‘Poppins’ returns, live on stage, to Civic Theatre

By John Lyle Belden

The Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre has displayed a “practically perfect” sense of timing by presenting the Disney Broadway musical “Mary Poppins” just as the sequel hits the movie theaters. Before watching the follow-up on the screen, see the story of the original Banks family and the magical nanny who changed their lives for the better, delivering serious lessons in her “spoonful of sugar” style.

Jeremy Shivers-Brimm is Bert — narrator and everyone’s friend — who was once told to learn a trade, “so I learned ‘em all” (including, famously, a chimney sweep). He nimbly embraces all the character’s likable aspects, helping it step out of the shadow of Dick Van Dyke’s film persona. Devan Mathias is our Mary (she also took the role in Civic’s previous “Poppins” production), sharply confident — both actor and character — seizing and holding our trust and affection every moment she’s on the stage.

The various supporting roles all have a touch of whimsy, from pleasantly blustery Admiral Boom (Rory Shivers-Brimm), neighbor Miss Lark (Katie Stark), the Policeman (Ben Angelo) on the street, to the efficiently-choreographed staff of the bank, making the central family feel comparatively normal and relatable. Father George Banks (J. Stuart Mill) has a good heart, but keeps it restrained by a drive for precision and order; mother Winifred (Mikayla Koharchik) has made her sacrifices as well. Son and daughter Michael (Ben Kistner) and Jane (Sydney Pinchouck) resist their parents’ desire for discipline, requesting a nanny on their terms. What surprises await when they get precisely what they asked for!

While the children meet interesting characters including Bert, the Bird Woman (Mary Margaret Montgomery), word merchant Mrs. Corry (Kendra Randle) and friendly statue Neleus (Alex Smith), it’s hardly a surprise that even Queen Victoria (Susan Smith) shows up. But if the lessons don’t sink in, an alternative nanny, the cruel Miss Andrew (Smith), could be called.

All performances are “spit-spot” polished, including the gentle antics of house servants Mrs. Brill (Ragen Sanner) and Robertson Ay (David Cunningham). Young performers Kistner and Pinchouck have a natural ease on stage that belies their age.  

Wonderful steps-in-time were arranged by director Anne Beck, providing the big singing and dancing spectacle one would expect, including a bit of flight and other wire work. For fans of the P.L. Travers books, note there are aspects of them not in the original Disney film (such as Neleus and Miss Andrew) and a little different order of events — you hardly notice the penguins are missing.

Performances are through Dec. 29 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.

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An evening with the marvelous Melissa Schott

 By John Lyle Belden

I remember in 2005 seeing the Footlite Musicals production of “42nd Street,” and being blown away by the performance of Melissa Schott in the lead role. I had no idea that — like her character, ingenue Peggy Sawyer — she had just taken her first big chance on a major stage role, and come out on top. All I knew was that she lived in New Palestine, within the coverage area for the Greenfield Daily Reporter, the paper I wrote for.

Melissa SchottWith such a talented “local” to watch for, I soon saw her perfect portrayal of the legendary singer in “Always, Patsy Cline.” So, it was no surprise when — again nearly on a whim — she tried for and got entertainment work in New York.

And this year, for one wonderful weekend, she came “home,” recently performing her first cabaret revue, “Songs in the Key of Me,” at The CAT in Carmel, presented by Magic Thread Cabaret.

Schott said the show’s title refers to how, in taking so many roles as other people, “it’s easy to forget your own voice.” To find those pieces of herself, she brings out the works of people who have influenced her, from Karen Carpenter to Sara Bareilles.

She set the mood by opening with “That’s Life” and “Ain’t We Got Fun,” but also touched our hearts with Cline’s hit “Crazy,” as well as “Pretty Funny” from the musical of “Dogfight.”

Being a classic triple-threat, Schott brought out her tap shoes for a couple of numbers, including — naturally — “42nd Street.”

She shared the stage with old friend Scott Harris of Nashville on the piano, but took over the keys to start the second act, singing and playing Bareilles’ “Gravity.” She also invited Broadway performer Cory Lingner up for a duet of “Only Us” (from “Dear Evan Hansen”).

Revealing yet another facet of her talent, Schott played a song she wrote, “Worlds Away,” inspired by her longing for home while on tour.

