Rumor has it: Civic makes ‘Sense’

By John Lyle Belden

If you wonder at the possible appeal of a play based on a Jane Austen novel, consider the number of people, from all backgrounds, now hooked on Downton Abbey. And it’s not just the accents, the fine clothes, or even the tea – but a good well-told story that sustains such period tales’ popularity. And we all feel for those living mired in an environment of strict rules of conduct and etiquette.

“Sense and Sensibility,” a light drama based on Austen’s 1811 novel at Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre through Feb. 17, also emphasizes a public scourge with which we can all identify: Constant gossip and rumors, frequently spoken to set up and frame the scenes, sound all too familiar in our Twitter and TMZ world.

Weathering this social storm are the Dashwood family. The widow Mrs. Dashwood (Carrie Neal) and her daughters – sensible Elinor (Emily Bohn), romantic Marianne (Morgan Morton) and young Margaret (Elisabeth Giffen Speckman) – are forced to live on their own in a humble cottage, as their former estate had gone to a son from Mr. Dashwood’s prior marriage (women weren’t allowed to inherit). Despite being dropped to the lower rungs of the almost caste-like society of 1790s England, Elinor and especially Marianne receive the attentions of very promising single men, including shy Robert Ferrars (Joshua Ramsey), rakish John Willoughby (Justin Klein) and steady Colonel Brandon (Bradford Reilly).

In addition to these men, the cast also includes scene-stealer extraordinaire Matt Anderson as the Dashwoods’ cousin Sir John, whose generosity helps the women stay on their feet. In exchange, he – and nearly anyone else around – only want the latest juicy news from around the countryside.

This recent adaptation of Austen’s story by Kate Hamill, directed for the Civic by John Michael Goodson, is marked by its reliance on swirling rumor to drive the plot, as well as its minimalist staging. Little more than chairs and a few props are used, putting the focus squarely on the actors. Aside from Bohn and Morton, whose characters are the focal point of the book and play, all other cast members play multiple roles, and even the occasional dog or horse. This adds to the show’s sense of humor – enough to entertain, but never overreaching into farce. For instance, at one point Abby Gilster frequently enters and exits a scene as two different characters, making it an inevitable laugh line when one has to remark about the other.

High marks to all the cast, with clear characterizations despite a fairly high-energy pace (no dreary corset drama, this!). And as a woman’s novel adapted by another woman, it’s easy to see the story as a celebration of women working to live as much as possible on their own terms.

A review of the original New York production of this version calls it “Jane Austen for those who don’t usually like Jane Austen,” but that sells the source material short. This “Sense and Sensibility” looks through the old story through a more contemporary lens, while leaving Miss Austen’s intentions intact. It only makes “sense” that you should check this out.

Performances are on the Tarkington stage at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Call 317-843-3800 or visit www.civictheatre.org, or thecenterpresents.org for tickets.

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Civic presents fun ‘complete’ look at Bard’s catalog

By John Lyle Belden

Whether you have only a passing interest in the Bard of Avon, or have memorized all his plays and sonnets, you will enjoy “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged,” presented by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre through April 1.

Since this is a more intimate show than the typical Civic play, it is staged in the Studio Theater, at the other end of the lobby from the Tarkington in The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

Frankie Bolda, Kelsey Vanvoorst and Antoine Demmings (as themselves) are Shakespeare enthusiasts – you might even have seen Frankie or Kelsey in one of the Bard’s plays – who, thanks to a script by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield, discuss and present the man and all his works in 97 minutes (plus intermission).

The results are fun and unconventional — just as Shakespeare was in his day — with features such as “Othello” in rap, all 16 of the Bard’s comedies as a single mashed-up play, the Histories as a football game and, naturally, “Titus Andronicus” as a cooking show.

The second act is mostly devoted to “Hamlet,” which gets further abbreviated over and over with madcap results.

This trio do an excellent job, not only Bolda and Vanvoorst, who are no strangers to the art of making acting silly look easy, but especially Demmings — who had not done stage work before, but should now consider playing Othello for real. A tip of the Elizabethan headgear to John Michael Goodson for his directing, and to Will Tople for the simple yet appropriate stage design.

This house is smaller than the regular Civic stage, so sellouts are likely; call 317-924-6770 or visit civictheatre.org.

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

Civic presents fabulous farce

By John Lyle Belden

A man is shot. A woman is missing. Reputations and political careers are on the line. A doctor is called. The police are on their way.

