Magical ‘Elf’ at Civic

By John Lyle Belden

A new Christmas classic was created in 2003 with the film “Elf,” starring Will Ferrell, which has since become an even bigger spectacle as a Broadway musical, now presented by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre.

The book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, with songs by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, allows Buddy the Elf to escape the shadow of Ferrell’s unique talent to make him his own wonderful character — portrayed happily here by Matt Bays. 

As in the original story, Buddy is a human who, as a baby, crawled into Santa’s sleigh, unseen until the end of the journey. Finding that the boy’s single mother had died, Santa Claus (Parrish Williams) let him be raised by the elves, They let Buddy think he was one of them, even when he grew much taller than his adopted family. 

The truth is inevitably revealed, and Buddy travels to his father — who doesn’t know he exists — in New York City. The dad, Walter (J. Stuart Mill), is a workaholic executive at a publisher of children’s books who is rough on coworkers like good-natured Deb (Mary Margaret Montgomery) and neglectful of wife Emily (Carrie Neal) and son Michael (Ben Boyce). Naturally, Walter doesn’t believe this strange man in elvish tights is his son, so has him sent away. Since Buddy claims to be from the North Pole, he is dropped off at the next-best thing — Macy’s. There he ends up among the store’s Santa’s helpers, where he falls in love with fellow “elf” Jovie (Emily Schaab). 

From there, the story is Buddy’s struggle for acceptance and belonging, along with a chance to save Christmas for his father’s family — and the whole world, when Santa is stranded in Central Park, his sleigh too low on the Christmas Spirit that fuels it. Other notable roles include Jonathan Studdard as the stressed-out Macy’s Manager, and Jeff Angel as Mr. Greenway, owner of the publishing company, who wants a new hit Christmas story from Walter — or else!

The feel of the show throughout is best described by one of its song titles: “Sparklejollytwinklejingley.” The mood is perpetually sweet, even when characters aren’t “Happy All The Time.” And even when they feel that “Nobody Cares,” there’s a fun dance break. 

Directed by Michael J. Lasley with perfect choreography by Anne Beck and musical direction by Brent Marty, this is a magical ensemble effort. And seeing it on a matinee with the audience mostly children, I noticed they were all entranced and swept up in the spirit of it all. 

Just as sweet and special as spaghetti with syrup, “Elf” is yet another holiday must-see in central Indiana, playing through Dec. 28 at the Tarkington theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, right next to the Christkindlmarkt. (Arrive early for hope of parking.) See www.civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org for info and tickets.

 

Civic: Here we go again!

By John Lyle Belden

It’s hard to imagine anyone not knowing about the musical “Mamma Mia!” Between the popular film (which recently launched a sequel) and the various touring productions through the years since it premiered on Broadway in 2001, practically everyone with an interest in this show has seen it. And it stands as one of those theatre experiences people eagerly go to again and again, perhaps bringing along children or hold-outs unfamiliar with its goings-on.

Since rights recently became available for local productions, it is naturally popping up — now “Mamma Mia!” is at the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, through Oct. 19.

Directed and choreographed by Anne Beck, this edition of the musical — featuring an engaging romantic comedy plot, and twenty-two hits by 70s-80s superstars ABBA — takes advantage of its large stage and generously-sized volunteer cast to really go big on the singing and dancing, while simultaneously embracing the show’s use of simple sets, employing a couple of small set pieces and a rotating center stage that is put to effective use. 

Thanks to Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan’s efforts on the big screen, the karaoke nature of the musical doesn’t require perfect singers, still Civic didn’t skimp on the talent. Becky Larson stars as Sophie Sheridan, a girl who invites three men to her wedding, knowing only that one of them is her father. Her mother, Donna, is portrayed wonderfully by Kara Snyder, while her best friends and “Dynamos” are fun roles for Civic favorites Laura Lockwood as cougarish Tanya and Marni Lemmons as free-spirit Rosie. Our three possible papas are sharply played by Clay Mabbitt as Sam the architect, Ethan Mathias as “Headbanger” Harry the banker, and Parrish Williams as Bill the travel writer. Joseph David Massingale is more than a handsome face as the prospective groom, Sky.

