Phoenix shines with ‘Bright Star’

By John Lyle Belden

A show like the musical “Bright Star” brings with it a lot of expectations.

It is co-written by the legendary Steve Martin (with singer-songwriter Edie Brickell), a connoisseur of the absurd, even as a playwright (see “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” “The Underpants”). But if one recalls the spirit of his film “Pennies From Heaven,” Martin also loves the innocence of a feel-good musical. And “Bright Star” delivers with its upbeat attitude (the title is also the third musical number) and just an edge of drama – sort of an “Oklahoma” set in the Carolinas. Wendy compares the feel to “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou.”

We are alerted to the fact that this is based – loosely – on a true story. But, I would advise one not to read the story of the Iron Mountain Baby, printed in the program, until after you see the show, as it makes the plot more predictable than it already is. Besides, the true events happened in earlier decades, and in Missouri. “Bright Star” is a fictional tale (with the luxury of replying to “oh, that couldn’t have happened” with “it actually did, once”) taking place in Hayes Creek, Asheville, Zebulon and Raleigh, N.C.

In addition, there’s the burden of living up to being a Broadway hit. Considering it’s the Phoenix Theatre launching the local premiere, and the standing ovation by the packed audience at Thursday’s preview, this expectation has been well met.

At the end of World War II, Billy Cane (Ian Laudano) comes home from the Army to find his Daddy (Joey Collins) and childhood best friend Margo (Betsy Norton) waiting for him, but his mother passed on. Billy aspires to be a writer, and gives his essays to Margo, who runs the local bookstore, to edit for submission to magazines. He decides to take his best works and deliver them by hand to the Asheville Southern Journal – a fool’s errand, as copy editor Daryl (John Vessels) is a strict gatekeeper. But senior editor Alice Murphy (Molly Garner) sees something in this young man, and agrees to read his work.

We then get a look at Murphy’s past, and from there the story flows back and forth between the 1920s and ’40s, but Martin and Brickell’s plot – and director Suzanne Fleenor – don’t let things get confusing. Speaking of flow, the choreography, nicely done by Carol Worcel, seems to extend even to inanimate objects as furniture and setpieces on subtle casters seem to dance in and out of scenes as needed.

As a teen, Alice falls in love with Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Patrick Clements), son of Zebulon’s no-nonsense Mayor (Charles Goad). She is seen as the “black sheep” of her family, headed by her Bible-toting father (Paul Tavianini) and mother (Maryjayne Waddell), so it isn’t surprising when she gets in trouble. Jimmy Ray wants to do right by her, but the Mayor wants no scandal and takes matters literally into his own hands.

In Billy’s era, he has been accepted as a writer for the Journal, but struggles to find his voice – while also dealing with advances by Daryl’s assistant, Lucy (Ashley Dillard). Meanwhile, back in Hayes Creek, Margo wonders if a new dress will be enough to wake Billy up to her growing feelings for him.

All the plotlines come together in ways you see coming but are still satisfying. This is aided by some first-rate performances – Laudano as the happy optimist, Garner giving Alice deep wells of strength, Clements with his powerful voice and effortless manner, Collins radiating wisdom through his aw-shucks hillbilly facade, Norton as charming as ever as Margo, the antics of Dillard and Vessels that lend comedy relief without getting too silly, Tavianini’s firm hand reaching toward the light, and Goad’s grasping hand committing to the role of villain. Ensemble members also get their moments, including Kenny Shepard as the Mayor’s assistant, and Conner Chamberlin as Max – the lonely guy who has no shot with Margo, but can’t help trying.

An excellent band of strings and bluegrass instruments, led by Brent Marty at the piano, occupies the back of the stage like a natural part of the environment.

I’ve heard from the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St., that the show’s run – through Oct. 7 – is selling out fast. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

IRT puts on ‘Noises Off’

By John Lyle Belden

We know how the workplace can be the site of ridiculous interpersonal drama, so imagine how it can get when you have a group of temperamental artistic folks in the same space for hours on end – you get something like “Noises Off,” the Michael Frayn farce on stage through May 20 at the Indiana Repertory Theatre.

On a January day in a forgettable English town, the cast of the comedy “Nothing On” – which explores the humor inherent in multiple platters of sardines – are rehearsing less than 24 hours before the play opens, with director Lloyd Dallas (IRT mainstay Ryan Artzberger) at his wits’ end. Dotty (Hollis Resnik) struggles with where to place the sardines, while Frederick (Robert Neal) struggles with his character’s motivation. Brooke (Ashley Dillard) only seems to have room in her brain for her lines, while Garry (Jerry Richardson) and Belinda (Heidi Kettenring) scramble to be in the right spots for them to make sense. It’s hoped that aging thespian Selsdon (Bob Riley) will be sober and on time, so stage manager Tim (Will Allan) is on standby as understudy. Meanwhile, assistant stage manager Poppy (Mehry Eslaminia) jumps to Dallas’s every demand.

The eventful run-through of the first act gives us an idea of what’s supposed to happen on stage. Next, midway through the tour of “Nothing On,” we see what’s happening backstage. Nerves and relationships are frayed as Brooke threatens to walk out, Selsdon keeps finding the whiskey, and Dallas ends up in a very prickly situation. Finally, the third act brings us to the memorable final performance of the tour, during which some improvisation becomes necessary.

The genius of this play is the perfectly timed “bad” timing, everything going “wrong” in just the right way. As is the standard at IRT, this cast has it down, making slamming doors and slipping on sardines an art and moving props such as a bottle, an axe or a cactus like a ballet. Praise must also go to scenic designer Bill Clarke for the two perfectly arranged coordinated sets, as well as director David Bradley for containing the chaos for a thoroughly entertaining show.