Believe it or not, that is the setting for a hilarious comedy: Neil Simon’s “Rumors,” presented by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre through Feb. 18 at The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

Ken and Chris Gorman (Kim Ruse and Clay Mabbitt) are first to arrive at the anniversary party of their friend Charlie, the Deputy Mayor of New York. But the servants are gone, leaving uncooked food in the kitchen, Charlie’s wife is missing and their host has a hole in his earlobe from trying to shoot himself. Ken, as the man’s attorney, is trying desperately to keep the potential scandal under wraps, which isn’t easy when other friends arrive: Leonard and Claire Ganz (Parrish Williams and Carrie Schlatter), Ernie and Cookie Cusack (Trevor Fanning and Marni Lemmons), and finally Glenn Cooper (Steve Kruze) with his own political ambitions to consider, as well as neurotic wife Cassie (Christine Kruze, yes they’re married in real life, too).

Excuses for what is going on get more bizarre as events unfold, but eventually all are informed. But then, the police (Joanne Kehoe and Joe Aiello) arrive. What story to tell them?

This American farce in the Moliere mold has gag after well-written wacky gag, excellently played by a cast well-suited and experienced in stage comedies, directed by Charles Goad, no stranger to delivering a punchline himself. Ruse and Schlatter have such chemistry that when one woman delivers a zinger, just a glance between them sets off even more laughter. Mabbitt and Williams also sell the jokes with their knack for physical shtick, especially when Ken is deafened by the second gunshot, and when Leonard has to pretend to be Charlie – and convincingly explain what’s been going on the whole time.

This show is a welcome escape from today’s constant stresses (political and otherwise). Call 317-843-3800 or visit civictheatre.org. Tickets also available at thecenterpresents.org.

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 Civic, ‘tale old as time’ feels fresh

By John Lyle Belden

The Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre captures Disney magic with its production of the Broadway version of “Beauty and the Beast,” running through New Years Day at The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

Virginia Vasquez makes a wonderful Belle, strong in voice and character, while Will Carlson’s Gaston is excellently villainous, selfishly devious without being either too buffoonish or too scary for the many youngsters in the audience. Alex Smith as Gaston’s toady Lefou gets a little over-the-top, but still manages to charm. Will Tople blusters his way through as the Beast, winning our hearts while singing out his.

The enchanted artifacts of the castle show a lot of personality as well. As Cogsworth, Tom Beeler is in his element (acting-wise, at least; I don’t know if he likes wearing clock-cases), and David Brock lights up the room as Lumiere. Ragen Sanner as Mrs. Potts and Aiden Alexander Shurr as Mrs. Potts and Chip are heartwarming. Lauren Leigh cleans up as Babette, and Susan Bollek Smith as Mme. De La Grande Bouche has her stuff together.

It’s been years since I saw a stage production of “Beauty and the Beast,” and even longer since seeing the Oscar-nominated animated film. This was a nice reminder of the additional songs and bits added for the musical. In fact, the whole show had the feeling of something fresh, and while familiar, worth revisiting.

And if you have a young person you want to get hooked on the magic of live theatre, by all means, bring him or her to this show. I noticed at the matinee I attended that many had done just that, including a few Belle-gowned little princesses in the audience. After the performance, the actors came out in character (Tople in re-transformed Prince mode) to greet the fans.

So be their guest: Call 317-843-3800 or visit www.civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor of The Eagle (Indianapolis-based LGBTQ newspaper), where a brief version of this review is also published.

Civic’s puttin’ on a hit

NOTE: As the Word/Eagle is in flux with the renaming and corresponding change in official website, John is putting his reviews here — for now.

By John Lyle Belden

For a more-silly-than-spooky Halloween crowd-pleaser, you can’t go wrong with “Young Frankenstein,” presented by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre through Nov. 5 at The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

In this Mel Brooks musical, based on the Mel Brooks movie (inspired by the Mary Shelley novel), Frederick Frankenstein (played by Steve Kruze), grandson of the infamous mad doctor – who has changed the pronunciation of his surname in a vain attempt to shake its infamy – must go to his grandfather’s castle in the generically central/eastern European town of Transylvania Heights to settle the estate.

Once there, Frederick meets family servant Igor (Damon Clevenger), who has rounded up a lovely lab assistant, Inga (Devan Mathias). At the castle, they are welcomed by Frau Blucher (Vickie Cornelius Phipps), who was more than a housekeeper to the elder Frankenstein – a case in which a single line from the film became a whole song in the musical.

The temptation to follow in the family business becomes too great, and Frederick makes a Monster (B.J. Bovin) despite the village having passed a law against such practices, inviting the ire of local police Inspector Kemp (Parrish Williams). Add a surprise visit by Frederick’s fiancé Elizabeth (Nathalie Cruz) and a lot of mayhem – and song-and-dance numbers – ensue.

