ATI and CSO combine for one killer production

By John Lyle Belden

Today’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” at the Palladium of the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel – a first-time collaboration of Actors Theatre of Indiana and the Carmel Symphony Orchestra – explores the full potential of its dramatic and musical experience.

This popular musical is an inspired choice, with its blending of the macabre, dark humor, and tragic and romantic love, backed by an operatic aural tapestry.

The ATI company — including members of its 2016 “Sweeney” production including director Richard J. Roberts — and the CSO, under the baton of Janna Hymes, are joined by the Indianapolis Arts Chorale with area singers including members of the Indianapolis Children’s Choir. Their powerful vocal presence is like another section of orchestra, on par with the strings or wind instruments. Taken together they provide a properly dense dramatic atmosphere for the actors upon the stage to flourish.

The ATI co-founders reprise their roles. Don Farrell totally disappears into the wig, makeup, and scowl, so that all you see is Sweeney, the barber unjustly exiled so that a corrupt judge could take his wife. Now Todd has returned for vengeance; his plan includes giving the best shave in London – if you survive it. Judy Fitzgerald likewise transforms into Mrs. Lovett, baker of the “worst pies in London,” but the problem isn’t her talents, but her lack of good flesh for the meat pies. Mr. Todd’s impulsive nature with his silver razors presents her with a ghoulish opportunity. Cynthia Collins returns as the mad Beggar Woman, ever present and revealed to be more than just the one to babble “Mischief! Mischief!” outside Lovett’s shop.

Joining the cast for this spectacular: Matthew Conwell is the charming and aptly-named Anthony Hope, who repays his off-stage rescue by wooing and rescuing Sweeney’s long-lost daughter Johanna (bold beauty Elizabeth Hutson). Conwell’s voice is superb, filling the song “Johanna” with harmonious longing. David Cunningham is wonderful as the tragically naive Tobias Ragg. Mario Almonte III is sharp as rival barber Adolfo Pirelli.

For the villians, Tim Fullerton plays judge Turpin as one whose growing madness makes him increasingly dangerous, a true rival to Todd. ATI veteran Michael Elliott presents Beadle Bamford with easy slimy charm.

Rory Shivers-Brimm reprises his earlier turn as characters including madhouse keeper Jonas Fogg, truly triumphant considering his recent recovery from health issues. Karaline Feller completes the cast in roles including the Bird Seller. Thanks to Roberts’s direction and effective use of costumes by Katie Cowan Sickmeier, various players easily morph into supporting roles, such as the pie shop customers, giving the illusion of a larger cast.

Scenic designer Paul Bernard Killian and prop master Amanda Pecora make creative use of this unique setting, with simple set pieces, only the infamous baking oven being instantly recognizable. As for what could be the true “star” of the show, the Barber Chair is deceptively simple. Painted blood red, it takes its proper place on the stage, but doesn’t pull focus from the brilliant work of its human costars. Roberts makes great use of the space as well, further including the orchestra as part of the production by having characters encircle it and making use of the Palladium’s rear balconies.

Did I say “today” at the beginning of this? Yes, for those looking online on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, you have the opportunity to make the second of two performances tonight at 8 p.m. (Tickets at thecenterpresents.org or Palladium Box Office). Friday celebrated a triumphant “opening night” (with jokes that they were “halfway through the run”).

For those who can’t make it or read this later, note this as a shining example of what future collaborations can be. Hymes noted after Friday’s show that they had only two weeks of rehearsal to put the various components together – a testament to the level of talent and dedication local theatre performers and musicians put into their work for you, the Central Indiana audience.

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: Here we go again!

By John Lyle Belden

It’s hard to imagine anyone not knowing about the musical “Mamma Mia!” Between the popular film (which recently launched a sequel) and the various touring productions through the years since it premiered on Broadway in 2001, practically everyone with an interest in this show has seen it. And it stands as one of those theatre experiences people eagerly go to again and again, perhaps bringing along children or hold-outs unfamiliar with its goings-on.

Since rights recently became available for local productions, it is naturally popping up — now “Mamma Mia!” is at the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, through Oct. 19.

