Holiday favorite ‘Elf’ returns to Civic

By John Lyle Belden

Just two years ago (what seems a lifetime now), the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre had one of their biggest-ever hits with the musical “Elf,” based on the 2003 Wil Farrell film that is already a beloved Christmas classic.

And as live theatre has returned around central Indiana, so, too, has Buddy and his friends. And – a holiday miracle? – this production is just as wonderful as it was before.

This presents the reviewer with a problem. How do I say practically the same thing I wrote in 2019?

Like this — To save you the click and page-load of a link to the previous review, the following is the same text that still applies, with updated cast and info as needed:

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 sack, unseen until the end of the journey. Finding that the boy’s single mother had died, Santa Claus (Parrish Williams) lets him be raised by the elves, allowing Buddy to think he was one of them. 

The truth is inevitably revealed, and Buddy travels to find his biological father — who doesn’t know he exists — in New York City. The dad, Walter (Jack Tanselle), is a workaholic executive at a publishing house of children’s books who is rough on coworkers like good-natured Deb (Nina Stilabower) and neglectful of wife Emily (Carrie Neal) as well as son Michael (Dylan Aquaviva). 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 Bohannon). 

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 (PETA nixed his reindeer a while ago). Other notable roles include Jonathan Studdard as the stressed-out Macy’s Manager, Dick Davis and Kelsey VanVoorst as hapless children’s book writers, and Jeff Angel as Mr. Greenway, the curmudgeonly 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 and Anne Beck with choreography by Beck and musical direction by Brent Marty, this is a magical ensemble effort. Seeing it on a matinee with an audience of 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. 24 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.

IRT’s ‘Carol’ an all-new old tradition

By John Lyle Belden

It’s that time of year again, but what the figgy pudding is going on at the Indiana Repertory Theatre?

IRT, under the eye of Margot Lacy Eccles Artistic Director Janet Allen, presents Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” adapted by Tom Haas and directed by IRT Playwright in Residence James Still – a return to the company’s annual holiday tradition. But some things are different.

In a quest to keep the old ghost story fresh, the narrative emphasizes some different moments in the original text. Adapting to potential pandemic restrictions, the cast of actors was cut in half. Also, a past Scrooge and Bob Cratchit have switched places. The endlessly versatile and entertaining Rob Johansen now plays the old miser, while Ryan Artzberger, in roles that include the poor clerk, leads the ensemble of Will Mobley, Nina Jayashankar, David Alan Anderson, Maria Argentina Souza, Jennifer Johansen, and Quinton Gildon, who not only plays Tiny Tim, but every young boy the script calls for. The multi-ethnic casting works (London has long had many colours of citizenry) and reminds us this is a story for and appreciated by the whole world.

This production keeps the practice of the cast reciting the narrative as they act it, like we’re all being read a Christmas story, with props and hints of scenery flowing in and out of an endless snowbank – with new stylistic tweaks. Kudos to costume designer Linda Pisano for the look of the Ghosts, especially the Jack Frost-inspired outfit on Souza as Christmas Past.

The story is comfortingly familiar, from spooky moments to happy ending, and whether you have seen an IRT “Carol” before or are new (I did meet a couple of first-timers!), you are in for a holiday treat. Performances run through December 26 (Boxing Day in the land of Dickens) at 140 W. Washington St. (near Circle Centre) in downtown Indy. Get information and tickets at irtlive.com.

Civic brings Peanuts special to life

By John Lyle Belden

For some, “Good grief” is as much a part of the season as “Happy Holidays!”

For them, and children of all ages, there is “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” playing on select dates at Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre. Directed by John Michael Goodson, this adaptation of the popular television special brings Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts” characters to life.

Following all the beats of the animated TV show, Charlie Brown (Max Andrew McCreary) feels depressed, this time regarding the oncoming holidays. Lucy (Mikayla Koharchik), in 5-cent psychiatrist mode, prescribes him directing the gang’s Christmas Program (which will star her as the Queen of Christmas, of course). With the help of Linus (John Kern), our hero eventually gets the meaning of the holiday, which he expresses by adopting the loneliest little Christmas tree.

The cast also includes Frankie Bolda as Sally, Emily Chrzanowski as Violet, Leah Hodson as Patty, Ethan Mathias as Schroeder, Alex Smith as Shermy, Alexandria Warfield as Frieda, and Gideon Roark as a surprisingly dignified Pig Pen. Also on the scene is Evan Wallace as the clever, hip, and ever-charming dog Snoopy.

