Civic: ‘Nothing’ actually a big deal

By John Lyle Belden

For the first time in its long history, the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre takes on Shakespeare with the comedy, “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Directed and adapted to one movie-length act by Emily Rogge Tzucker, the story — traditionally set in medieval Italy — takes place in 1945 as our soldiers come home from the War to an Italian villa in the Hollywood hills. As is usually the case, the character names and Shakespearean dialogue are largely untouched. 

At the fabulous estate of Leonato (Tom Beeler), Don Pedro (Joshua Ramsey) returns with his troops, including Claudio (Nicholas Gibbs), who has fallen for Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Carly Masterson); Benedick (John Kern), who enjoys verbally sparring with Leonato’s shrewish niece, Beatrice (Sara Castillo Dandurand); and Pedro’s surly brother, Don John (Darby Kear), who would rather stir up trouble than celebrate. Events include characters conniving to get Benedick and Beatrice to hook up, as well as the “fatal” wedding ceremony of Claudio and Hero. John’s wicked plot is uncovered by the goofy yet zealous constable Dogberry (Kelsey VanVoorst) and true to the Bard, we’ll get a very happy ending.

The cast also includes Jim Mellowitz as Antonio, Leonato’s brother; Sabrina Duprey and Leah Hodson as Hero’s best friends Margaret and Ursula; Max McCreary and Elisabeth Speckman as Borachio and Conrade, Don John’s devious but careless accomplices; Bill Buchanan and Matt Hartzburg as the Friar and the Sexton; Joe Steiner as Verges, Dogberry’s right-hand man; and Jonathan Doram as Balthazar, the soldier who performs Shakespeare’s song “Sigh No More” (music by Brent Marty), as well as one of Dogberry’s Watchmen, with Buchanan. To complete this list, Hartzburg, Julie Ammons and Stephanie Johnson play house servants.

The convoluted story is easy to follow and the actors do an excellent job of bringing it to life, complete with perfectly overdone comic moments. Master comic VanVoorst is in her element. Kern crisply delivers Benedick’s constant — and eventually contradictory — musings. The look provided by set and lighting designer Ryan Koharchik — with mood-setting skies and interesting circular motifs — and costume designer Adrienne Conces provides the perfect atmosphere for the mischief and merriment, while reflecting the height of the era’s style.

Don’t “let it be marked down that you are an ass” (as Dogberry would say) for missing the opportunity to enjoy Civic’s midwinter romp, through Feb. 22 at the Tarkington stage in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Call 317-843-3800, or visit civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Magical ‘Elf’ at Civic

By John Lyle Belden

A new Christmas classic was created in 2003 with the film “Elf,” starring Will Ferrell, which has since become an even bigger spectacle as a Broadway musical, now presented by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre.

The book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, with songs by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, allows Buddy the Elf to escape the shadow of Ferrell’s unique talent to make him his own wonderful character — portrayed happily here by Matt Bays. 

As in the original story, Buddy is a human who, as a baby, crawled into Santa’s sleigh, unseen until the end of the journey. Finding that the boy’s single mother had died, Santa Claus (Parrish Williams) let him be raised by the elves, They let Buddy think he was one of them, even when he grew much taller than his adopted family. 

The truth is inevitably revealed, and Buddy travels to his father — who doesn’t know he exists — in New York City. The dad, Walter (J. Stuart Mill), is a workaholic executive at a publisher of children’s books who is rough on coworkers like good-natured Deb (Mary Margaret Montgomery) and neglectful of wife Emily (Carrie Neal) and son Michael (Ben Boyce). Naturally, Walter doesn’t believe this strange man in elvish tights is his son, so has him sent away. Since Buddy claims to be from the North Pole, he is dropped off at the next-best thing — Macy’s. There he ends up among the store’s Santa’s helpers, where he falls in love with fellow “elf” Jovie (Emily Schaab). 

From there, the story is Buddy’s struggle for acceptance and belonging, along with a chance to save Christmas for his father’s family — and the whole world, when Santa is stranded in Central Park, his sleigh too low on the Christmas Spirit that fuels it. Other notable roles include Jonathan Studdard as the stressed-out Macy’s Manager, and Jeff Angel as Mr. Greenway, owner of the publishing company, who wants a new hit Christmas story from Walter — or else!

