Musical of Dahl novel ‘Matilda’ gets brief Indy premiere

By John Lyle Belden and Wendy Carson

If you want to see the hit musical “Matilda” before the Civic Theatre stages it next year, you have just three chances this weekend.

McDuffee Music Studio bursts onto the theatrical scene with its ambitious all-youth production. Note this London and Broadway hit is by two of the most devious minds to write material safe for children: the late author Roald Dahl and comic songwriter Tim Minchin. While the story is dark at times, the sheer absurdity of all the characters and situations keeps it light.

In this musical, with book by Dennis Kelly, the Wormwoods – a Latin dance-obsessed wife and proudly unethical used-car dealer husband – prefer their children to be like their son, Michael, comically ignorant and male. Surprise-baby Mathilda is definitely neither. She insists on reading books, visiting the library and telling stories. And when she’s had enough mistreatment, she tends to be “a little bit naughty.” Perhaps some abuse at the local school, led by wicked Mrs. Trunchbull, will cure her of that.

Having an all-student cast is easy for this show, as most of the roles are children, but some local teens ably step up to fill the “adult” shoes.

William Baartz as the viciously imposing Trunchbull manages to fully embrace the extreme silliness of the role. The teen-boy musculature stuffed into an Olympic women’s hammer-thrower form only adds to the look – equal parts threatening and cartoonish.

On the other end of the scale, Kamdyn Knotts is so very charming as teacher Miss Honey, a mousey woman struggling to find her voice to help Mathilda. Her willingness to show weakness and work to overcome it ironically makes her the most (if not only) mature character in the show. Krissy Brzycki as librarian Mrs. Phelps is another ray of sunshine in Mathilda’s life, practically starving for the girl’s story that may or may not be fiction.

Josh Hoover impressively shows range in dual roles as a vapid dance partner and an “escapologist” in love.

Ayden Cress and Kennedi Bruner are both a hoot as Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, despite their neglectful and somewhat abusive nature. Wesley Olin as Michael shows that rare natural talent at playing an imbecile so entertainingly he can’t help but steal the scene, even just shouting one word.

As for Kate Honaker as Mathilda, to us she looks and sounds straight off the Cast Album. Honaker holds focus and makes us believe in this girl with so many brains (yet they “just fit”) and a little bit “extra” that her stressful journey brings out.

The other children are more than just chorus to Mathilda’s story, as they learn to deal with a cruel yet silly world. Colton Woods as Bruce Bogtrotter gets to revel in being an unlikely hero. Brilynn Knauss as Nicole gets a quick lesson on improvising one’s way out of trouble. And Izzy Napier’s hyper Lavender declares herself Mathilda’s “best friend,” then takes on one of the more notorious pranks on the Headmistress.

We would like to assure you that no newts were harmed in the making of this show, but you can buy (a rubber) one at the concession stand, as well as chocolate cake.

While the production does have its technical flaws, it is energetic and earnest. Remember that one of the main tenets of the story (like most of Dahl’s work) is that not all stories have a happy ending. But it does manage to keep a positive outlook even at the grimmest point.

If you have any children in your care this weekend, especially those of grade-school age, they will be practically falling out of their seat with laughter and delight at the show. Performances of “Mathilda: The Musical” are 2 and 7 p.m. Today, 2 p.m. Sunday (May 25-26) at Lutheran High School, 5555 S. Arlington, Indianapolis. Tickets are $10, $12 for premium seats. Visit www.mcduffeemusic.com.

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It’s no myth: KidsPlay an excellent display of young talent

By John Lyle Belden

KidsPlay Inc. provides an excellent opportunity for aspiring performers, grades 3 to 8, to acquire and hone their skills. And that talent is put to great use in their spring production, “Fairy Tale Confidential.”

The play is presented as an expose of various stories we see or read (or pretend we’ve read, as the narrator points out) as we grow up. Eight scenes tackle Grimm tales, the works of Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson, the legends of certain guys in green tights, and even what happens after a boy gets the deed to a famous chocolate factory.

KidsPlay director Christine Schaefer always sets high standards, bringing out the best from her young actors, but this show — with its sharp gags and smooth blend of timeless charm and today’s attitude — is one of their best productions I’ve seen in more of a decade of watching this company work.

One bittersweet aspect of the spring show is that it is the last for eighth-grade members, who can move on to high school productions and beyond (several actors around central Indiana are KidsPlay “graduates”). There are 11 in this production, nearly all with speaking roles: Olivia Alldredge, as a friendly witch with a candy house; Elise Denger, a Wendy on a mission; David Hull, as the King of Everything; Trey Smith, as Dr. Jekyll’s Assistant; Ian Veldes, as “King of Comedy” Dickens; Ethan Stearns, as Stevenson; Ben Thompson, as Peter Pan; Owen Sickels, as narrator Warren Peace; Heaven Keesling, who is in the nifty opening dance number; Wesley Olin, as candymaker “Billy Bonkers;” and Max Everhart, as Hansel.