This ensemble does an excellent job of enacting the characters’ motion from the mid-‘60s animation without mocking them — from Charlie’s footsteps, to bowled-over wild takes reminiscent of the comic strip, to Shermy’s incredible dance moves.  And backed by an actual jazz trio (CJ Warfield, Alex Nativi, Greg Wolff), the atmosphere is so cool you’d swear it was actually snowing.

The show doesn’t run very long, which is good for the attention spans of little theatre-goers, and concludes with a Christmas carol sing-along.

Performances are 10 a.m. and noon, Dec. 4, 11 and 18, and 7 p.m. on Dec. 5, on the Tarkington stage at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, right next to the ongoing Christkindlmarkt. For information and tickets, visit CivicTheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Silly Santa shenanigans in Greenfield

By John Lyle Belden

You don’t have to have children to get a little silly around Christmas. In fact, allegedly normal adults can find themselves in the goofiest situations, especially when you throw in a couple of Santa suits and some festive pajamas.

This is the scene in “Sorry, Wrong Chimney,” a farce by Jack Sharkey and Leo W. Sears presented by CrazyLake Acting Company in Greenfield. Set in a more innocent time — around the 1980s — recently-married Samantha (Alexandra Kern) wants to share a romantic first Christmas with husband David (Luke Agee), but he is always working late. She confides her frustration to neighbor and best friend Natalie (Stephani McDole), who assures her there’s nothing to worry about. But then she overhears something between Natalie and David — could they be having a fling? Sam calls Natalie’s husband, Bill (Corey Yeaman), for advice; he had been napping, so comes over in his pajamas and robe — this will prove problematic.

But the trouble really begins when Bill, a psychiatrist, is talked into using his skill as a hypnotist. But instead of mesmerizing David to reinforce his love of Sam, his charm snares the Santa Claus Burglar! The bad Santa (Trever Brown) actually believes he is Kris Kringle, which his loving fiance Sheila (Chris Vehorn) has learned to live with. 

Oh, and there is also an inquisitive police officer (Coy Hutcherson). What else could go wrong?

The result is one very funny holiday diversion, complete with slapstick, slamming doors, goofy chase scenes, misplaced mesmerism and a little dirty dancing. Directed by Christine Schaefer, this talented cast elevate an okay script with a lot of great physical humor and total dedication to the absurdity in each scene.

Granted, I’ve got a soft spot for Greenfield since I used to work there, but trust me, it is again worth the drive to see “Sorry, Wrong Chimney,” Friday and Saturday, Dec. 13-14, and Dec. 20-22, at the H.J. Ricks Centre for the Arts, 122 W. Main St. (US 40) downtown. Get info and tickets at crazylakeacting.com.  

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.

 

Walken in a winter wonderland

By John Lyle Belden

For those wanting a little something different during the holidays, Defiance Comedy presents a horror thriller in the form of a comedy musical, “Silent Fright.”

It’s Christmas Eve on the North Pole, and with Santa away on his annual duties, the elves are vulnerable to an evil spirit that stalks the workshop. It possesses their souls, making them mindless zombies which take on a voice that sounds like (a bad impression of) Christopher Walken. 

Ryan Ruckman is our traditional Narrator, who should have warned his other role, party elf Jingle Jams — but apparently these stories don’t work that way. Shelby Myers is Trinket, Santa’s assistant, who is in a relationship with chef elf Butterscotch (Chad Woodward), but things are getting too serious. Totally not serious is Kelsey VanVoorst as Candy Sparkles, the friendship elf. Not being taken seriously is Meg McLane as Pipette, the science elf; she’s a bit green (literally).  And John Kern is old elf Chutney Frostbottoms, just three years from retirement (so, yeah, he’s doomed). 

Director Matt Kramer wrote the play and songs, which go for a full two acts, so this isn’t just one of Defiance’s Fringe shows. But it has all the goofy humor you’d expect from the creators of Fringe hits “Volleybrawl” and “Autumn Takes a Tumble.”

Come for the comedy, stay for the weird voice work. Performances are Friday and Saturday evenings, Dec. 6-7 and 13-14, and a matinee Dec. 15, at the IndyFringe Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair Street. Get info and tickets at www.indyfringe.org; follow @DefianceComedy on social media.

‘Big Day’ for little guy at Phoenix

By John Lyle Belden

Phoenix Theatre’s holiday tradition continues with “Winston’s Big Day: A Very Phoenix Xmas 14.”

