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.

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Civic goes Wilde

By John Lyle Belden

If you think Victorian English manners and society were stuffy and insufferable, imagine how it was for someone living through it. Fortunately, Oscar Wilde had his rapier wit to help him skewer those pretensions in his masterpiece farce, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre presents in the cozy confines of the Studio Theater through April 6.

In 1890s London, among polite folks for whom ignorance is a virtue and honesty a vice, John (Ethan Mathias) and Algernon (Bradford Reilly) have been undertaking some “Bunburying” – that’s not code for something obscene; it’s just the simple practice of being one person in town, and another in the country. John is in love with Gwendolen (Carrie Schlatter), while Algernon has fallen in love with John’s ward, Cecily (Sabrina Duprey). But both ladies insist on marrying a man named Earnest. So both our heroes oblige, and hilarious confusion follows.

Gwendolen’s aunt, Lady Bracknell (Vickie Cornelius Phipps), is very particular about who the girl marries. Meanwhile, Cecily’s governess Miss Prism (Miki Mathioudakis) is trying to get the attention of the Reverend Chasuble (Craig Kemp), but she is also hiding an important secret.

The incomparable Matt Anderson completes the ensemble as the butler at each house. Performances are top-notch, and even the scene changes are entertaining — executed by the actors under Anderson’s watchful eye.

When the world is full of absurdity, nonsense starts to make its own sort of sense. That was Wilde’s world then, and some could argue that reflects our world now. So, enjoy this Earnest effort at classic comedy.

The Studio Theater is at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. For tickets and information, call 317-843-3800 or visit civictheatre.org.

An American classic comes to life on Civic stage

By John Lyle Belden

“To Kill A Mockingbird,” the celebrated novel by Harper Lee, is likely a book you are familiar with, perhaps from reading it in school, or by seeing the Gregory Peck film which closely followed Lee’s story.

The Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre presents a live production of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” the play adapted by Christopher Sergel which is performed annually in Monroeville, Alabama, Lee’s hometown on which the novel’s setting is based. Unlike that production, the local staging doesn’t pick a trial jury from the audience – but attorney Atticus Finch still speaks directly to us.

For the unfamiliar, the story, set in Mayscomb, Ala., in the mid-1930s, is told by Finch’s young daughter, Jean Louise, known as Scout. The play gives us a grown-up Jean Louise (Michelle Wafford), who emerges from the audience to narrate for her younger self (Bridget Bingham), who is trying to make sense of all the things happening around her.

Scout, her brother Jem (Dalyn Stewart) and friend Dill (Ben Boyce) are occupied with what the reclusive neighbor Boo Radley might look like. The only clues are items left in a tree in his yard. But a bigger distraction comes when Atticus (Steve Kruze) is appointed by Judge Taylor (Tom Smith) to defend a black man, Tom Robinson (Antoine Demmings), who has been accused of beating and “having his way” with teenager Myella Ewell (Morgan Morton) by her father, town drunk Bob Ewell (Joe Steiner). The children endure taunts for their father defending a black man, but Atticus counsels them to endure and be confident he is doing the right thing. Scout wonders if she can feel pride in her father at all, until an incident with a mad dog reveals there’s more to the man than she ever suspected. Likewise, Jem wonders why his punishment for his vandalism of bitter, hateful neighbor Mrs. Dubose’s (Holly Stults) garden is to deliver kindness, until he comes to understand the whole situation.

The Robinson trial is a big spectacle, so the children sneak in to see it for themselves (thus allowing us to witness it), finding only room to sit in the “Colored” section with the Rev. Sykes (Brad Thompson). They marvel at how Atticus takes advantage of flaws in the testimony, and the kids are sure this will come out in their (and Robinson’s) favor. What does happen gives life lessons the children will never forget. And the events that follow will result in men killed, Jem injured, and Scout becoming a whole lot wiser.

Other notable characters include Sheriff Heck Tate (Clay Mabbit); the Finches’ cook, Calpurnia (Chandra Lynch); and an appearance by Boo Radley (Colby Rison) himself.