Other notables in this vast cast include Joseph Shininger as Rumplestiltskin and Bella Turner as the girl who is awful at names; Cialey Michalisko in an impressive debut as the secret to Dickens’ success; Olivia Greer as Sleeping Beauty and Josie Joyner as Cinderella, who could use a nap; Brayden Diehl as newly-minted sweets tycoon Charles and Corbin Elliott a hoot as his Grandpa; Ashley Pipkin as a sassy Gretel; Matthew Hentz as Dr. Jekyll and his hilarious alter ego; Jaxon Brittsan and Madison Raisor as Robin Hood and his sister, Roxie; Zora Coe as temperamental Tinkerbell; and third graders Anthony Stunda and Carter Pipkin off to a good start as Darling brothers John and Michael.

It’s worth the drive out to Greenfield — playing at the Ricks Centre for the Arts, 122 W. Main St. (US 40), 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday (April 12-14) — especially at only $5 a ticket. Advance tickets are available at Hometown Comics, 1040 N. State St. (SR 9), Greenfield.

 

Bard Fest: What a fool this mortal be to have missed ‘Midsummer’

This show is part of Bard Fest, central Indiana’s annual Shakespeare festival. Info and tickets at www.bardfestindy.com.

By John Lyle Belden

This time, I’m going to do something a little unusual. As you can tell from the amount of postings we’re making at PWJW, there was a lot of theatre opening last weekend. Lost in the shuffle was the Agape Performing Arts Company youth production of Shakespeare’s popular comedy, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” So I didn’t see it, but I do want to say something about it – and recommend it – anyway.

The Agape program is based out of a church, but attracts young performers, 8 to 18, from all over central Indiana. It is “Christian” in its members’ faith, but rather than trying to stage church-sanctioned morality plays, it boldly takes on classic stage works, and lets the moral lessons reveal themselves. Thus they have mounted ambitious productions such as the musicals “Les Miserables” and “Pirates of Penzance.” In a more daring move, they now take on what may be the Bard’s most “Pagan” of his folio.

But I’m sure these kids are doing an excellent job of bringing out, as Shakespeare’s plot does, the fickle humanity of the immortal realm, as well as the human foibles of the people wandering the woods. It will be a valuable experience for them, whether they in coming years become Royalty of the stage, or like the humble Mechanicals, just tread the boards from time to time for fun. It should be a good experience for you the audience, as under able adult supervision and with some big productions under their belts the cast and crew have set themselves an ever-increasing standard of performance.

I spoke with one of the parents recently, who said that they had researched accurate period dances to make the play more authentic. That’s the cool thing about having student actors, we all get to learn something.

And besides, this show is always fun and entertaining – and you get to see someone in a donkey head.

Follow Puck down to the District Theatre (formerly TOTS) at 627 Massachusetts Ave. for performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 3:30 p.m.

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.

IRT gives mouse-eye view of stage magic

By John Lyle Belden

The Indiana Repertory Theatre presents an excellent introduction to the world of live theatre for the smallest patrons – preschool to the early school grades – with “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse.”

The show is immersive, encouraging audience participation in a gentle manner. Children take their seats on the floor right next to the “stage” area, which includes two paths running through the audience (parents or guardians can sit with them, or to the back in regular chairs). There is an opening introduction led by an IRT staffer, such as actor/educator Beverly Roche or play director Benjamin Hanna, to let everyone know what to expect and get them in the proper mood.

Everyone in the excellent cast play mice — with humans, hazards and a pesky cat (giant from our perspective) portrayed by light and sound effects to aid young imaginations. Claire Wilcher is Granny, matriarch of the Boot family, who resides in an old work shoe in a barn in The Country with grandson William (Grant Somkiet O’Meara, the lone kid actor). They are visited by Town cousin Montmorency De Vere Boot (Paeton Chavis), who informs them that William has inherited a nice piece of luxury footwear in an attic closet in a house in the heart of the city. When Monty brings William to Town to claim his new home, they come across the “tame twins,” white mice who escaped their pen to roam free about the house. Snowey (Carlos Medina Maldonado) is friendly and welcoming, while Silver (Brianna Milan) is mean and mistrusting, trying to trick William into dangerous situations.

While I would find it problematic if the theme emphasized the danger of exploring new places and that one is better off where they “belong,” the lesson emphasis here is on being brave – both in confronting new things and in stepping up to help someone else. The play program has an easy activity worksheet that includes questions on the topic of bravery, and the cast returns after the play to help lead a discussion on being brave.

The play is by British playwright Vicky Ireland, based on the traditional Aesop fable. A bit of the Queen’s English slips in – like “ready, steady, go” – but not in unfamiliar accents.