This production goes all-out on the famous “Puttin’ on the Ritz” singing Monster scene, a great credit to the cast and choreographer Anne Nicole Beck. And Williams doubles as the blind Hermit in another famously funny scene.

No one can match the manic genius of Gene Wilder, but Kruze manages to make the title role his own. Cruz and Phipps are natural scene-stealers, and Mathias is a treat. Bovin makes the most of the limited motions of the Monster, and his often-confused expressions add to the comedic effect. But the show doesn’t work without a great Igor (pronounced “Eye-gor”), and Clevenger is pitch-perfect in the role. It’s a credit to the others that he doesn’t steal the whole show.

Brooks’ gags still zing and his Tony-nominated monster of a musical still entertains. Get info and tickets at civictheatre.org.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor at The Eagle (formerly The Word), the central-Indiana based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Review: Civic Theatre continues ‘Tradition’

By John Lyle Belden

The popular musical “Fiddler on the Roof” has a few nights left, Wednesday through Saturday at the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre in The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

Directed by Michael J. Lasley with musical direction by Brent Marty, the story of a poor Jewish man confronting changes in society in Russia at the turn of the 20th century still maintains its power in this latest production of a show that has seen many local stages – not to mention Broadway runs and a 1971 movie.

Tobin Strader is an entertaining narrator as Tevye, the dairyman blessed with five headstrong daughters. Marni Lemons is an excellent complement as his wife, Golde. We also get great performances from Laura Muse, Virginia Vasquez and Daniela Pretorius as their eldest daughters, and Troy Johnson, Tanner Brunson and Joseph Massengale as the girls’ suitors.

One of the more interesting cast members is the title character – the Fiddler – a living metaphor performed by Erin Jeffrey. She appears throughout in various scenes as emphasis is needed, proficiently playing her instrument.

Praise is also due to choreographer Anne Nicole Beck, as scenes with various numbers of the cast of more than 30 players flow smoothly, naturally, and at times breath-takingly (yes, the “bottle dance” is included, involving five dancers).

Whether you’ve seen “Fiddler on the Roof” a dozen times or never at all – and really, you should at least once – the Civic production is well worth the ticket. Call 317-843-3800 or see civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

(Review also published at The Word)

Review: Little Women – The Musical

Sisters Jo (Julia Bonnett, lower left) and Amy (Karen Woods Hurt) reconcile after the anger between them nearly led to tragedy, while friend Laurie (Ethan Litt) and sister Beth (Betsy Norton) look on in a scene from "Little Women: The Broadway Musical" at the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre in downtown Carmel. -- Civic Theatre photo
Sisters Jo (Julia Bonnett, lower left) and Amy (Karen Woods Hurt) reconcile after the anger between them nearly led to tragedy, while friend Laurie (Ethan Litt) and sister Beth (Betsy Norton) look on in a scene from “Little Women: The Broadway Musical” at the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre in downtown Carmel. — Civic Theatre photo

By John Lyle Belden

For anyone who enjoyed – or haven’t read and are curious about – the classic Louisa May Alcott novel, I highly recommend “Little Women: The Broadway Musical” at the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre through Sept. 26.

The story of the four March sisters coming of age in 1860s Concord, Mass., is told in a nicely-paced play that gives each moment its proper weight, then breezes to the next with the help of a song or two. We meet Jo (Julia Bonnett), the headstrong writer bursting with confident energy; beautiful Meg (Betsy Norton); musical and tragic Beth (Amanda Kennedy); and Amy (Karen Woods Hurt), whose brash immaturity at first makes her the least likable, but results in making her the most complex and interesting of these four characters – a credit to Hurt as well as the musical’s book by Allan Knee. Still, the narrative is from Jo’s point of view, and Bonnett is more than up to the task.

For the rest of the cast: Katie Schuman embodies wise mom Marmee. Dan Scharbrough perfectly balances menace and paternal kindness as gruff Mr. Laurence, who lives next door. Ethan Mathias ably handles the growing conflicting emotions of Professor Bhaer, Jo’s neighbor in New York. Ethan Litt and Justin Klein lend appropriate boyish energies to the roles of Laurie and Brooke, the young men in the girls’ lives. And Vickie Cornelius Phipps is excellent as fussy Aunt March, as well as Mrs. Kirk, Jo and Bhaer’s landlord.

This would be an excellent show for those with “little women” (or men) who could see themselves in the characters. Jo’s enthusiasm, especially, is contagious, perhaps encouraging those who would want to write up some stories themselves. The Tarkington stage is at The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Call 317-843-3800 for tickets.