The feel of the show throughout is best described by one of its song titles: “Sparklejollytwinklejingley.” The mood is perpetually sweet, even when characters aren’t “Happy All The Time.” And even when they feel that “Nobody Cares,” there’s a fun dance break. 

Directed by Michael J. Lasley with perfect choreography by Anne Beck and musical direction by Brent Marty, this is a magical ensemble effort. And seeing it on a matinee with the audience mostly children, I noticed they were all entranced and swept up in the spirit of it all. 

Just as sweet and special as spaghetti with syrup, “Elf” is yet another holiday must-see in central Indiana, playing through Dec. 28 at the Tarkington theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, right next to the Christkindlmarkt. (Arrive early for hope of parking.) See www.civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org for info and tickets.

 

Civic: Good News(ies)

By John Lyle Belden

Though based on little-known history and a film that bombed, Disney’s “Newsies” has built a strong following. And now the Tony-winning musical is locally produced in central Indiana by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, running through May 11 at the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel.

The story is based on the New York Newsboys’ Strike of 1899, during which impoverished children revolted at price hikes on the papers they sold for publishing moguls Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst – and won. Disney dramatized it musically for cinemas in 1992, without success (despite starring a young Christian Bale), but the film found fans through its video release. Disney finally put it on the stage (where arguably it always belonged) in 2011 – on Broadway in 2012 – with a fresh book by the legendary Harvey Fierstein while keeping and expanding the music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman.

Although the plot does lean on a mix of fictional and real characters, the overall history rings true, even moreso in the Civic production with the addition of “newsgirls” (boys and girls both hawked papers at the time and participated in the strike).

Our eventual hero, Jack Kelly (Jake Letts) and unfortunately-nicknamed Crutchie (David Cunningham) are among the more respected of the Lower Manhattan Newsies. They are mostly orphans, except for newcomer Davey (Joseph Bermingham) and little sister Les (Emily Chrzanowski), forced to be breadwinners while their father is too injured to work.

Meanwhile, Pulitzer (Steve Cruze) reasons an easy way to make up for flat and declining paper sales is to raise the price of the papers. After all, what can a bunch of poor kids do about it? Faced with possible starvation if they can’t make up their losses, the Newsies give their answer – Strike!

The children have allies: a woman reporter, Katherine (Ani Arzumanian), who wants to stop writing fluff and gets the Newsies on the front page; and Vaudeville diva Medda Larkin (Tiffany Gilliam), who hires Jack (a talented artist, by the way) to paint backdrops and hosts a Newsies rally at her theater. Pulitzer responds, flexing his considerable power, but our underdogs find a way to beat the publishers at their own game.

Other notable roles include Darrin Gowan as Wiesel, who sells the Newsies the papers; Parrish Williams as evil Warden Snyder of The Refuge, an orphanage run like a prison; and Tom Beeler as New York Gov. Theodore Roosevelt (yes, the eventual President).

The show is largely a by-the-numbers musical — complete with reluctant hero, lead characters falling in love, potential betrayal, and “just when you think all is lost…” – but those numbers, the song-and-dance numbers, are something special. Our large youthful ensemble put on several spectacular dancing scenes – directed by Suzanne Fleenor, with musical direction by Brent Marty and choreography by Anne Beck – with memorable tunes including “The World Will Know” and “King of New York.”

For a good-time musical with historical heft, the Civic’s “Newsies” is worth your dime. Call 317-483-3800 or visit civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Civic: Sail on with Porter’s songs

By John Lyle Belden

“The world has gone mad today
And good’s bad today,
And black’s white today,
And day’s night today…”

Makes you wonder what year Cole Porter was writing about, doesn’t it?

But that’s what makes it a great idea to escape from today’s madness on a timeless voyage with “Anything Goes,” the classic musical featuring Porter’s songs, presented by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, in partnership with The Great American Songbook Foundation.

The wacky romantic comedy plot is mainly a means to launch several Porter favorites, including “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “It’s De-Lovely,” “Friendship,” “Blow Gabriel Blow,” and, of course, the title song.