(Note the originator of the series, Bryan Fonseca, also has a holiday variety show at the new Fonseca Theatre Company, but think of them not so much as competitors as companion pieces — each with its own nice yet mildly naughty take on the winter holidays.)

The Phoenix production works on a theme developed by director Chelsea Anderson over the course of the year. It’s Christmas Eve, and elf Winston (Dave Pelsue) — who had been planning to leave the North Pole to pursue a music career, with Rudolph (Ramon Hutchins) as his manager — is tapped to be co-pilot of the Sleigh. But Santa is missing! That means it’s up to the reluctant elf and his bright-nosed companion to make the deliveries and save Christmas. 

During the night, Winston looks in on several scenes, performed by the cast of Nathalie Cruz, Andrea Heiden, Jan Lucas, Pearl Scott, John Vessels, and Justin Sears-Watson. Scenes and songs are by a diverse lot including Anderson, Pelsue, Paige Scott, J. Julian Christopher, Jen Blackmer, Riti Sachdeva, Zach Neiditch, and Phoenix playwright-in-residence Tom Horan.

There is an abundance of wonderful performances, including Lucas and Heiden as ghosts of Charles Dickens; Vessels at his manic best; and dancer Sears-Watson’s smooth moves, as well as showing his singing and acting chops. 

Perhaps one of the best scenes, showing off all the talents on hand, is Blackmer’s “The Twelve Theatrical Genres of the Totally Non-Denominational, Absolutely Inclusive Holidays…” This gentle jab at both political correctness and community theatre, when its reach goes way beyond its grasp, results in a hilarious holiday scene so “inclusive” it hardly appeals to anyone: The Misguided Mechanicals present something like, “Stella and the Zombie Cats of Thebes” (that’s my best-guess title for it; you’re welcome, Chelsea). 

And, of course, there’s Pelsue and Hutchens, doing a great job of tying this whole silly and sweet mess together, as they struggle to rush through their duties, hoping to make their stage time at Fa-La-La-La-La-Palooza. 

Also impressive is Zac Hunter’s stage design, including a turntable with pop-up-book effects, and frequent clever use of the trapdoors.

Yet another holiday tradition to add to your schedule, performances run through Dec. 22 at the Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois, downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

A little ‘Chrystmas’ magic

By John Lyle Belden

Bryan Fonseca returns to his tradition of the holiday show he had nurtured for a dozen years, with Fonseca Theatre Company’s “A Very Bryan Chrystmas: How the Grinch Culturally Appropriated Christmas.”

(That original series is also continued at the Phoenix Theatre, but think of them not so much as competitors as companion pieces — each with its own nice yet mildly naughty take on the winter holidays.)

Bryan’s cast of Jean Arnold, Paul Collier Hansen, Jonathan Stombaugh, Phebe Taylor, and Dorian Wilson, with the help of Tim Brickley (music director) and Mariel Greenlee (choreographer), bring us 12 scenes of music, comedy and dance. The works of five local playwrights are featured: Eric Pfeffinger and Mark Harvey-Levine’s modern takes on the Nativity; John P. Gallo’s hilariously macabre holiday tradition; Kenyon Brown’s tale of new Grinch mischief; and Cassandra Rose’s bittersweet scene of family dysfunction. Music includes songs by Tish Hinojosa, Pete Townshend, and Tim Minchin, as well as a mix by DJ QueVee.

For those who remember, Fonseca brings back the ultimate Jewish Mother with Harvey Levine’s “Oye Vey Maria,” but most of the bits are new, such as Brown’s “Mistletopriation,” which acts out the show’s title statement, with Hansen as the Christmas-hating terrorist. And Taylor shows her knack for playing practically any age, especially in her sweet performance of Hinojosa’s “Arbolito.” 

Throughout, this show is a little irreverent and a lot of fun. Performances run through Dec. 22 at the new Basile Theatre, 2508 W. Michigan. Get info and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.

CCP adds more girl power to ‘Pageant’

By Wendy Carson

I remember in high school we had a huge problem picking out shows because 80 percent of our auditioners were female, up for only about a third of the roles. It seems that this gender disparity has not changed, because when Carmel Community Players held auditions for “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” most of the actors who turned up were female. So, in a brilliant casting twist, Director Lori Raffel decided to change the genders of several of the roles, mainly affecting the dreaded “Herdman clan” — it worked out beautifully.

