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.

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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.

At ATI: A salute to another era, and some sweet stories

By John Lyle Belden

Actors Theatre of Indiana is easy to overlook, with its home space being The Studio Theater, next to the bigger Tarkington stage in the Center for the Performing Arts up in downtown Carmel. Yet this little company produces some excellent and worth-seeking shows.

“The Andrews Brothers,” which played just in time for Veterans’ Day, was a valentine to the old USO shows that kept GI’s, sailors and Marines’ spirits up during World War II (and the organization is a valuable resource to service members to this day).

Three men (played by Michael Dotson, Jay Emrich and Don Farrell) – conveniently, brothers with the last name “Andrews” – who couldn’t make the cut for service due to health reasons, but still wanting to do their part, want to move up from being USO stagehands to performing on that stage. When illness prevents the Andrews Sisters from making a South Seas gig, the Brothers get their big break in a way they hadn’t imagined.

Our trio, with pin-up girl Peggy Jones (Mary Jayne Waddell) sing and dance their way through many memorable hits from the era, both as guys, and, hilariously in the second act, as the “Sisters.” It’s all a lighthearted affair, and was a fun trip down memory lane for many in the audience who remembered those days. This led to many wonderful conversations between them and the cast after the show.

As for myself, I and Wendy fell ill in the following days and the distraction of fighting the flu (yes, I had my shot, so I guess it could have been worse!) kept us from writing a timely review.

But ATI is on stage again, and while the previous show was for the young-at-heart, this one is a treat for actual little ones (and the parents and caretakers who read them their bedtime stories): “A Year With Frog and Toad.”

I remember reading the sets of short stories about best-friend amphibians by Arnold Lobel to my son years ago, and can even recall a few favorites. Those scenes are there in the live musical play, crafted by Willie and Robert Reale. The lead characters are brought to life excellently by Bradley Reynolds and Don Farrell, with the help of some supporting critters (Kyra Kenyon and Shelby Putlak), including a very eager snail (Tim Hunt).

If you or your kids are at all familiar with these woodland companions, make plans to visit them on Friday, Saturday or Sunday through Dec. 27. Call 317-843-3800 or visit atistage.org.