Phoenix hosts stunning tribute to artist’s life, GHDT’s ‘La Casa Azul’

By John Lyle Belden

“La Casa Azul” translates to “The Blue House,” the place where Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s life both began and ended, the place she always called home, no matter where her celebrated and tragic life took her.

“La Casa Azul: The Musical” is a newly-revised production by Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre playing at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indianapolis. It combines dance and sung-through drama, much like a cross between a ballet and an opera with Latin-flavored music. The actors all embody various individuals and chorus parts, with the exceptions of Valerie Nuccio as Kahlo and JL Rey as her husband, muralist Diego Rivera – who vividly resemble their real-life counterparts – and Abigail Lessaris as La Muerte, the beautiful dancing embodiment of Death.

The whole these parts combine to is an exceptional theatrical experience: stunning, sad, humorous, thought-provoking and inspiring.

Nuccio holds our focus throughout, the hero of the story, winning our hearts despite no effort made to make us love her. Kahlo was brash and outspoken, an unapologetic Communist who hated America and its citizens’ condescending attitudes; still, above all she was a proud woman devoted to her homeland. But the stage also belongs to Lessaris, as Death is ever present. Never speaking a word, her movement and constant attendance speak volumes. At times, Kahlo can even sense her dancing near, occasionally even helping her to her feet to live another day – La Muerte is patient.

The ensemble includes Alyssa Lopez as Kahlo’s sister Christina; Johnathon Contreras as the boyfriend who was with her in a near-fatal accident; Bill Book as her father, who encouraged her to paint during her recovery; Onis Dean as various doctors who rarely give good news; and Dick Davis as Henry Ford (who Kahlo despised) and exiled Leon Trotsky (with whom she had an affair). Jessica Crum Hawkins, who played Kahlo in the 2015 premiere of “La Casa Azul,” portrays Trotsky’s wife.

Gregory Glade Hancock not only provided the choreography, but also the costume design, music and lyrics – with Kate Ayers. The songs flow as easily as the dancing, easing us through the plot. For clarity, a full synopsis is printed in the program. Stage direction is by Mexican artist Georgina Escobar.

The costumes are a vibrant tribute to Mexico and its culture, as well as the dapper decadence of New York in one scene. The set is adorned with a fractured portrait of Kahlo, a reminder of her many facets which only come together when we see her life completed.

For anyone with an interest in Frida Kahlo and her art, seeing this is almost a duty. Performances run through July 28 on the Russell main stage of the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St. See LaCasaAzulTheMusical.com for information and tickets.

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.

Bobdirex’s ‘Notre Dame’ rings true

By John Lyle Belden

Upon hearing that Bob Harbin and his Bobdirex productions are staging “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” a musical featuring the Alan Menken/Stephen Schwartz songs of the 1996 Disney animated film, you might wonder (as I did): Bob likes to go big and take chances, but didn’t the movie “Disney-fy” the Victor Hugo novel, making it too saccharine with an entirely-too-happy ending?

Take heart, purists. While there are a number of similarities to the animated version (and nearly all performed versions through the years have taken some liberties with Hugo’s text), this musical – originally produced in Germany by Disney Theatricals in 1999 – embraces the darker aspects of the story and doesn’t shy from its tragic elements.

This show effectively uses multiple members of the cast as narrators through the story, but most of that job falls to Clopin (Keith Potts), king of the Gypsies. We begin with how Frollo (Bill Book), the Archdeacon of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, came to adopt and raise Quasimodo (Jacob Butler), a severely deformed young man who lives sheltered among the church bells, tasked with ringing them. With no living human friends, he talks to the bells, the Saints’ statues and his fellow grotesques, the Gargoyles (Curtis Peters, Matt Rohrer and April Armstrong-Thomas).

The annual Festival of Fools draws Quasimodo out into the church courtyard, where, after meeting beautiful dancer Esmeralda (Shelbi Berry), he is crowned by Clopin as “King of the Fools.” But this king is mocked rather than honored, and Quasimodo returns to his bell tower.

The gypsy girl’s beauty draws the notice of not only the Hunchback, but also the Captain of the Guard Phoebus (Logan Moore) and Frollo. The Archdeacon struggles to convert his carnal longings into a desire to save her soul, and decides that if he can’t make her pure in his hands, he’ll have it done by fire.

The result is a stirring story of struggle between the sacred and profane, and how the line blurs between them. An ever-present choir punctuates scenes with chants like Kyrie Eleison, completing the atmosphere of the well-built Gothic set. The show’s Disney influences give it energy and welcome touches of humor, but isn’t overdone.

Harbin has not let us down, as we get excellent performances from all, especially Book and Potts, each charismatic in their own way. Berry is stunning. And Butler gives an award-worthy performance as our unlikely hero.

Once again, Bobdirex has delivered a must-see show, with performances Thursday through Sunday (June 29-July 2) and July 7-9 at the Marian University Theatre, 3200 Cold Spring Road, Indianapolis. Thursday, June 29, all military members get in free, with discounts for their companions. For more information, call 317-280-0805 or visit bobdirex.com.

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.

Review: A farcical mystery, or mystery farce?

By John Lyle Belden

Up at The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre presents “The Game’s Afoot,” a Sherlock Holmes-inspired comedy by Ken Ludwig, through Nov. 7.

Actor William Gillette (Josh Ramsey) is so comfortable playing Holmes that when a hated theater critic (Christine Kruze) is stabbed in his home during a dinner party – an affair set up to find out who had shot and wounded him during his last performance – he puts on the deerstalker hat and seeks to unravel the mystery, much to the consternation of the police detective (Carrie Ann Schlatter). Theatre friends (and suspects) played by Bill Book, Jean Childers Arnold, Alex Ray and Emily Howell, with Wendy Brown as Gillette’s mother, all add to the chaos and physical comedy Ludwig farces are famous for.

The gorgeous set is complete with the necessary doors to slam, a stairwell for entrances and even a hidden room with its comical moments. And the manner(s) in which our victim is dispatched does point out the real-world fact that if you’re not practiced at it, killing someone can be a lot harder than you think.

The play’s run ends Saturday. Get info and tickets at 317-843-3800 or http://www.civictheatre.org.