The Herdman children, a grubby, ill-mannered, bunch of bullies, end up taking over all of the major roles in the church Christmas Pageant, much to everyone’s dismay.

Beth Bradley (Dana Hackney), our narrator, relates that her brother Charlie (Sam Vrtismarsh), whose favorite part of church is the fact that it is the one place without torture at the hands of the Herdmans, inadvertently causes this catastrophe to occur.

Stuck in the hospital from an accident, the pageant’s usual director, Mrs. Slocum (Lee Meyers) gives directing duties to Charlie’s mother, Grace (Deb Underwood), including constant phone calls “reassuring and advising” her.

Enter the Herdmans: Ruby (Jayda Glynn in the former “Ralph” role) takes the part of Joseph. Imogene (Maya Davis) usurps the role of Mary, which had always been played by Alice Wendleken (Avery Pierce) and relegating poor Alice to the Angel Choir. Loretta (Delaney Soper in “Leroy” role), Ellie (Ellianna Miles in “Ollie” role) and Claude (Austin Helm) grab the roles of the Wise Men. Rounding out their family unit, little Gladys (Abigail Smith) plays the Angel of the Lord bringing the good news to the shepherds – “Shazam!”

Add to these characters a couple of gossipy church women, Mrs. Armstrong (Ginger Home) and Mrs. McCarthy (Nikki Vrtis); the Pastor (Joe Meyers); and the petulant rest of the pageant cast – Maxine (Sophia McCoskey), Elma (Christina Whisman), and Hallie (Megan Holliday); not to mention Charlie’s ever-suffering Father (Steve Marsh), who keeps trying to get out of attending the pageant in the first place.

How this whole mess turns out, and changes those in attendance, is a Christmas miracle that has warmed audience hearts for years all over the country. It just looks a little different here.

While the cast on the whole does an admirable job, a few standouts that must be mentioned: Holliday’s dance solo was a delightful display of budding talent. Hackney did a nice job shifting her focus between telling the story and trying to survive the insanity all around her. Pierce excellently portrays her character’s “Holier than Thou” attitude throughout. Davis adds depth as Imogene finds connection with The Virgin’s plight. However, it is Smith’s turn as the fiercely indomitable Gladys Herdman that shines the brightest. I expect we will be seeing a lot more of her talents in the future.

There is one weekend left of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” through Dec. 9. So, gather the whole family, scoot over to the Ji-Eun Lee Music Academy, 10029 E. 126th St. in Fishers, and enjoy a fun Christmas show. Get info and tickets at carmelplayers.org.

Also, make sure you bring a few extra dollars to purchase one of the lovely pasta angels handcrafted by the troupe. They are quite lovely and will make a wonderful accent to your tree for years to come.

Buck Creek presents sweet ‘Gift’

 

By John Lyle Belden

Sometimes you don’t want a lot of heavy drama, especially at Christmastime. As a remedy for the noise, bustle and bad headlines, Buck Creek Players presents “The Unexpected Gift.”

Jack (Tom Smith) had resigned himself to another Christmas Eve alone in his cabin in the Upper Peninsula, his eighth such holiday since his wife passed away. But suddenly at the door is daughter Kate (Michelle Tasker), who must drop off his grandchildren — almost-10 Sarah (Bailey Cline) and teen Jonathon (Mason Tudor) — while she travels for business. He reluctantly agrees, and the kids then have to get to know the grandpa they barely remember.

Cline’s Sarah sparkles with curiosity and desire to live up to her mother’s glowing memories of days spent in the cabin, while Tudor’s Jonathon is age-appropriately surly and blunt about having to dwell in “the Stone Age” with no TV, no phone, and outdoor plumbing. Smith as Jack wears only a thin layer of gruffness, a grand-paternal teddy-bear more than a grizzly. He also gives as good as he gets with Jonathon’s quips, latching on to his modern use of the word “sweet.”

And that word does best describe this holiday play — sweet — like a live Hallmark Channel show. Like the Christmas tree they set up, decorated with cleverly improvised ornaments, it’s light on substance but heavy on charm and emotional resonance.

Being the BCP holiday show, there is also its annual fundraiser for the Blaine Jarrett Memorial Scholarship Fund. You can bid on a silent auction of various themed baskets, including a “Mystery Basket” offered at every performance.

This cozy Christmas diversion runs through December 16 at the Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74). Call 317-862-2270 or visit BuckCreekPlayers.com.