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.

BCP: Life’s changes not always a laughing matter

By John Lyle Belden

The title “Making God Laugh,” for the comic drama now on stage at Buck Creek Players, refers to the old joke about giving the Almighty a giggle by telling Him your plans.

And this good Catholic family’s matriarch, Ruthie (Gloria Bray), definitely has plans. With postal-worker husband Bill (Tom Riddle) at her side, she wants to see: son Rick (Matt Spurlock) succeed at something, any scheme at all, other than high school football MVP; son Tom (Ben Jones) become a priest, maybe Monsignor (maybe the Vatican?); and daughter Maddie (Jenni White) to get being an actor out of her system so she can settle down with a nice young man.

The scenes are set at various holidays: Thanksgiving 1980, Christmas 1990, New Years Eve 2000, and an unusual and emotional “Easter” in 2010. We see the evolution of these characters, and what remains unchanging. From the life-changing choices made by Maddie and Tom, to Ruthie staying ever set in her ways and expectations, at the core of this family story is love. There is also the struggle for acceptance, both of others and of self, giving the plot surprising depth.

This cast wear their roles like the comfortable clothes one wears around kin. Bray is a rock; Jones gives one of his best performances; and White excels as a person that she admits felt a bit autobiographical. Cathy Cutshall directs.

For those of us who lived through the eras, the references to each decade bring a knowing smile. (There is also a mention of the game Catholic Jeopardy — which apparently does exist, as a box of it is under the coffee table.) At the end of each scene, there is a family photo, leading to a full album in the end.

You don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate this family’s struggles – we all know a Ruthie we’re related to. And God isn’t the only one laughing. Performances run through Sunday, April 7, at Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74). Call 317-862-2270 or visit www.buckcreekplayers.com.

P.S.: As an example of the fact that anything can happen in live theatre, during a scene change on opening night there was a spontaneous audience sing-along. The BCP crew were both surprised and amused.

BCP hosts the original version of ‘Dolly’

By John Lyle Belden

Buck Creek Players presents, “The Matchmaker,” the Thornton Wilder farce that inspired the hit musical, “Hello Dolly” – and it’s easy to see how, as there were several moments in this non-musical comedy that I found myself thinking, “a song would go nice here.”

Set in the 1880s, this satire of society and attitudes of the era has a Yonkers, N.Y., merchant, Horace Vandegelder (C. Leroy Delph), hiring matchmaker Dolly Levi (Gloria Bray) to find him a wife, while denying his daughter Ermengarde (Sami Burr) permission to marry her true love, artist Ambrose Kemper (Manny Casillas). Meanwhile, Horace’s top clerk, Cornelius Hackl (Ben Jones) and his bumbling assistant Barnaby (Evan Vernon), fed up with a lack of respect at their jobs, decide to spend a day in nearby New York City – where, of course, everyone else will end up. The adventure begins at the hat shop of Irene Malloy (Brigette McCleary-Short), who Horace had sought to woo, but Dolly has someone else in mind for the rich man’s bride.

Bray holds the center well as the title character, never holding back on the clever charm and wit. McCleary-Short is also impressive in a character who would feel right at home among the independent women of today’s New York. Otherwise, Wilder apparently had trouble writing for the women, as Ermengarde has few lines, and Irene’s shy assistant Minnie Fay (Katie Thompson) practically none – though she makes up for it with effective physical comedy.

Jones truly shines, making his supporting role feel like a lead, his excellent comic timing and delivery aided by the slapstick skills of Vernon, as they play well off of McCleary-Short and Thompson’s characters.

I must also commend stage first-timer Nickie Cornett for her charming moments as the Cook for Flora Van Huyson (Kassy Cayer, a study in melodrama), Ermengarde’s aunt, at whose home the farcical situations reach their climax.

The play includes the device of various characters, notably Dolly, speaking directly to the audience. It’s hard to say whether that, or a lot of the humor, has aged well. (There was, however, a bit of unexpected amusement by younger audience members, associating Ermengarde’s name with the “Ehrmagerd” internet meme.) The show also features clever stage design by Dan Denniston, with setpieces for a number of locales easily moved in and out of the scene.

One weekend remains of “The Matchmaker” at Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road Exit off I-74); call 317-862-2270 or visit www.BuckCreekPlayers.com.

Korean War comedy at BCP

By John Lyle Belden

Though we might be familiar with the 1970s film or long-running television series, the stage play of “M*A*S*H” – and particularly the Buck Creek Players production, on stage through April 9 – stands apart.

Written by Tim Kelly and based on the original Richard Hooker novel, this live version features the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in Korea during the 1950-53 war, as well as some familiar characters, but don’t expect a reprise of the TV show.

Like the book and movie, the plot is mainly a series of scenes. The main story arcs concern the arrival and service of irreverent but excellent combat surgeons Captains Hawkeye Pierce (Ryan Powell) and Duke Forrest (Kurt F. Clemenz), as well as the fate of Korean youth Ho-Jon (Achiradeth “Boss” Teerasataporn). We also meet neurotic commander Col. Blake (Gregory Brinkers); incompetent stick-in-the-mud Maj. Burns (Ben Jones); Hawkeye and Duke’s fellow mischief-makers Captains Trapper John (Gergory Dunn), Ugly Black (Dave Hoffman) and suicidal dentist Walt Waldowski (George Chimples); new chief nurse Maj. “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Sue Kuehnhold) and the strong but easy-going nursing staff Lieutenants Fury (Abby White), Kimble (Michelle Papandria) and Phillips (Jennifer Berk); the cook always cooking up get-rich schemes, Sgt. Devine (Jamison Allen); and the supernaturally perceptive Cpl. Radar O’Reilly (Jim Banta).

Among the more fun scenes are those that involve getting Burns out of the unit for good; snapping Walt from a deep funk by staging his “death” and resurrection; and the arrival of three stranded female USO performers (Miranda Garrett, Rachel Riley and Kristen Baker).

Teerasataporn, a Thai exchange student, makes a great stage debut as Ho-Jon, the houseboy (and Hawkeye’s hijinks co-conspirator) in the officers’ tent known as “The Swamp.” After being drafted away by the South Korean Army, he is by dubious luck returned to the 4077th as a casualty. Then M.A.S.H. personnel, led by Hawkeye, raise money to help send Ho-Jon to the States to attend medical school.

Other performances are sharp as well; Powell relishes his role as mischief-maker.

Some aspects of the show are problematic: Given both the era portrayed and when the stories were written (and possibly few Asians available for audition) the native women are little more than giggling extras, uncomfortably close to stereotype. Also, it was an odd choice to have Jones also play neurosurgeon and football star “Spearchucker” Jones, typically cast (questionable name and all) with an African-American.

Nonetheless, this ambitious production nicely captures the spirit of the filmed versions, while giving us a fresh angle on the “Four Oh Double-Natural.” Find BCP at 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74); call 317-862-2270 or visit buckcreekplayers.com.

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