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.

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Civic has big fun with ‘Hairspray’

By John Lyle Belden

In the hit Broadway musical “Hairspray,” based on the classic John Waters comedy, Wilbur Turnblad – father of Tracy and husband of Edna, our heroines – says, “You gotta go big to be big!”

That was the apparent credo of the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre production of the musical, playing through May 12 at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

As befits this spectacular – with a “wow” factor especially necessary for an audience who likely already saw a stage or film version, or the live television broadcast – everything about Civic’s “Hairspray” is big, big, BIG! – the staging, the light displays, the beautiful flying setpieces, the chorus sets with singers in silhouettes, the dance numbers, Edna’s bra…

And this all-volunteer local cast more than rises to the occasion. Evan Wallace is “divine” as Edna, while Nina Stilabower is perfect in song and steps as Tracy, an eager teen with a heart as big as her dress size and her desire to dance on the Corny Collins TV show – the place to be seen in early-1960s Baltimore.

While show producer, strict stage-mom and former Miss Baltimore Crabs, Velma Von Tussle (Mikayla Koharchik), wants nothing to do with the girl, Corny (Justin Klein) lets Tracy join the cast “student council,” where she starts to steal the attentions of lead heartthrob Link Larkin (Zachary Hoover) away from Velma’s spoiled daughter, Amber (Emily Hollowel). This, plus Tracy’s unapologetic love of “race music” and desire that “every day be Negro Day,” can only spell trouble.

Yes, there’s even a big social-conscious message, delivered with power and a sense of fun with the help of R&B deejay Motormouth Maybelle (Joyce Licorish) and her smooth-dancing son Seaweed (Michael Hassel).

Also notable are J. Stuart Mill as Wilbur, the coolest dad ever, and Jenny Reber as Tracy’s best friend, Penny.

And it’s all done bigger than life, as big as Broadway – including the infamous giant can of Ultra Clutch. Under the direction of Executive Artistic Director Michal J. Lasley, Civic concludes its 2017-18 season with a joyous triumph. “You just can’t stop the beat” – and who’d want to?

For tickets and info visit www.civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org, or call 317-843-3800.

Civic hosts Christie’s deadly countdown

By John Lyle Belden

Set in the intimate confines of the Studio Theater, rather than its regular stage next door, the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre invites you to look in on a classic mystery: See those 10 people at the party? They are all guilty of something, and one by one they will die. Who will be standing at the end? Are you sure you know?

The Civic presents Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” Director Charles Goad (who we are more used to seeing on the stage than behind it) has trusted his talented cast the freedom to bring out the dark humor in the play’s growing suspense. Even when a character is one you wouldn’t mind seeing become the next victim of “Mr. Unknown,” he or she is presented in an entertaining manner.

Matt Anderson and Christy Walker sharply portray the domestics who literally help set the scene in a fine house on an island off the English coast. Vera (Carrie Schlatter at her steadily unraveling best) thought this was just a job opportunity. Army Cpt. Lombard (Joshua Ramsey as a unflappable man proud of all his qualities, good and bad) was advised to bring his revolver, just in case. Anthony (Bradford Reilly, doing upper-class spoiled well) is up for any kind of adventure. Mr. Daniels – or is that Blore? – (Steve Kruze, working the fine line between gruffness and guilt) was, or is, a cop – making him impossible to trust. Retired Gen. MacKenzie (Tom Beeler, showing mastery of a subtle character) can see this for the final battle it is. Emily (Christine Knuze, working a stiff upper lip that could break glass) is as sure of her own innocence as she is of everyone else’s immorality. Dr. Armstrong (David Wood, becoming even more likable as we find the man’s flaws) feels he could really use a drink, though he doesn’t dare. And prominent judge Sir William Wargrave (David Mosedale in top form) knows a thing or two about unnatural death, having sentenced so many to the gallows.

The cast is completed by Dick Davis as Fred, the man with the boat.

These actors give a delicious recreation of the old story which doesn’t feel dated, considering a strong storm on a remote island would cut off smartphone reception just the same as past means of communication. The plot is propelled by the old poem “Ten Little Soldiers” (a more palatable version than the frequently used “Ten Little Indians” or its original, more controversial, title). Ten tin soldiers stand on the mantle, their number decreasing throughout the play as the victims accumulate. The verse is on a plaque by the fireplace, and reprinted in the program for us to follow along.

I don’t want to give spoilers, but bear in mind that Christie wrote more than one way to end the story. See for yourself at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel through April 8. Call 317-843-3800 or visit civictheatre.org.

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.

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.