Find the IRT at 140 W. Washington St., near Circle Centre in downtown Indianapolis. Find info and tickets at irtlive.com or call 317-635-5252.

#Juliet and her #Romeo @ IRT

By John Lyle Belden

A month after giving fresh polish to a well-worn Christmas story, the Indiana Repertory Theatre presents possibly Shakespeare’s most familiar play, “Romeo and Juliet.” Everyone knows this story, or at least assumes they do. My first thoughts regarding the IRT production were: Didn’t they just do this one? (It was 2010.) At least it’s only 90 minutes. (The edits are well crafted, aiding the flow and drama.) And, oh! I see Millicent Wright is the Nurse again. (She is marvelous.)

Fortunately, the IRT and director Henry Woronicz breathed new life into the old pages you read in high school – in a show performed for today’s students through the NEA Shakespeare in American Communities program – by presenting it in a “contemporary” setting. This involves more than putting the cast in today’s clothing, with modern blades taking the place of swords. Most importantly, vocal patterns (while still Shakespeare’s words) are more like familiar American speech. Wright’s delivery, for instance, is more BET than Bard.

Aaron Kirby is our Romeo, the hopeless romantic far more interested in girls than fighting in the ongoing Montague-Capulet feud. Either path to him is more a boy’s game than a man’s quest. As for Sophia Macias as Juliet, I believe this is the first time I’ve seen the character truly look and act 14 years old, complete with naive faith and immature impatience and impetuousness. If it is argued that this couple showed more wisdom than the adult characters, that is only a reflection of how foolish the fighting families are.

Romeo’s cousin, Benvolio (Ashley Dillard) and friend Mercutio (Charles Pasternak), also youths, are caught up in the excitement of the goings-on, the latter so manically Pasternak nearly acts like the Joker from Batman. Lord and Lady Capulet (Robert Neal and Constance Macy) are occupied with ensuring their family stays on top with a lucrative marriage of Juliet to Count Paris (Jeremy Fisher). The most noble characters, Prince Escalus (Pasnernak again) and Friar Lawrence (Ryan Artzberger), only want peace – the former through law and order, the latter through love.

With these, we present the boy-meets-girl story with a unique whirlwind courtship and marriage resulting (spoiler alert) in them both lying dead in a crypt just a few days later. But is there more to this?

Perhaps it was seeing this in today’s context – months into stories and reports of young women taken advantage of (the #metoo and #timesup movements, the USA Gymnastics abuses), reminded of the constant tragedy of youth suicide and self-destruction – that I couldn’t help seeing this story more through Juliet’s point of view. Macias’s scenes with Wright and Macy help bring the feminine struggles of the story (as applicable today as in the 1590s) in sharp relief. We see a girl – not a woman yet, though she desperately wants to be – working her way through impossible choices. Add to this the female casting of Benvolio (pitch-perfect work by Dillard), emphasizing the peacemaker aspects of the character.

“Romeo and Juliet” is said to be timeless, but this show boldly thrusts itself into the 21st century – with only the lack of text-laden cell phones in the kids’ hands separating it from our own world. For #R+J fans old and new, this version is worth checking out. Performances are through March 4 on the IRT Upperstage, 140 W. Washington St., downtown Indy (by Circle Centre). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

IRT blesses us, every one

By John Lyle Belden

Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” – you know it; everyone knows it.

The Scrooge-bahhumbug-Crachits-Tiny-Tim-Marley-three-ghosts-Godblessuseveryone story is nearly as familiar as the Nativity. In fact, some of our favorite tellings take great liberties with the story, like the Muppet version or the movie “Scrooged.”

But it is also promoted as a proper holiday tradition, faithfully executed, every year at Indiana Repertory Theatre. So, how do they keep it reliable, yet unique?

Start with the Tom Haas script, which hews fairly closely to the source material. Under director Janet Allen, have the cast tell the story as they portray the events, in a pudding-smooth blend of narration and action.

Keep the set simple, as scenic designer Russell Metheny has done. The dominant feature is the drifts of snow absolutely everywhere – pure white like holiday magic, yet also a constant desolate reminder of the dangerous cold of a Victorian English winter. Setpieces drift in and out, and a simple large frame sees duty in many ways – a doorway, a mirror, a passage to what comes next.

Cast some of the best talent in Indy, including a number of IRT regulars, starting with the brilliant Ryan Artzberger as Scrooge. Other familiar faces include Charles Goad, Mark Goetzinger and the luminous Millicent Wright. You may also recognize Emily Ristine, Scot Greenwell and Jennifer Johansen. Then there are Jeremy Fisher, Charles Pasternak, Ashley Dillard and Joey Collins. And mix in some great young talent as well, such as Tobin Seiple and Maddie Medley, who take turns as Tiny Tim.

Present it all in a single movie-length performance, submersing the audience into the story until we can’t help but get caught up in it. Of course, we know what’s going to happen next, but with the spirit of live theatre taking us along, we don’t just watch the play, we experience it.

I feel like a bit of a Scrooge sometimes, thinking of things like the Dickens story as stale and overdone; but having seen what IRT does with it, I now see why all those who go back every year enjoy it so much. You, also, might want to consider adding this show to your list of cherished holiday traditions.

Performances continue through Christmas Eve at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St. (near Circle Centre) in downtown Indy. Get information and tickets at www.irtlive.com.