As for the story: All aboard the ocean liner S.S. American, where lovesick Billy Crocker (Juddson Updike) has stowed away, hoping to persuade his socialite girlfriend Hope Harcourt (Kari Baker) not to wed Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Matt Bays) in a marriage arranged by her mother (Teresa F. Jordan). Billy has to avoid contact with the ship’s crew, as well as his boss, Elisha Whitney (W. Michael Davidson), who had ordered him to stay in New York. Meanwhile, it’s rumored that America’s Most Wanted criminal is on board – but we know for sure that the Thirteenth Most Wanted, Moonface Martin (Parrish Williams) is on the liner, accompanied by his best moll, Erma (Nathalie Cruz). And at the center of it all is a friend to all, headlining showgirl Reno Sweeney (Susie Harloff), with her band of Angels and a song for every occasion.

Despite some difficulty, and wacky situations, love will triumph in the end as it always does. What’s important is how entertaining this shipload of actors and dancers are on the way. With the help of Michael J. Lasley’s direction, Brent Marty’s musical touch and splendid choreography by Anne Beck, this is a pleasing production.

As for our feature performers, Williams is in top comic form, and Harloff has sass and attitude to match her great voice. Baker’s singing is breathtakingly good, Updike keeps up his everyman charm perfectly, and Cruz handily steals the scenes (along with several sailors’ uniforms). I wasn’t sure at first about Bays’ Lord Oakleigh, but he is something special when he cuts loose in the second act.

We’re having such a good time, we can forgive the almost cringe-worthy Asian stereotypes that end up necessary to the plot. Isaac Becker and especially Karen Woods Hurt make the most of their roles as naughty Chinese Christian converts, adding to the humor rather than being an outdated distraction.

“Anything Goes” runs through Oct. 27 at The Tarkington theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Call 317-843-3800, or visit civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Phoenix shines with ‘Bright Star’

By John Lyle Belden

A show like the musical “Bright Star” brings with it a lot of expectations.

It is co-written by the legendary Steve Martin (with singer-songwriter Edie Brickell), a connoisseur of the absurd, even as a playwright (see “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” “The Underpants”). But if one recalls the spirit of his film “Pennies From Heaven,” Martin also loves the innocence of a feel-good musical. And “Bright Star” delivers with its upbeat attitude (the title is also the third musical number) and just an edge of drama – sort of an “Oklahoma” set in the Carolinas. Wendy compares the feel to “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou.”

We are alerted to the fact that this is based – loosely – on a true story. But, I would advise one not to read the story of the Iron Mountain Baby, printed in the program, until after you see the show, as it makes the plot more predictable than it already is. Besides, the true events happened in earlier decades, and in Missouri. “Bright Star” is a fictional tale (with the luxury of replying to “oh, that couldn’t have happened” with “it actually did, once”) taking place in Hayes Creek, Asheville, Zebulon and Raleigh, N.C.

In addition, there’s the burden of living up to being a Broadway hit. Considering it’s the Phoenix Theatre launching the local premiere, and the standing ovation by the packed audience at Thursday’s preview, this expectation has been well met.

At the end of World War II, Billy Cane (Ian Laudano) comes home from the Army to find his Daddy (Joey Collins) and childhood best friend Margo (Betsy Norton) waiting for him, but his mother passed on. Billy aspires to be a writer, and gives his essays to Margo, who runs the local bookstore, to edit for submission to magazines. He decides to take his best works and deliver them by hand to the Asheville Southern Journal – a fool’s errand, as copy editor Daryl (John Vessels) is a strict gatekeeper. But senior editor Alice Murphy (Molly Garner) sees something in this young man, and agrees to read his work.

We then get a look at Murphy’s past, and from there the story flows back and forth between the 1920s and ’40s, but Martin and Brickell’s plot – and director Suzanne Fleenor – don’t let things get confusing. Speaking of flow, the choreography, nicely done by Carol Worcel, seems to extend even to inanimate objects as furniture and setpieces on subtle casters seem to dance in and out of scenes as needed.

As a teen, Alice falls in love with Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Patrick Clements), son of Zebulon’s no-nonsense Mayor (Charles Goad). She is seen as the “black sheep” of her family, headed by her Bible-toting father (Paul Tavianini) and mother (Maryjayne Waddell), so it isn’t surprising when she gets in trouble. Jimmy Ray wants to do right by her, but the Mayor wants no scandal and takes matters literally into his own hands.