All the children present at my showing (emceed charmingly by Roche) appeared to enjoy the play, even smaller ones who were fussy at first. Be prepared for learning new dance steps, like the mouse “greeting” and the hot-pipe crossing – bits of physical storytelling that helped keep the young audience engaged. It also helped that the star is a bit closer to the age of the playgoers. When one kid asked during the talkback if he could give a high five, he headed straight to O’Meara. While Chavis being a small woman helped her to connect, Wilcher was nicely maternal and Maldonado and Milan were like oversized children (think Big Bird, but with fur).

Some parents noted after the show that there aren’t many opportunities for small children to experience live theatre like this. For information and tickets to this play, running through March 25 on the Cabaret floor of the IRT – 140 W. Washington St., downtown Indianapolis – visit www.irtlive.com.

KidsPlay has a story to tell

By John Lyle Belden

One of the nice things about working at the Daily Reporter in Greenfield (until 2015) was getting to know Christine Schaefer and her work with KidsPlay Inc., her children’s theatre company for youth in grades 3-8, in and around Hancock County. It casts as many young auditioners as possible and gives them a good start as they progress toward high school plays, or to taking whatever stage life brings.

The players put on two shows a year, comedies, because they are a fun challenge and always entertaining. They learn skills such as thinking on your feet – once you’re off-book, you’re off-book – and deliver their lines without microphones. The parents get involved as well, as KidsPlay is 100 percent volunteer run, with family members helping backstage with props, costumes, sets, etc.

I tell you that to tell you this: KidPlay presents its latest show, “Sahara Nights,” this weekend.

The play, a twist on the “Arabian Nights” legend, is silly fun. A spoiled Sultan (Luke McCartney) isn’t entertained enough by putting people in his dungeon for petty offenses and demands a better diversion. Sahara (Brynn Elliott), hoping to free her friend Aladdin (Wesley Olin) from being jailed for late library books, becomes the royal storyteller. But when the Sultan whines “I’ve heard that one before!” she modifies the story – Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves becomes “Ali Baba and the 49ers.” As the stories come alive on the stage before them, traditional tales mix with appearances by the Star Trek crew, Elvis (Corbin Elliott) and the Beatles.

McCartney and Brynn Elliott, the company’s eighth-graders, are great leads, and other young thespians get to show a lot of their potential, especially Heaven Keesling as the smart and dutiful royal advisor, Olivia Greer as puppeteer of impulsive and irascible Mr. Moo-Cow, and Ashley Pipkin as a magically charming Genie.

Football, sci-fi, flying carpets, “Nowhere Man” jokes, mimes, and even appearances by the fabulous Tom Jones (Corbin, again) – this show has it all.

Curtain is 7:30 Friday and Saturday, 2:30 Sunday, at the H.J. Ricks Centre for the Arts, the beautifully renovated theater in downtown Greenfield (on US 40/Main St., just west of Ind. 9/State St.). Tickets are just $5 at the door — that’s right, for less than a movie ticket, you can see some of the next generation of local actors (several KidsPlay alums have been active on stages all around Indy).

For info, and to show your support, follow “KidsPlay Inc children’s theatre” on Facebook.

Can you see the children sing?

By John Lyle Belden

For sheer ambition alone, the children and teens of Agape Performing Arts Company should be commended for their production of the musical “Les Miserables.” And as is often the case with student theatre around Indy, you’ll enjoy this show even if you don’t know the kids involved.

The dozens of youths in cast, crew and orchestra give tremendous energy to the sweeping Victor Hugo saga of redemption, love and revolution in 19th-century France. The production acquired a rotating stage, and made an easily-assembled but stageworthy Barricade that was swiftly put together and disassembled. One death scene utilizes a Hollywood-style stunt fall. Costuming and makeup are excellent.

And while one can forgive the limitations of youth and experience as the actors bravely take on the near-operatic almost non-stop singing, there were some genuine stand-outs, including Samantha Koval as Fantine, Olivia Ortmann as Eponine, Eli Robinson as Javert, Connor Cleary as Marius and Alex Bast as Enjolras. Luan Arnold holds the center of the show as Jean Valjean. Young charismatic Aaron Sickmeier is a Broadway-quality Gavroche. Thomas Tutsie and Hannah Phipps do a gritty good job as the Threnardiers. And as a mild comedy relief character, the drunken member of the student revolutionaries, Christopher Golab is the best Grantaire I’ve seen in any “Les Mis” production.

Agape, a youth arts ministry of Our Lady of the Greenwood Catholic Church, performs the School Edition of the musical, so some language is softened – often cleverly – but not too jarring for those familiar with the original lyrics. Still, the story deals with topics including prostitution, death and war, so it is still “PG” in content. As adult director Kathy Phipps points out in her program Note, the play suits a Christian company as it tells the story of redemption and reaching for goodness, contrasted with a character who thinks he’s serving God by his inflexible adherence to the law.

This production has just one weekend of performances, through Sunday, April 9, at the Knights of Columbus McGowan Hall, 1305 N. Delaware St. in downtown Indianapolis. Tickets are just $10 each, less for students, at www.thelittleboxoffice.com/agape.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.