Her musical journey had many stops that felt personal to her, including “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “On a Bus to St. Cloud.” She sang “She Used to be Mine,” from Bareilles’ hit musical “Waitress,” then noted that she would be playing a waitress herself, briefly, on a future episode of the Emmy-winning streaming TV show “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”   

Hopefully being a long-time fan doesn’t make me too biased, but her charm, talent, dancing and singing are still superb. And with her residence in the Big Apple, Melissa Schott is one casting-call away from true stardom. Wherever you happen to be able to see her perform, by all means do; and hopefully, she will bring her “Songs in the Key of Me” to another stage very soon.

She closed the show with a medley of tunes from Broadway’s “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” A few days ago, I heard one of the songs from the official cast album, and — meaning no disrespect to a Tony winner — Schott was just as good.

Follow Melissa’s showbiz adventures at melissaschott.com or on Facebook. See magicthreadcabaret.com for future showcases of local talent, presented by Tom Alvarez and Dustin Klein (kleinandalvarez.com).

ATI earns its wings with ‘Wonderful’ radio play

By John Lyle Belden

The bottom line with this show is fairly simple: If you like the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” — or are open to, if you haven’t seen it — you will enjoy the live Radio Play. It is popping up around central Indiana, but I saw the Actors Theatre of Indiana production, playing at the Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel (by the Kristkindlemarkt).

Done in the style of radio dramas performed in the 1940s (when the movie takes place and was released), an upbeat ensemble, accompanied by a sound-effects artist, provide all the sounds of a “playhouse of the air” so that families gathered around the radio sets in their homes can fill in all the details in their minds. Thus, if you close your eyes you still get the full story, almost like watching the classic Frank Capra film. With eyes open, you can see the performers mug and gesture their way through the show, giving those who braved the weather to see it in person a little extra — not to mention seeing all the tricks employed to make every noise from footsteps to stormy winds.

The script is true to the film’s story: Clarence the Angel (Second Class) is dispatched to help George Bailey, a man who spent his whole life helping others and desperately needs help himself. We get the backstory on George’s “wonderful life” so when he wishes he “had never been born” we can see how different things would be without him. In the end, we see the difference one person can truly make — Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!

ATI’s founding trio of Cynthia Collins, Don Farrell (voicing Clarence and other characters) and Judy Fitzgerald (who plays Mary, George’s wife) are joined by Adam Crowe (narrator, villainous Mr. Potter, etc.), Paul Tavianini (George), and Luca Arive, Sadie Cohen, Lincoln Everitt and Annabelle Pfeiffer in children’s roles, to perform the story. Fox59 TV personality Sherman Burdette literally provides the bells and whistles, working all the sound effects like a pro.

For a fresh, festive take on a holiday classic, performances of “It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” run through Dec. 23. For information and tickets visit atistage.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.

CCP: Look who’s back!

By John Lyle Belden

For a number of years in the recent past, Carmel Community Players would stage the musical “Forever Plaid.” So, now the good old days are back in more ways than one.

The Plaids, a struggling four-part vocal group, were on their way to a promising gig in 1964 when their car was struck by a bus on its way to New York taking fans to see the Beatles live on Ed Sullivan’s show, killing the quartet instantly. But thanks to a cosmic alignment, a hole in the ozone, or some other metaphysical reason, the Plaids have returned to Earth to perform the show they didn’t get to do when they were alive.

The rapport and harmony of CCP’s incarnation of the foursome are natural and well-polished, a reflection of three of them having sung the roles together before: Darren Gowan as Sparky, Syd Loomis as Jinx, and Rich Phipps as Frankie. They are joined by Howard Baetzhold as Smudge, the character who tends to have trouble getting in synch anyway, but as things progress fits right in. The backing musicians are director Sandy Baetzhold on piano and “Uncle Dick” Richard Leap on drums.

There is more going on than sharp four-part harmony on oldie hits including “Catch a Falling Star,” “Sixteen Tons,” and “Perfidia.” They deliver a Calypso segment as well as their high-speed rendition of Ed Sullivan’s classic acts, along with amusing patter as they try to sort out their unusual situation.

