Phoenix premiere: Search for understanding takes musical’s author ‘Home’

By John Lyle Belden

Nothing is what it appears in the Fun Home. Even the name disguises its purpose, being short for Funeral Home – but that doesn’t stop the kids who live there from writing it an upbeat commercial jingle. The house is immaculate, orderly and almost museum-like – an elaborate facade for the psychological chaos in its residents.

One of those kids, Alison Bechdel, grows up to be a popular queer cartoonist. As she reflects back on her unusual childhood and coming of age, she wants to write and draw it all as it really happened – not as she wants to remember it. That struggle plays out in the Tony-winning musical, “Fun Home” (based on her autobiographical graphic novel), making its Indiana premiere at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indy.

We meet today’s Alison (Cynthia Collins), young Alison (Amelia Wray) and, later, Alison in college (Ivy Moody).

The girl longs for attention from, and the teen connection to, her father, Bruce (Eric J. Olson), while helping mother, Helen (Emily Ristine), and brothers, John and Christian (Jacob McVay and Aiden Shurr), keep their home orderly. She finds herself having feelings she’s not sure others understand – she hates wearing dresses, she sees beauty in a muscular woman in short hair and a plaid shirt – unaware that in his own way, Dad understands.

How well he knew, and his true thoughts and feelings, Alison will never know.

In college, the young woman realizes what now seems obvious; she is a lesbian. She researches in books about sexuality, then learns hands-on from Joan (Teneh B.C. Karimu). After coming out to her parents, she gets their truth in return. And within weeks, her father is dead.

Our trio of Alisons excellently bring the story to life, especially charming Wray. Olson has a knack for making every role seem like it was written for him – this is no exception. Ristine perfectly portrays the longsuffering wife and mother, able to show so much in just an expression; her song, when Helen feels free to let her true feelings show, is the kind of moment that awards are given for.

Karimu presents the steadying influence of a good friend. And Brandon Alstott completes the cast as different characters, including Roy – a man who’s like an uncle to the kids, and much more to Bruce.

It’s easy to ride along on this emotional journey, because Alison isn’t the hero of her story (and neither can her father be, no matter how much she wishes it), she just wants to understand what makes her feel so different from the rest of the world. She’s still the girl who wants her Dad to lift her up, and through her search lifts him to examine the facets she can’t see clearly, no matter how hard she tries. She sees in her parents so many opportunities lost and abandoned, wondering what that bodes for her.

For all who feel different – maybe “queer” in either the traditional or LGBTQ sense – this show (presented in a single movie-length act) is highly recommended. Is it “fun”? Hard to say, but it can certainly feel like home.

This musical opens the final season at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) before the Phoenix moves to its new downtown location. It runs Thursdays through Sundays through Oct. 22. Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.PhoenixTheatre.org.

Phoenix’s ‘Sex’ about changing more than one’s clothes

By John Lyle Belden

A play with a title like “Sex With Strangers” can’t help but set up questions and expectations about what you are about to see. Then, when you peek at the program, and it stars just two people?

Prepare to be pleasantly surprised.

Angela Plank is Olivia, a struggling writer who has resigned herself to a career teaching. But a friend lets her use a remote cabin where she can work on her new novel in peace. Enter Brandon Alstott as Ethan, another writer in search of direction, who also knows the owner of the cabin.

Published as “Ethan Strange,” the young man got his start with a blog called “Sex With Strangers,” which cataloged his escapades – some true, some exaggerated – in a year of freely indulging his lusts. This led to two racy books and a movie deal, but he feels the need to do something more literary.

The theme of this 2014 drama by Laura Eason is change: Can a casual misogynist change his stripes? And is it possible to get a second chance at your dream career? Ethan can’t help but employ his well-practiced seduction on Olivia, who can’t help but respond. He makes her face her fears, and in turn she finds things turning out better for her than she dreamed. But does she, in turn, owe him for this – and what is the price?

The surprising depths of this two-act duet inspired some intense discussion as Wendy and I talked afterward about how we would approach this review. We saw thematic elements of “The Shape of Things” and even “Pygmalion,” but this does tell its own story, while making the publishing business somewhat interesting (like when it’s a subplot in a Stephen King novel).

Plank and Alstott have great chemistry, and connect well with us, so that we feel for Olivia’s struggles and are even a little disappointed in Ethan in those moments he comes off a bit creepy.

While the characters do get intimate, that happens offstage – it’s more of a “PG-13”or light “R” story about sex, and so much more. Playing through April 9 at the Phoenix Theatre, 749 N. Park Ave. in downtown Indy. Call 317-635-2381 or visit phoenixtheatre.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.

Thanks a ‘Million’

NOTE: As the Word/Eagle is in flux with the renaming and corresponding change in official website, John is still putting his reviews here.