Also great are Cameron Hicks and Nate Schlabach as Sky’s buds, Pepper and Eddie; Jessica Linxwiler and Julia Ammons as maids-of-honor Ali and Lisa; and supporting ensemble Matthew Altman, Tanner Brunson, Sydney Chaney, Tyler Hartman Derry, David Johnson, Jonathan Katter, Emily Lantz, Dani Morey, Miles Morey, Kipp Morgan, Jacquelyn Rae, Emily Schaab, Caitlin Stacy, and Tiffany Whisner.

Taken as a whole, this show is so much fun. There are moments fraught with possible heartbreak (and sad songs), but it all ends well, of course. We all have our favorite scenes — such as the frog-dance of “Lay All Your Love on Me,” or Tanya strutting her stuff in “Does Your Mother Know” — and there’s always the “Megamix” at the end with the outrageous costume reveal and bonus track (“Waterloo”). 

Civic is “having the time of their lives;” it would be a shame to miss the party. Get tickets and information at 317-843-3800, civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

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.

Civic: Sail on with Porter’s songs

By John Lyle Belden

“The world has gone mad today
And good’s bad today,
And black’s white today,
And day’s night today…”

Makes you wonder what year Cole Porter was writing about, doesn’t it?

But that’s what makes it a great idea to escape from today’s madness on a timeless voyage with “Anything Goes,” the classic musical featuring Porter’s songs, presented by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, in partnership with The Great American Songbook Foundation.

The wacky romantic comedy plot is mainly a means to launch several Porter favorites, including “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “It’s De-Lovely,” “Friendship,” “Blow Gabriel Blow,” and, of course, the title song.

As for the story: All aboard the ocean liner S.S. American, where lovesick Billy Crocker (Juddson Updike) has stowed away, hoping to persuade his socialite girlfriend Hope Harcourt (Kari Baker) not to wed Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Matt Bays) in a marriage arranged by her mother (Teresa F. Jordan). Billy has to avoid contact with the ship’s crew, as well as his boss, Elisha Whitney (W. Michael Davidson), who had ordered him to stay in New York. Meanwhile, it’s rumored that America’s Most Wanted criminal is on board – but we know for sure that the Thirteenth Most Wanted, Moonface Martin (Parrish Williams) is on the liner, accompanied by his best moll, Erma (Nathalie Cruz). And at the center of it all is a friend to all, headlining showgirl Reno Sweeney (Susie Harloff), with her band of Angels and a song for every occasion.

Despite some difficulty, and wacky situations, love will triumph in the end as it always does. What’s important is how entertaining this shipload of actors and dancers are on the way. With the help of Michael J. Lasley’s direction, Brent Marty’s musical touch and splendid choreography by Anne Beck, this is a pleasing production.

As for our feature performers, Williams is in top comic form, and Harloff has sass and attitude to match her great voice. Baker’s singing is breathtakingly good, Updike keeps up his everyman charm perfectly, and Cruz handily steals the scenes (along with several sailors’ uniforms). I wasn’t sure at first about Bays’ Lord Oakleigh, but he is something special when he cuts loose in the second act.

We’re having such a good time, we can forgive the almost cringe-worthy Asian stereotypes that end up necessary to the plot. Isaac Becker and especially Karen Woods Hurt make the most of their roles as naughty Chinese Christian converts, adding to the humor rather than being an outdated distraction.

“Anything Goes” runs through Oct. 27 at The Tarkington theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Call 317-843-3800, or visit civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Civic youth stake a sure bet

By John Lyle Belden

If you didn’t know the ages of the actors in Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre’s production of the classic Frank Loesser musical, “Guys and Dolls,” you would be hard-pressed to guess. Yes, this is the summer show by the Civic’s Young Artist Program for ages 14-18, but those strong voices, dancing chops and overall talent on display compare with any professional tour you’re likely to see.

They bring afresh the story first presented to their great-grandparents’ generation in 1950: Nathan Detroit (Hayden Elefante) needs a place to host his infamous floating craps game, but NYPD Lt. Brannigan (Daniel Miller) is watching all his usual haunts. So, to finance a likely location, Detroit makes a can’t-miss bet with high-roller Sky Masterson (Nathan Nouri) – that he can’t sweep away stoic Salvation Army Sgt. Sarah Brown (Katelyn Soards) on a dinner date to Cuba. Meanwhile, Detroit’s got a doll of his own to worry about; his long-time fiance, showgirl Adelaide (Katherine Patterson), is increasingly allergic to not being married.

