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.

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IndyFringe: I’d Like To See More Of You

By John Lyle Belden

Local theatre producer-director Bob Harbin (Bobdirex productions) presents a mature-content burlesque show in an old-fashioned Vaudeville style. Harbin himself doesn’t bare all, though co-conspirator and local comedy goddess Claire Wilcher comes close, and some other heavenly bodies present themselves for a tease and/or a laugh.

The well-rounded nature of this show, with songs and bawdy humor added to the flashes of skin, make it exceptionally entertaining.

We also learn that by state law, while pasties and discretion are required of performing women, for men, the “full Monty” is legal. Remember the Youtube video with a couple of men dancing with nothing on their bare skin but a couple of towels? That routine is reproduced live. One false move, and we get more of a show than anyone counted on!

You should see more of this. Performances are Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 27-28, at Theatre on the Square. Info and tickets at indyfringefestival.com.

Review: Locally-sourced ‘Toyland’

By John Lyle Belden

The Footlite Musicals production of “Babes in Toyland” is both old and fresh, as the classic songs by Victor Herbert a century ago are set in a new book by the show’s director Bob Harbin (of Bibdirex fame) and comic megatalent Claire Wilcher (who, unfortunately, isn’t in the show). Harbin notes in the program that the original script is public domain, allowing him to put his and Claire’s own spin on the play.

The first act is practically a play in itself, set mostly in Mother Gooseland. Jack and Jill (Thomas Whitcomb and Breanna Jaffe) have taken a tumble, and Bo Peep (Samantha Shelton) has lost her sheep, but the biggest drama is that Mary Contrary (Claire Cassidy) wants to marry Tom Piper (Jonathan Krouse), but wicked landlord Barnaby (Jeff Fuller) demands to wed her instead. Neither Mary’s mother (Susan Smith) nor Mother Goose herself (Miki Mathioudakis) like the deal, but what hope is there for a happy ending – especially when Tom disappears? Fortunately some Gypsies (“We are Gypsies!” is a running gag) come in to help save the day.

Barnaby suffers a setback, but is not finished. The plot takes our characters in the second act to Toyland, home of a toymaker (Dan Flahive) who has given up on his craft. Time to work up another dramatic showdown towards a happy ending.

This show is very much geared towards the children and kids-at-heart, tykes who don’t mind if the beak of Mother Goose’s Gander (voiced by Curtis Peters) gets a little out of synch or if some of the joke lines fall flat. Another giggle-worthy moment or song-and-dance spectacle from this large all-ages cast is coming right up. Kudos to Fuller for playing his “boo-hiss” villain for all it’s worth. And best scene-stealer goes to Keilyn Bryant as Little BB (as in “Boy Blue”). Harbin does a great job wrangling all of the various elements that go into this show, providing an experience that feels like a holiday tradition, yet is a good alternative to the other traditional holiday shows around town you saw last year (and the year before, and the year before…).

“Toyland,” at the Hedback Theater, 1847 N. Alabama St. in downtown Indy, closes on Dec. 13, so get your reservation now at 317-923-6630 or www.footlite.org.

Review: Bobdirex’s “Jesus Christ Superstar”

From left, Patrick Clements, Joe Doyel and Julia Perillo as Jesus, Judas and Mary Magdalene in Bobdirex's production of
From left, Patrick Clements, Joe Doyel and Julia Perillo as Jesus, Judas and Mary Magdalene in Bobdirex’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” — Photo by Zach Rosing

By John Lyle Belden

Producer and director Bob Harbin, a/k/a Bobdirex, is notable for bringing shows that are new and/or rarely-seen in Indy, and always thought-provoking. So, as he now presents the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice standard “Jesus Christ Superstar” – which has featured rocker Sebastian Bach, cinema-version star Ted Neeley and others over the last decade or two – I had to ask, as I prepared what I would write here: What new thing(s) does Bob feel he is showing us with his “Superstar”?

So I asked him directly, and he generously responded:

“I’ve seen a couple of those local productions, and always felt like little attention had been paid to casting people who could really sing the leads – I felt like I was being yelled at when I think the folks were simply trying to hit the notes. I’ve wanted to investigate this show, but promised myself I’d never do it without the voices.
“I also wanted to do something that didn’t feel like it had to move to another time zone to make it relevant, and cast it with the best folk with a blind eye to gender, color, size, etc., which is something that’s important to me every time.
“I really believe in the abilities of our local talent – we just have to pay attention to where we put them, and sometimes wait until the right ones are available. I love that the performance you’ve just seen and that you’ve just enjoyed was done by someone who could be your next-door neighbor.”

Well, he nailed it on the voices. In “Superstar,” playing Thursday through Sunday and June 19-21 at the former Civic Theatre stage at Marian University, Joe Doyel sings with all the necessary power needed for the lead role, Judas Iscariot.

(For those unfamiliar with the plot of Webber and Rice’s musical Passion Play, much of the story is told from the point of view of Judas. His frustration at, and arguably misunderstanding of, Jesus’ actions at the end of his ministry lends a thought-provoking perspective without compromising the sacred aspects of the Gospels. We also see Jesus’ frustration at followers who don’t seem to grasp his purpose, Mary Magdalene’s responses to her master’s fading morale, and the Jewish leaders – driven by politics as much as faith – conspiring against what they see as a “dangerous” man.)

For the other male lead, Patrick Clements embodies the full range of feelings – gentle, irritated, consoling, angry, despairing and humbled – necessary to portray Jesus. He never overdoes it, which would bring too much attention to the actor rather than the Christ he represents, but you still sense the authority he brought to his red-letter biblical utterances.

But this play’s biggest revelation is 17-year-old Julia Perillo as Mary. Her sweet, strong voice is tested but doesn’t break, providing the necessary feminine counterpoint to Judas’ proud bluster. When she sings of her beloved Christ, “he scares me so,” we shudder with her.

In another vocal coup, Harbin has brought Michael Lasley – usually encountered as the “voice of God” who tells us to silence our cell phones at the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre – onto the stage as Caiaphas to rumble with astounding clarity all of those low notes.

Ty Stover is excellently cast as Pontius Pilate. We’re used to seeing him in lighter roles, but it’s easy to see how he can still do such an iconic dramatic role in his sleep (which he doesn’t – he was totally awake, I’m sure).

The role of King Herod, the closest Webber and Rice come to comedy relief, is played flamboyantly by Danny Kingston. Though the performance verges on “Queen Herod,” he still makes it work.

Overall, Harbin’s direction brings us the familiar story and songs in a highly competent manner that holds our attention, aided by Kenny Shepard’s choreography and a simple set with laddered structures that take advantage of the roomy stage. He also makes the decision to not soften the ending: What happens beyond the cross is left to the viewers and their faith.

Whether you’ve never seen this classic musical or sat through it a hundred times, this production is worth attending. Find the stage at 3200 Cold Spring Road, Indianapolis. Get tickets at 317-280-025 or bobdirex.com.