Tired of the news and troubles of 2018? Take a step back as gentlemen from a gentler era entertain you as only the Plaids can. There are moments of audience participation – with one lucky fan getting the chance to become an Honorary Plaid – and all get to sign the Plaid Book of Life.

“Forever Plaid” won’t last forever. Performances run through Oct. 7 at The Cat performance venue, 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel. For info and tickets, visit carmelplayers.org.

ATI opens with hijinks of another ‘Tenor’ farce

By John Lyle Belden

You don’t need to have seen the Ken Ludwig farce “Lend Me a Tenor” (though you really should when you get the chance) to understand the sequel, Ludwig’s “A Comedy of Tenors,” now in its local premiere at Actors Theatre of Indiana.

In the original, we met world-famous tenor Tito Merelli – with ego and appetites to match his talent – performing in Cleveland. Now, a few years later, former Cleveland mayor Henry Saunders and his son-in-law Max (also characters from the earlier play) are managing Tito in a Three Tenors extravaganza in Paris. Max, a rising star in opera, is listed as the third.

Suddenly, the number two on the bill cancels, sending Saunders and Max scrambling. Meanwhile, Tito’s relationship with wife Maria is tempestuous as ever – and then there’s his free-spirited daughter Mimi. Also, Tito’s biggest operatic rival, Carlo Nucci, is in the hotel. And finally, a hot-blooded Russian soprano with whom Tito once had a fling, Racon, is in town. Summon the singing bellhop, and let the slamming-door fun commence!

Melodrama and misunderstandings get under way from the first scene. The laughs come steadily, with plenty of physical comedy, as the plot rolls with its own twists that differentiate it from the previous play.

Don Farrell plays Tito as a runaway train of emotions – then in the second act, he has to work twice as hard, an exhausting performance that pays off hilariously. Mark Fishback plays Saunders as nonstop neurotic, the control freak with nothing under control. Nic Eastlund’s Max is the softer counterpoint to his boss, a character less fearful than in his prior appearance, but now distracted by the impending birth of his first child. Amy Bodnar puts plenty of fire in her portrayal of Maria, and the same spark is in Jenny Reber’s Mimi. Brynn Tyszka also brings the heat as Racon, working it to comic effect. As Carlo, hunky Jacob Gerard Barnes pratfalls as good as he looks, And when Farrell, Barnes and Eastlund sing, you know this show was cast perfectly.

A fun start to the ATI season, “A Comedy of Tenors” runs through Sept. 30 at The Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Box office at 317-843-3800 or thecenterpresents.org, or visit atistage.org for information.

CCP’s charming ‘Witches’ at Carmel’s CAT

By John Lyle Belden

We all have that one person we can’t stand – but then circumstances force you to work together. That is the hex put on the ladies in “Kitchen Witches,” the fun comedy that concludes the 2017-18 season for Carmel Community Players.

Dolly (Denise Fort) is wrapping up her cable-access cooking show due to lack of viewership. But when her old culinary rival, Isabel (Gina Atwood), crashes the finale, the ratings go through the roof. So, to stay on the air, the two women must work together – an obvious strain on producer Stephen (Tim Moore), who is also Dolly’s son. Along with slinging the hash (at each other) our “witches” rehash their past with the late Larry Biddle, Dolly’s husband and Isabel’s lover.

Meanwhile, keeping the cameras in focus is Robbi (Sydney Heller), a local punk who signals “one minute to air” with her middle finger.

The result is hilarious, of course, but Caroline Smith’s charming script has a surprising amount of heart, brought out nicely by the cast and director Courtnie Janikowski. Fort and Atwood play their besties-turned-beasties more infused with damaged pride than malicious anger, and Moore effectively portrays the put-upon son trying not to get another nervous ulcer. Even Heller wins our affections, excellently playing Robbi in “Silent Bob” style.

This show is CCP’s debut in the CAT, a performance space located just off the downtown Carmel Arts & Design District at 254 Veterans Way. This will also be home to much of the 2018-19 season as the company seeks a permanent home.

A good time was had by all at the packed opening night. Though, if I must nitpick, while I do understand the constraints of volunteer community theatre, this production could tighten up its scene transitions, or at least play a little music while we sit in the dark.

But overall, consider me charmed by these “Witches.” Call 317-815-9387 or visit www.carmelplayers.org.