Nouri and Soards’ voices soar operatically as they win our hearts. Meanwhile, Elefante is very entertaining and Patterson gives an award-worthy performance. And then there’s Detroit’s right-hand man Nicely-Nicely Johnson, played oh so nicely by Mahesh Gupta. Kudos also to Emily Chrzanoski as Sister Abernathy and Luke Vreeman as Chicago gangster Big Jule.

This musical is directed and choreographed by Anne Beck, who gives these teens quite a workout. The clever dance-filled opening number, setting the stage of the mean streets of New York, is practically a show in itself.

This has been one of my favorite musicals, with hits like “Fugue for Tinhorns (‘I got the horse right here…’)” and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” – Wendy likes “Adelaide’s Lament” and “Luck Be a Lady” – and this production did not disappoint. But it’s only for one weekend, with performances through Sunday, July 29, at the Tarkington theatre in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. See civictheatre.org for details and tickets.

Civic’s puttin’ on a hit

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

For a more-silly-than-spooky Halloween crowd-pleaser, you can’t go wrong with “Young Frankenstein,” presented by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre through Nov. 5 at The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

In this Mel Brooks musical, based on the Mel Brooks movie (inspired by the Mary Shelley novel), Frederick Frankenstein (played by Steve Kruze), grandson of the infamous mad doctor – who has changed the pronunciation of his surname in a vain attempt to shake its infamy – must go to his grandfather’s castle in the generically central/eastern European town of Transylvania Heights to settle the estate.

Once there, Frederick meets family servant Igor (Damon Clevenger), who has rounded up a lovely lab assistant, Inga (Devan Mathias). At the castle, they are welcomed by Frau Blucher (Vickie Cornelius Phipps), who was more than a housekeeper to the elder Frankenstein – a case in which a single line from the film became a whole song in the musical.

The temptation to follow in the family business becomes too great, and Frederick makes a Monster (B.J. Bovin) despite the village having passed a law against such practices, inviting the ire of local police Inspector Kemp (Parrish Williams). Add a surprise visit by Frederick’s fiancé Elizabeth (Nathalie Cruz) and a lot of mayhem – and song-and-dance numbers – ensue.

This production goes all-out on the famous “Puttin’ on the Ritz” singing Monster scene, a great credit to the cast and choreographer Anne Nicole Beck. And Williams doubles as the blind Hermit in another famously funny scene.

No one can match the manic genius of Gene Wilder, but Kruze manages to make the title role his own. Cruz and Phipps are natural scene-stealers, and Mathias is a treat. Bovin makes the most of the limited motions of the Monster, and his often-confused expressions add to the comedic effect. But the show doesn’t work without a great Igor (pronounced “Eye-gor”), and Clevenger is pitch-perfect in the role. It’s a credit to the others that he doesn’t steal the whole show.

Brooks’ gags still zing and his Tony-nominated monster of a musical still entertains. Get info and tickets at civictheatre.org.

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

Review: Civic Theatre continues ‘Tradition’

By John Lyle Belden

The popular musical “Fiddler on the Roof” has a few nights left, Wednesday through Saturday at the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre in The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

Directed by Michael J. Lasley with musical direction by Brent Marty, the story of a poor Jewish man confronting changes in society in Russia at the turn of the 20th century still maintains its power in this latest production of a show that has seen many local stages – not to mention Broadway runs and a 1971 movie.

Tobin Strader is an entertaining narrator as Tevye, the dairyman blessed with five headstrong daughters. Marni Lemons is an excellent complement as his wife, Golde. We also get great performances from Laura Muse, Virginia Vasquez and Daniela Pretorius as their eldest daughters, and Troy Johnson, Tanner Brunson and Joseph Massengale as the girls’ suitors.

One of the more interesting cast members is the title character – the Fiddler – a living metaphor performed by Erin Jeffrey. She appears throughout in various scenes as emphasis is needed, proficiently playing her instrument.

Praise is also due to choreographer Anne Nicole Beck, as scenes with various numbers of the cast of more than 30 players flow smoothly, naturally, and at times breath-takingly (yes, the “bottle dance” is included, involving five dancers).

Whether you’ve seen “Fiddler on the Roof” a dozen times or never at all – and really, you should at least once – the Civic production is well worth the ticket. Call 317-843-3800 or see civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

(Review also published at The Word)