By John Lyle Belden

On a December day in 1956, something extraordinary happened.

And the fact that it did happen, and occur largely spontaneously, is practically unbelievable – but then, there’s the sound recordings, and that famous photo. On that day, in the little studio of Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn., four legends – Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis – held an impromptu gospel/country/rockabilly jam session that a local newspaper would declare the “Million Dollar Quartet.”

The Broadway musical of that same title, commemorating that day, is presented locally by Actors Theatre of Indiana at The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel through Oct. 2.

In the play’s dramatization, Perkins (Jeremy Sevelovitz) and his brothers are in a recording session, trying to come up with his next hit, when Sun’s owner and producer Sam Phillips (Don Farrell) surprises him with the label’s latest signee – a hyper Louisiana boy, Lewis (Taylor Gray), who is days away from his own first hit. Phillips wants to add boogie-woogie piano to enrich Perkins’ rockabilly sound – which the guitar legend resists, at first.

Meanwhile, Cash (Brandon Alstott) is expected to stop by; Phillips has a surprise contract extension for him, but Cash has a surprise of his own. Then, Presley (Adam Tran), who started with Sun but sings for RCA, stops by with his latest girlfriend (Betsy Norton), and can’t resist picking up a guitar and joining in. All four singers, and even the young woman, sing solos and harmonies of familiar songs from the era, including the stars’ biggest hits.

Of course, there’s also a little drama as Cash and Phillips need to resolve conflicting plans, Jerry Lee gets a little too brash, and Phillips seriously considers the future of his struggling operation. We also get flashbacks to show what the Sun boss first saw in each of these eventual legends. But overall, the music is what drives the show.

And what a wonderful show it is. Gray was understudy for Lewis on the musical’s national tour, but is overjoyed to be the number one Killer for ATI, as are we who see him expertly capture the energy and raw talent of Jerry Lee. Sevelovitz, also no stranger to his role, plays the heck out of his guitar as Perkins, recreating the look, sound and attitude of the original man in Blue Suede Shoes. The local actors: Alstott seems right at home as the Man in Black, Tran radiates The King’s charisma, and Norton is as charming as ever as beautiful Dyanne (based on Elvis’s actual companion; her name was changed to avoid confusion with another personality of the era). ATI co-founder Farrell ties it all together as the man in charge. The talents of Kroy Presley as Brother Jay on stand-up bass and Nathan Shew as Fluke on drums ably round out the cast. Direction is by the nationally-renowned stage and TV director DJ Salisbury.

The action takes place in one movie-length act, ends with a rousing encore for the curtain call, and is satisfying throughout. The content is family-friendly (aside from period-appropriate stage cigarettes) and even includes a couple of sacred songs.

Performances are Sept. 23-25 and Sept. 30-Oct. 2; call 317-843-3800 or visit atistage.org.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor at The Eagle (formerly The Word), the central-Indiana based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Review: Civil War comedy works

By John Lyle Belden

NOTE: Review also appears online with The Word (www.theygayword.com).

The most entertaining lesson this Black History Month only has one February weekend of performances, the comic drama “Butler” at Indy’s Phoenix Theatre through Sunday. It is also an important insight into the struggle to bring about the end of slavery, or to at least give African Americans some long-denied dignity.

Lawyer turned Union Army General Benjamin Franklin Butler (played by Stephen Hunt, who perfectly resembles historical photos of Butler), takes command of a fortress that by a fluke of geography is the only piece of Virginia still belonging to the North during the Civil War. As he’s settling in, he receives word of escaped slaves, led by Shepard Malloy (Ramon Hutchins), who insists on speaking to the General.

The opening scene, mainly a conversation between Butler and one of his junior officers (Brandon Alstott), helps set the tone for this play. We get a feel for Butler’s gruff personality and though his agitation over seemingly small details seems eccentric, we find ourselves “astonished” at how well it sets up the dry but sharp comedy of later scenes.

Hutchins is exceptional in a very complex role. His Malloy yearns for freedom, yet his intellect and impulsiveness make him his own worst enemy in a world where people like him aren’t allowed to get in the last word. Yet in one-on-one conversations with Butler, their verbal sparring challenges each other as well as the audience, even while extracting welcome yet un-guilty laughter.

Doug Powers appears as a Confederate Major sent to fetch the escaped slaves, ironically citing the laws of the Union his state was seceding from to compel Butler to return them to his custody. It is in this situation that the Union General reverts to lawyer mode and comes up with a loophole to keep Malloy and his companions in the fort. Note this is based on true events, including the legal means by which Butler manages to hold on to the “property” of a Southern slaveowner.

If an uplifting Civil War comedy can happen, anything is possible. See for yourself Feb. 4-7. Call 317-635-7529 or see phoenixtheatre.org.