Civic opens season with ‘Rent’

By John Lyle Belden

“Rent” is very much of its own time – the struggles of Generation X to make their mark as the AIDS epidemic wreaks havoc on creative and marginalized communities – yet our recent encounter with an incurable plague makes the lyric, “one song before the virus takes hold,” feel all too familiar.

In this context, the Jonathan Larson masterpiece musical takes the stage of the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, directed by Michael J. Lasley. We meet filmmaker Mark (Austin Stodghill) and songwriter Roger (Joseph Massingale), living what they thought was rent-free in a building now managed by ex-roommate Benny (Kerrington Shorter). There are also friends Tom Collins (Austin Hookfin) and Angel (Kendrell Stiff), free-spirit Mimi (Jaelynn Keating), and activist Maureen (Olivia Broadwater) who left Mark for attorney Joanne (Miata McMichel), as well as a full cast representing the hoi polloi of New York City, including Julia Ammons, who is a stunning soloist in the signature song, “Seasons of Love.”

Act One centers on a particular Christmas Eve in the 1990s, giving us the lives of our characters in that pivotal day; Act Two carries through the next year, with its changes and loss.

If you are familiar with the show, picture the perfect Maureen: Broadwater solidly fits the bill. Stodghill portrays Mark well, and Massingale – master of unconventional manly roles (like in “Bonnie and Clyde”) – is well within his element here. We feel the chemistry between the couples: Roger and Mimi, Maureen and Joanne, and especially Tom and Angel. Civic newcomer Stiff has big high-heels to fill in their iconic role, and does not disappoint.

Circumstances had Wendy elsewhere, so I brought my friend, Mary, as my plus-one. Her impressions: “’Rent’ was fantastic. Thought Roger and Mimi had great chemistry. Angel was absolutely gorgeous. And even though I have watched [the 2005 film] countless times on DVD, I didn’t expect to get emotional during [the] death scene. Watching it live just hit me differently.”

This is why you should experience this musical, and bring a friend, as well as Kleenex (you’ll need it for the curtain call).

Performances run through Oct. 22 at the Tarkington in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get info and tickets at civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

BCP goes big with ‘Little Women’

By John Lyle Belden

Most of us, either by choice or school assignment, have read Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century novel “Little Women,” based on the lives of Alcott and her sisters. The book has also had several film adaptations, television airings, and – for our purposes here – inspired a 2005 Broadway musical with book by Allan Knee, music by Jason Howland, and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein. Thus adapted, the story is both familiar and new, and on stage at Buck Creek Players, directed by Cathy Cutshall, through this weekend.

The author is reimagined as Jo March, aspiring world-famous writer. Miranda Nehrig, who offstage is the answer to “what if Jo had become a lawyer,” boldly takes on the role with great presence, acting, and vocals. The show gives this central role a lot, and Nehrig shoulders it like a pro.

Alcott gave her literary siblings distinct, diverse personalities, to which our cast give full dimension: Jennifer Kaufmann smartly gives us Meg, the nurturing natural governess with sufficient charm to catch the eye of Mr. Brooks (Matthew Blandford), tutor to the boy next door, Laurie (Austin Stodghill). Jacoba White is sweet as shy Beth, happiest when alone at the piano, and capable of softening the heart of stern neighbor Mr. Lawrence (Brian Noffke). Hannah Partridge successfully accepts the challenge of making beautiful but bratty sister Amy likable, even as she matures into a social butterfly under ultra-prim-and-proper Aunt March (Jessica Bartley).

The ”little women” thrive under the care of mother Marmee March, with Heather Catlow ably portraying the bond that holds this family together with unending affection.

As for the men: Stodghill shines as the boy who becomes an honorary “brother,” yet finds himself yearning to be more. Blandford keeps Brooks appropriately upbeat. Veteran actor Noffke makes his turn look effortless. And Ben Jones is rock solid as Jo’s mentor, Professor Bhaer, even when the edges crumble as he considers his true feelings.

A fan of adventure tales and melodrama, Jo works on a story of derring-do that she hopes to sell. Its action comes alive with the help of Nathaniel Bouman as dashing Rodrigo. Other ensemble players are Kirsten Cutshall, Brandon Ping and Connie Salvini Thompson.

The plot hits the high points of the novel – comic and tragic, romantic and triumphant – so this show is a treat both for those familiar with it, or who only now discover this American classic.

Performances run through June 19 at the Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74). Get information and tickets at buckcreekplayers.com.

‘Hosanna’ to the Mud Creek ‘Superstar’

By John Lyle Belden

“Jesus Christ Superstar,” Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera passion play, opened, appropriately, on Good Friday at Mud Creek Players.

The production, directed by Michelle Moore, embraced its setting within the cozy confines of the MCP “barn,” with rough-wood sets and a punk aesthetic, backed by a five-piece rock band. Cast members filled the aisles at times, lending a feeling more immersive than crowded. The costumes appeared to be raided from “Hair” or “American Idiot,” but still worked in the overall look, making our two male leads better stand out — the disciple Judas (Michael Lipphardt) all business in a leather jacket, and Jesus (Onis Dean) dressed casual like a man who, naturally, would fit in anywhere.

For those unfamiliar with this telling of the last week of Christ’s life, these are the main two perspectives — Judas fearing what could happen, and Jesus frustrated that only he can see what must happen — followed by the points of view of Mary Magdalene (Pearl Scott), a woman in love with the man as much as what he stands for; and Caiaphas (Lot Turner), the High Priest who sees a threat not only to his own personal power, but also to the safety of Jews in occupied Roman Palestine.

Dean and Lipphardt sing their hearts out — and I worry for their throats. Scott is pure sweetness. Turner just oozes corruption, ably accompanied by Kata Ewigleben as Annas. We also get good vocals from Eli Robinson as Simon the Zealot and Austin Stodghill as the Apostle Peter. Jeremy Crouch is regal as Pilate, and Rick Barber absolutely fabulous as King Herod.

“Don’t get me wrong, now,” I won’t say this production is flawless, but taken as a whole, in the spirit of this time of year, it is an incredible experience and celebration of a foundational event of Christianity.

Performances run through May 4. Mud Creek Players is at 9740 E. 86th St. in northeast Indianapolis, near Geist. Call 317-290-5343 or visit mudcreekplayers.com.