‘Cabaret Poe’ right at home on yet another stage

By John Lyle Belden

For those who know of “Cabaret Poe,” the musical exploration of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and poems by Ben Asaykwee and presented by his Q Artistry productions, know that it has returned for its 10th year with its premiere with the Phoenix Theatre on its black-box Basile stage — complete with a couple of tweaks to adapt to its space and keep it fresh.

For those who have not yet seen it, this is a perfect opportunity to experience what is becoming a local fall tradition. It started a decade ago in haunted Irvington, and has since moved to Mass. Ave. and even Circle Centre Mall. Now, in partnership with the Phoenix, it and other Q Artistry works have a new home.

Asaykwee is Zolius, the gaunt acerbic leader of his little band, including fair ladies Morella and Berenice, and a mysterious Shadow that haunts the proceedings. He also has a small four-piece orchestra to provide music and much of the atmosphere. Our women are dual-cast; depending on the performance, you may see original performers Renae Stone as Morella and Julie Lyn Barber as Berenice, or Georgeanna Smith Wade and Jaddy Ciucci respectively.

They prefer you experience the suspense of not knowing what comes next, so there is no set published program, and I won’t spoil that here. Just know that many favorites will be recited and acted out, including “The Tell-tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado” and, of course, “The Raven.”

Rebekah Taylor slinks her way around the stage as the silent Shadow, and even gets to interpret one piece in a featured dance.

There are a few moments of audience interaction, so it truly is a little different at each performance. Changes to the set include lights embedded in the crypt-stage, used to good effect. Asaykwee’s style and his contributions to Poe’s words add clever dark humor, making for a thoroughly entertaining evening. There are no major scares, just a spooky atmosphere, and TV-PG language so this show is good for tweens and older.

Tickets have been selling briskly, so act fast. The show runs through Nov. 4 at the Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois St. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

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‘Brooklyn’ comes to Footlite

By John Lyle Belden

As it is often said, context is everything.

“Brooklyn: The Musical” has a backstory that nearly overshadows the show itself. Its creators, Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson, once collaborated decades ago before going seperate ways. More recently, McPherson, who had a comfortable life in New England, came across Schoenfeld, then a homeless street musician in Brooklyn. She took him in, and inspired by his tough life, they wrote what would become this musical.

After opening in Colorado, “Brooklyn” had a nearly full year on Broadway – October 2004 to June 2005. New York critics were not kind, but Kathleen Clarke Horrigan of Indy’s Footlite Musicals saw it during its final month and fell in love. After years of hunting for a way to bring the musical to Indiana, she finally has “Brooklyn” occupying the Footlite stage.

This is Footlite’s traditional January “cabaret” style show, with seating right on the stage, actors and audience sharing a common space. When we arrive to take our seats, we are transported to a grubby street corner by the Brooklyn Bridge, complete with trash, graffiti and discarded humanity. One man, the Street Singer (Stevie Jones) starts to perform with a generous voice and open guitar case. He is joined by four others, hardy “City Weeds” that spring up to help present his “Sidewalk Fairy Tale.”

For the most part, this show is the play-within-the-play about a Parisian girl, “Brooklyn,” named for the home of the American father she never knew. After losing her mother (played by Page Brown), Brooklyn (Shelbi Berry) eventually makes her way to New York as a famous singer, with one unfinished song that only her real dad would know. Local diva Paradice (Kendra Randle) is not amused and wants this French upstart off her turf. Brooklyn accepts Paradice’s challenge for a winner-take-all sing-off in hopes that this will aid her quest. But when she finds her father (Donny Torres) and learns his truth, will a happy ending to this tale be possible?

I’m leaving out a lot of details, of course, so you can discover them yourself. Dwelling on them would ruin the overall fantasia effect of the story, anyway. In the end, we truly learn who this story is about and for, which then sets the “fairy tale” as a whole in a clearer light.

The issue of homelessness permeates this story and production, but – as is true in everyday conversations – it is not directly addressed. This show won’t preach to you, but does present these people’s humanity, the “Heart Behind These Hands,” and clues to what can bring a person down to life under a bridge. This production is also helping raise awareness and funds for the local Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention (www.chipindy.org).

Jones is a wonderful narrator with sweet voice and charisma to spare. Beautiful Berry and sassy Randle make an exellent sweet-sour yin-yang. Brown is angelic (literally) and Torres brings all the layers of his complex character. In other words, these “weeds” are a pitch-perfect bouquet of talent.

Also impressive is the look and atmosphere of the stage set by Stephen Matters, like a gritty set for “Rent” gone to seed, complete with lights and sounds (but thankfully no smells) to make you feel almost a bit unsafe. Costumes (by Curt Pickard) and props are marvels of recycling and improvisation with discarded everyday objects, oddly adding to the whimsy of some scenes.

Combine these elements with backing street people (Rayanna Bibbs, Tristan Bustos, Amy Douglas and Michael Davis) and an on-stage band led by Linda Parr, and you have one of those musicals that is as much an experience as a show. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself humming an “Unfinished Lullaby” or have the words “With our tears, we water roses” tattooed to your memory.

This rare gem of an almost-forgotten musical has performances today through Sunday and Jan. 18-21 at 1847 N. Alabama. Call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.

Incredible ‘Cabaret’

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

The Actors Theatre of Indiana production of Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret” is one of those “even if you’ve seen it before” shows that you absolutely should see.

And if you are only familiar with the Joel Gray/Liza Minnelli movie version of the musical, you haven’t seen it like this – as ATI and director Billy Kimmel opt for the “revival” version of the production. This perfectly suits the brilliant Ben Asaykwee as the randy Emcee (in the Tony-winning style of Alan Cumming).