In Billy’s era, he has been accepted as a writer for the Journal, but struggles to find his voice – while also dealing with advances by Daryl’s assistant, Lucy (Ashley Dillard). Meanwhile, back in Hayes Creek, Margo wonders if a new dress will be enough to wake Billy up to her growing feelings for him.

All the plotlines come together in ways you see coming but are still satisfying. This is aided by some first-rate performances – Laudano as the happy optimist, Garner giving Alice deep wells of strength, Clements with his powerful voice and effortless manner, Collins radiating wisdom through his aw-shucks hillbilly facade, Norton as charming as ever as Margo, the antics of Dillard and Vessels that lend comedy relief without getting too silly, Tavianini’s firm hand reaching toward the light, and Goad’s grasping hand committing to the role of villain. Ensemble members also get their moments, including Kenny Shepard as the Mayor’s assistant, and Conner Chamberlin as Max – the lonely guy who has no shot with Margo, but can’t help trying.

An excellent band of strings and bluegrass instruments, led by Brent Marty at the piano, occupies the back of the stage like a natural part of the environment.

I’ve heard from the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St., that the show’s run – through Oct. 7 – is selling out fast. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

Permit yourself to enjoy ‘Forbidden Broadway’

By John Lyle Belden

That beloved but misnamed (not actually on a “Square”) spot on Mass Ave. has returned to life with a wonderful send-up of the world of Broadway musicals.

Actors Theatre of Indiana presents “Forbidden Broadway’s Greatest Hits” all this month at the District Theatre (former home of Theatre on the Square), its first production under new name and management. ATI regulars Cynthia Collins, Don Farrell, Judy Fitzgerald and Logan Moore, with Brent Marty at the piano, give us the parodies made famous in the off-Broadway show that has been savaging its on-stage neighbors since 1982 – no one is safe, from Bob Fosse to “Les Mis” to Spongebob.

It’s impressive what gets made fun of – lay-offs of the cast of “Beauty and the Beast,” the rotating stage of “Les Miserables,” those massive headpieces in “Lion King.” Wendy loves that one of her pet peeves, actors reliant on visible microphones, gets skewered by a big-singing stage legend.

Speaking of legendary actors, they get parodied as well, including some girl named Carol and this guy named Mandy.

The result is so very funny. The more you know about the source material, the more hilarious it all is, but this show had everyone laughing.

And these five people playing it all are practically legend-level themselves – they should beware, lest someone down the street at IndyFringe makes fun of them!

Performances through July 29 at the District, 627 Massachusetts Ave., downtown Indianapolis. (ATI then returns to its home in Carmel to start its 2018-19 season, which concludes with more Forbidden Broadway next summer.) For info and tickets, see atistage.org.

Civic kids are ‘Peach’y

By John Lyle Belden

The weird world of Roald Dahl’s “James and the Giant Peach” comes to life at the Tarkington theater for a Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre Jr. Civic production – by kids, for kids – through Wednesday.

In this musical version of the darkly whimsical children’s novel (by Benji Pasek, Justin Paul and Timothy Allen McDonald, authorized by Dahl’s widow), young James, orphaned in a freak incident, finds himself “property” of a pair of unscrupulous aunts. But a mysterious wizard, Ladahlord, appears, offering him relief in a magic potion that James accidentally spills near a doomed peach tree. The next day, an enormous peach grows on the tree, and James comes to find it grew and transformed the insect-like creatures inside. Just as the boy is getting to know these new friends, the peach’s huge stem snaps, and things really get rolling…

As a stage musical, this isn’t the greatest thing you’ll see, but it is a fun and entertaining introduction to the magic of the stage both for the young cast and the children who come to see (and grown-ups can appreciate it, too). The cast acquit themselves very well – including Ben Boyce as James, Maddux Morrison as Grasshopper, Colin McCabe as Centipede, Brayden Porterfield as Earthworm, Ava Roan as Spider and May Kate Tanselle as Ladybug. Jilayne Kistner as Ladahlord has a stage presence and vocal talent that had me wondering if she is truly as young as she looks – watch for her in the future.

Director Brent E. Marty and fellow (alleged) adult Holly Stults gleefully play awful Aunts Spiker and Sponge, frequently threatening to steal the show from their young costars.

The remaining performances are matinees, 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at the Tarkington in the Centre for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. For a nice diversion for kids home from school, get info and tickets at civictheatre.org or thecentrepresents.org.