Under the direction of Emily Rogge Tzucker, this important story rises from the page to remind us of how horrible, yet accepted, hatred and injustice can be – then, and even more than 80 years later. Of course, that includes the bigoted context of the South in the 20th century, in which no person would even think of saying “African American” and “black” was mostly just a color you painted. So, be warned, the word “nigger” is used numerous times, by characters with either malice or apathy towards its dehumanizing effects. And if my writing the word out in the previous sentence bothers you too much, you should steel yourself before seeing this play – and go anyway.

Scout’s purpose in this story is to learn to see the world through others’ eyes – a man who would rather do what’s right than what’s popular, a person in unspeakable pain, a person judged purely by his skin tone, even a person who just can’t deal with other people – and thus teach us to do the same. Experience it for yourself at the Tarkington theater at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, through Feb. 23. Information and tickets at civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org, or call 317-843-3800.

‘Poppins’ returns, live on stage, to Civic Theatre

By John Lyle Belden

The Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre has displayed a “practically perfect” sense of timing by presenting the Disney Broadway musical “Mary Poppins” just as the sequel hits the movie theaters. Before watching the follow-up on the screen, see the story of the original Banks family and the magical nanny who changed their lives for the better, delivering serious lessons in her “spoonful of sugar” style.

Jeremy Shivers-Brimm is Bert — narrator and everyone’s friend — who was once told to learn a trade, “so I learned ‘em all” (including, famously, a chimney sweep). He nimbly embraces all the character’s likable aspects, helping it step out of the shadow of Dick Van Dyke’s film persona. Devan Mathias is our Mary (she also took the role in Civic’s previous “Poppins” production), sharply confident — both actor and character — seizing and holding our trust and affection every moment she’s on the stage.

The various supporting roles all have a touch of whimsy, from pleasantly blustery Admiral Boom (Rory Shivers-Brimm), neighbor Miss Lark (Katie Stark), the Policeman (Ben Angelo) on the street, to the efficiently-choreographed staff of the bank, making the central family feel comparatively normal and relatable. Father George Banks (J. Stuart Mill) has a good heart, but keeps it restrained by a drive for precision and order; mother Winifred (Mikayla Koharchik) has made her sacrifices as well. Son and daughter Michael (Ben Kistner) and Jane (Sydney Pinchouck) resist their parents’ desire for discipline, requesting a nanny on their terms. What surprises await when they get precisely what they asked for!

While the children meet interesting characters including Bert, the Bird Woman (Mary Margaret Montgomery), word merchant Mrs. Corry (Kendra Randle) and friendly statue Neleus (Alex Smith), it’s hardly a surprise that even Queen Victoria (Susan Smith) shows up. But if the lessons don’t sink in, an alternative nanny, the cruel Miss Andrew (Smith), could be called.

All performances are “spit-spot” polished, including the gentle antics of house servants Mrs. Brill (Ragen Sanner) and Robertson Ay (David Cunningham). Young performers Kistner and Pinchouck have a natural ease on stage that belies their age.  

Wonderful steps-in-time were arranged by director Anne Beck, providing the big singing and dancing spectacle one would expect, including a bit of flight and other wire work. For fans of the P.L. Travers books, note there are aspects of them not in the original Disney film (such as Neleus and Miss Andrew) and a little different order of events — you hardly notice the penguins are missing.

Performances are through Dec. 29 at the Tarkington theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Call 317-843-3800 or visit civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Civic: Sail on with Porter’s songs

By John Lyle Belden

“The world has gone mad today
And good’s bad today,
And black’s white today,
And day’s night today…”

Makes you wonder what year Cole Porter was writing about, doesn’t it?

But that’s what makes it a great idea to escape from today’s madness on a timeless voyage with “Anything Goes,” the classic musical featuring Porter’s songs, presented by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, in partnership with The Great American Songbook Foundation.

