant to wear in order to differentiate one from another. Only the two fools are actually allowed any more of a costume for themselves.

The basic story is hardly unique, a son and daughter of two feuding families fall in love despite being separated by a “grudge wall” and seek to marry. What sets this apart is that the fathers are actually best friends and are merely pretending to feud in order to get their children together. They even go as far as to hire a renowned robber to abduct the girl so that the boy can save her and they can drop the sham of a feud and all be joined together in happiness.

While it does appear that this is the outcome, after a bit the children grow jaded and restless for adventure so the boy leaves to seek his fortune and experience life. The girl is left to her daydreams and decides to run away with her would-be abductor in order to find her own adventures. The fathers now feud in earnest and the wall is resurrected.

Heedless of our narrator’s warnings, the world is a harsh place that scars and reshapes them both. They are reunited, worse for wear, with eyes fully opened to the bitter realities of life and adulthood.

Laura Sportiello’s portrayal of Luisa, the girl, is so beamingly bright one might need sunglasses to take it all in. Michael Ferraro’s subtle turn as the boy, Matt, seems almost wooden in comparison. Both Paul Collier Hansen and Michael Elliot do an excellent job of balancing the roles of Henry and Mortimer, the fools, somewhere directly between menacing and pathetic.

In an inspired stroke of casting genius, the roles for the fathers, Bellomy and Hucklebee are both portrayed by women. Judy Fitzgerald and Cynthia Collins excellently embody these roles and make you forget the roles could ever be played by men.

With this level of talent already present it is hard to believe that it could be surpassed, but Logan Moore and Holly Stults manage to do just that. Moore’s stunning portrayal of El Gallo brings menace, delight, snark, and morality to the mix. The ease in which he shifts from seductive to dangerous is wondrous to behold. Assisting him is his narrative duties is The Mute, brilliantly brought to life by Stults. She not only helps out keeping the action going but wordlessly gives the audience commentary and a voice throughout the show.

“The Fantasticks” won’t have an endless run here, playing through Sunday (Sept. 27) at The Studio Theater in The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Call 317-843-3800.

Lots to celebrate

Angel Burlesque's ladies look good enough to
Angel Burlesque’s ladies look good enough to “nom-nom-nom” in their Tribute to the Muppets, Friday and Saturday night at the Athenaeum in downtown Indy.

As summer comes to an end, the festivals start piling up in the Indy area.

This weekend features (click links for details):

Meanwhile on stages, shows continue at the Civic Theatre, TOTS, Mud Creek and ATI. The only new feature is the two-day Angel Burlesque Tribute to the Muppets — a show aimed at grown-ups; it ain’t Sesame Street — which looks like it will be fun.

And, if all this wasn’t enough, Saturday is also International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Ahoy!

Have fun!