Directed and choreographed by Anne Beck, this edition of the musical — featuring an engaging romantic comedy plot, and twenty-two hits by 70s-80s superstars ABBA — takes advantage of its large stage and generously-sized volunteer cast to really go big on the singing and dancing, while simultaneously embracing the show’s use of simple sets, employing a couple of small set pieces and a rotating center stage that is put to effective use. 

Thanks to Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan’s efforts on the big screen, the karaoke nature of the musical doesn’t require perfect singers, still Civic didn’t skimp on the talent. Becky Larson stars as Sophie Sheridan, a girl who invites three men to her wedding, knowing only that one of them is her father. Her mother, Donna, is portrayed wonderfully by Kara Snyder, while her best friends and “Dynamos” are fun roles for Civic favorites Laura Lockwood as cougarish Tanya and Marni Lemmons as free-spirit Rosie. Our three possible papas are sharply played by Clay Mabbitt as Sam the architect, Ethan Mathias as “Headbanger” Harry the banker, and Parrish Williams as Bill the travel writer. Joseph David Massingale is more than a handsome face as the prospective groom, Sky.

Also great are Cameron Hicks and Nate Schlabach as Sky’s buds, Pepper and Eddie; Jessica Linxwiler and Julia Ammons as maids-of-honor Ali and Lisa; and supporting ensemble Matthew Altman, Tanner Brunson, Sydney Chaney, Tyler Hartman Derry, David Johnson, Jonathan Katter, Emily Lantz, Dani Morey, Miles Morey, Kipp Morgan, Jacquelyn Rae, Emily Schaab, Caitlin Stacy, and Tiffany Whisner.

Taken as a whole, this show is so much fun. There are moments fraught with possible heartbreak (and sad songs), but it all ends well, of course. We all have our favorite scenes — such as the frog-dance of “Lay All Your Love on Me,” or Tanya strutting her stuff in “Does Your Mother Know” — and there’s always the “Megamix” at the end with the outrageous costume reveal and bonus track (“Waterloo”). 

Civic is “having the time of their lives;” it would be a shame to miss the party. Get tickets and information at 317-843-3800, civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Would be a crime to miss ATI’s ‘Scoundrels’

By John Lyle Belden

The criminal culture on the French Riviera of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” is an easy-going atmosphere where there is truly honor among thieves, the setting for the raucous comedy of the 1988 film (starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin) and the more recent Broadway musical, now presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana.

Polished and posh local con man Lawrence Jameson (played by TJ Lancaster) has perfected his act of posing as an exiled prince, extracting funds for his “revolution” from willing rich women, including Muriel (Judy Fitzgerald), an American all too eager to spend her ex-husband’s fortune. Lawrence’s accomplice, Andre (Don Farrell), is also the city Chief of Police, so they pretty much have it made.

But shortly after hearing that a notorious swindler, The Jackal, is in the area, Lawrence meets Freddy (Tony Carter) a crude but effective fast-talker who wants the more mature con artist to teach him his methods. They gain a grudging respect for each other, but get on each others nerves to the point that they make a wager – first to fleece their next mark for $50 thousand gets to stay; the other must leave. Enter the Soap Queen of Cincinnati, Christine Colgate (Deborah Mae Hill). The con is on!

The result is hilarious and thoroughly entertaining. Fortunately, the musical’s book by Jeffrey Lane (songs by David Yazbek) doesn’t force our leads to be copies of the charismatic Caine or unique Martin, but excellently-rendered characters that Lancaster and Carter have obvious fun embodying. They and the supremely charming Hill make the most of the show’s frequent slapstick moments. Fitzgerald fits among the criminals, stealing scenes — especially with fellow ATI founder Farrell. Supporting and chorus parts are ably filled by Michael Corey Hassel, Tim Hunt, Annalee Traeger, Brynn Tyszka and Sabra Michelle, who shines as an Oklahoma oil heiress set on marrying our faux Prince. Direction is by New Yorker Michael Blatt.

ATI opens their 2019-20 season with this show in the intimate confines of The Studio Theater at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, running through Sept. 29. Get info and tickets at atistage.org, or thecenterpresents.org.

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.