Asaykwee struts and coos his way through the story of American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Eric J. Olson) and wayward English singer Sally Bowles (ATI co-founder Cynthia Collins) in Berlin just as the Nazis are seizing power. Collins is appropriately brash and charismatic and in great voice. Olson tackles an everyman role (though gay, or at least bisexual) with the perfect touch, our proxy to events that are at first unbelievable in a fun and entertaining sense, then chilled with approaching calamity.

Patrick Vaughn is smooth as the deceptively charming Ernst Ludwig, Debra Babich is strong yet sweet as landlady Fraulein Schneider, and Darrin Murrell as Jewish shopkeeper Herr Schultz makes you ache to know that such a wonderful man is unwilling to see the growing danger around him. Also notable are Judy Fitzgerald as working-girl Fraulein Kost, Nicholas Roman and Kenny Shepard as sensuous bookends Bobby and Victor (and other roles as needed), the BEAUTIFUL Kit Kat girls Nicole Bridgens, Jenee Michelle, Ashley Saunders and Carol Worcel (who also choreographed) and the BEAUTIFUL orchestra.

As history lesson, allegory, love story and brilliant entertainment, this show works on all levels. See it through Nov. 20 at the Studio Theatre (next to the Tarkington) in The Center for the Performing Arts, 4 Center Green, Carmel. Call 317-843-3800 or see www.atistage.org. Note there are a few table seats right next to the stage; inquire with the box office as to availability.

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

IndyFringe: Class, Grass and Ass

By Wendy Carson

It is clear from the onset that Debra Mullins aspires to be Bette Midler. This crazy tribute to the style and sassiness of “The Divine Miss M” is her attempt to do so. From her back-up group, The Debutants (think Indy’s version of Midler’s “Harlettes”) to her choice of songs, she does her best to invoke the diva.

While some of her attempts do fall a bit flat, the show is still entertaining. The comedy bits are great, the costuming and choreography work well, but she seems to miss some steps here and there.

For instance, the Who song, “Squeezebox” was written as “Momma’s got a Squeezebox” to help hammer home the double entendre. Her change of the lyrics to “Daddy’s got a Squeezebox” removes the main thing that makes this number so naughty.

Still, the show is a very good cabaret review that showcases several talents from around town that are rarely seen on these stages. So, get the girls together, grab a glass of wine, sit back and have a good time.

Performances at the Theatre on the Square main stage Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 26-28. Get info and tickets at indyfringefestival.com.

IndyFringe: Little Butchie Sings

By Wendy Carson

The show begins with a stunning spoken-word poem about the prejudices faced throughout life; race, religion, sexuality, etc. It then launches into an autobiographical Cabaret retrospective of James Solomon Benn, aka “Little Butchie”.

We see his early beginnings as a precocious, bratty singer in his dad’s church. His family suspects his effete tendencies even at a young age, yet still pressure him to worship a beautiful, blond, European Jesus with buns of steel.

The songs he chooses for his story are mostly familiar pop songs and show tunes but presented in delightfully original interpretations. For example, the aforementioned Jesus is accepted as his lord to “I Will Follow Him,” and the number “Happy Talk,” from South Pacific, is sung as an Etta James scat song.

For a delightful evening of laughs, love, self-acceptance, song, and general sassiness, look no further than spending it with the Divalicious Little Butchie.

Performances at the Indyfringe Basile Theatre, Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 27-28. Info and tickets at indyfringefestival.com.

 

Review: An entertaining and enlightening Sondheim salute

By John Lyle Belden

Did you know that it took three tries before “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” had an opening song that worked?

You get lots of behind-the-scenes glimpses like this in “Sondheim on Sondheim,” Thursday through Sunday at Footlite Musicals. This hybrid of documentary and revue has Stephen Sondheim himself projected on a big screen, talking about his life and career, while live performers – Lauren Bowers, Graham Brinklow, Onis Dean, Laura Duvall-Whitson, Karen Frye, Jeff Fuller, Sarah Marone and Larry Sommers – sing songs from his stage shows. The numbers range from choruses and medleys to full performances of songs like “Gun Song,” “Finishing the Hat” and “Send in the Clowns.”

If you don’t like Sondheim – then, really, why are you reading this? – but if you do like the man or his musicals at all, you’ll find this show charming and insightful. The singers are well up to the task, with some, like director Bill Hale, having worked on the Footlite production of “Follies” a couple of years back. However, the orchestra on stage does threaten to sonically overwhelm them. Fortunately, the audience is also on the Footlite stage, an intimate arrangement that gives the vocalists the freedom and challenge of working un-mic’ed.

Circumstances limited the show’s run, so see it this weekend at the Hedback Theater, 1847 N. Alabama St. Call 317-926-6630 or see footlite.org.

Bard and Poe

This weekend, get some Shakespeare at Bard Fest in Carmel. The productions include “Timon of Athens” by Casey Ross Productions, comedy “As You Like It” by First Folio and the tragedy of “Othello” by Garfield Shakespeare Company. Get details on the Carmel Theater Company website.

Meanwhile in downtown Indy, Q Artistry‘s “Cabaret Poe” opens at Theatre on the Square on Mass Ave. Since this is the first time for the show away from the usual Irvington digs, there will be a few changes — besides, creator (aside from EAP) Ben Asaykwee likes to keep it fresh. This fall treat runs through Halloween (of course).

We will do our best to keep this site going, but it must be noted that John now has another job, as Associate Editor of The Word. He will also be contributing arts news and reviews to the monthly paper and its website.

Happy October, everyone!