The wacky romantic comedy plot is mainly a means to launch several Porter favorites, including “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “It’s De-Lovely,” “Friendship,” “Blow Gabriel Blow,” and, of course, the title song.

As for the story: All aboard the ocean liner S.S. American, where lovesick Billy Crocker (Juddson Updike) has stowed away, hoping to persuade his socialite girlfriend Hope Harcourt (Kari Baker) not to wed Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Matt Bays) in a marriage arranged by her mother (Teresa F. Jordan). Billy has to avoid contact with the ship’s crew, as well as his boss, Elisha Whitney (W. Michael Davidson), who had ordered him to stay in New York. Meanwhile, it’s rumored that America’s Most Wanted criminal is on board – but we know for sure that the Thirteenth Most Wanted, Moonface Martin (Parrish Williams) is on the liner, accompanied by his best moll, Erma (Nathalie Cruz). And at the center of it all is a friend to all, headlining showgirl Reno Sweeney (Susie Harloff), with her band of Angels and a song for every occasion.

Despite some difficulty, and wacky situations, love will triumph in the end as it always does. What’s important is how entertaining this shipload of actors and dancers are on the way. With the help of Michael J. Lasley’s direction, Brent Marty’s musical touch and splendid choreography by Anne Beck, this is a pleasing production.

As for our feature performers, Williams is in top comic form, and Harloff has sass and attitude to match her great voice. Baker’s singing is breathtakingly good, Updike keeps up his everyman charm perfectly, and Cruz handily steals the scenes (along with several sailors’ uniforms). I wasn’t sure at first about Bays’ Lord Oakleigh, but he is something special when he cuts loose in the second act.

We’re having such a good time, we can forgive the almost cringe-worthy Asian stereotypes that end up necessary to the plot. Isaac Becker and especially Karen Woods Hurt make the most of their roles as naughty Chinese Christian converts, adding to the humor rather than being an outdated distraction.

“Anything Goes” runs through Oct. 27 at The Tarkington theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Call 317-843-3800, or visit civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Civic youth stake a sure bet

By John Lyle Belden

If you didn’t know the ages of the actors in Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre’s production of the classic Frank Loesser musical, “Guys and Dolls,” you would be hard-pressed to guess. Yes, this is the summer show by the Civic’s Young Artist Program for ages 14-18, but those strong voices, dancing chops and overall talent on display compare with any professional tour you’re likely to see.

They bring afresh the story first presented to their great-grandparents’ generation in 1950: Nathan Detroit (Hayden Elefante) needs a place to host his infamous floating craps game, but NYPD Lt. Brannigan (Daniel Miller) is watching all his usual haunts. So, to finance a likely location, Detroit makes a can’t-miss bet with high-roller Sky Masterson (Nathan Nouri) – that he can’t sweep away stoic Salvation Army Sgt. Sarah Brown (Katelyn Soards) on a dinner date to Cuba. Meanwhile, Detroit’s got a doll of his own to worry about; his long-time fiance, showgirl Adelaide (Katherine Patterson), is increasingly allergic to not being married.

Nouri and Soards’ voices soar operatically as they win our hearts. Meanwhile, Elefante is very entertaining and Patterson gives an award-worthy performance. And then there’s Detroit’s right-hand man Nicely-Nicely Johnson, played oh so nicely by Mahesh Gupta. Kudos also to Emily Chrzanoski as Sister Abernathy and Luke Vreeman as Chicago gangster Big Jule.

This musical is directed and choreographed by Anne Beck, who gives these teens quite a workout. The clever dance-filled opening number, setting the stage of the mean streets of New York, is practically a show in itself.

This has been one of my favorite musicals, with hits like “Fugue for Tinhorns (‘I got the horse right here…’)” and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” – Wendy likes “Adelaide’s Lament” and “Luck Be a Lady” – and this production did not disappoint. But it’s only for one weekend, with performances through Sunday, July 29, at the Tarkington theatre in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. See civictheatre.org for details and tickets.

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.