Civic: Here we go again!

By John Lyle Belden

It’s hard to imagine anyone not knowing about the musical “Mamma Mia!” Between the popular film (which recently launched a sequel) and the various touring productions through the years since it premiered on Broadway in 2001, practically everyone with an interest in this show has seen it. And it stands as one of those theatre experiences people eagerly go to again and again, perhaps bringing along children or hold-outs unfamiliar with its goings-on.

Since rights recently became available for local productions, it is naturally popping up — now “Mamma Mia!” is at the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, through Oct. 19.

Directed and choreographed by Anne Beck, this edition of the musical — featuring an engaging romantic comedy plot, and twenty-two hits by 70s-80s superstars ABBA — takes advantage of its large stage and generously-sized volunteer cast to really go big on the singing and dancing, while simultaneously embracing the show’s use of simple sets, employing a couple of small set pieces and a rotating center stage that is put to effective use. 

Thanks to Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan’s efforts on the big screen, the karaoke nature of the musical doesn’t require perfect singers, still Civic didn’t skimp on the talent. Becky Larson stars as Sophie Sheridan, a girl who invites three men to her wedding, knowing only that one of them is her father. Her mother, Donna, is portrayed wonderfully by Kara Snyder, while her best friends and “Dynamos” are fun roles for Civic favorites Laura Lockwood as cougarish Tanya and Marni Lemmons as free-spirit Rosie. Our three possible papas are sharply played by Clay Mabbitt as Sam the architect, Ethan Mathias as “Headbanger” Harry the banker, and Parrish Williams as Bill the travel writer. Joseph David Massingale is more than a handsome face as the prospective groom, Sky.

Also great are Cameron Hicks and Nate Schlabach as Sky’s buds, Pepper and Eddie; Jessica Linxwiler and Julia Ammons as maids-of-honor Ali and Lisa; and supporting ensemble Matthew Altman, Tanner Brunson, Sydney Chaney, Tyler Hartman Derry, David Johnson, Jonathan Katter, Emily Lantz, Dani Morey, Miles Morey, Kipp Morgan, Jacquelyn Rae, Emily Schaab, Caitlin Stacy, and Tiffany Whisner.

Taken as a whole, this show is so much fun. There are moments fraught with possible heartbreak (and sad songs), but it all ends well, of course. We all have our favorite scenes — such as the frog-dance of “Lay All Your Love on Me,” or Tanya strutting her stuff in “Does Your Mother Know” — and there’s always the “Megamix” at the end with the outrageous costume reveal and bonus track (“Waterloo”). 

Civic is “having the time of their lives;” it would be a shame to miss the party. Get tickets and information at 317-843-3800, civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

IndyFringe: Vinny the Pooh

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

While waiting for the show to begin, you are serenaded by lounge singer Richard Cheese — and if you know who that is, then you have a good idea of what you are in for with this show.

Apparently, after Christa MaBobbin left the 50 Hectare Forest to marry Toad and take a wild ride in neighboring Frogswallow, things changed. Now these beloved characters have been forced into a life of crime in order to remain a “family.”

Steve Kruze gives Vinny the hopefulness and love of honey that you might remember but he also brings a little street-smarts to the role as well. Kelsey VanVoorst as Sniglet gives us a new interpretation of the original’s worried indecisiveness.

Clay Mabbitt is hilarious as Eyesore, with his gloomy outlook and eyepatch(es). Joshua C. Ramsey channels all of the pompousness of Jowl, speaking in Latin throughout.

Carrie Ann Schlatter’s portrayal of Franga (and puppet child Shmoo) brings all of the fierceness that wild kangaroos are known for.

Rounding out the “Family” is John Kern as Stagger. His energy levels are amazing as he bounds through each scene bringing out the self-centered side of his character.

Morgan Morton, as MaBobbin, deftly maneuvers her character from innocent victim to devious plotter without batting an eyelash.

So come out and see how the corruption and intrigue work out. Just know that in this story, while there are snacks, there will also be blood.

An Approxima Productions joint, remaining performances are Friday and Saturday (Aug. 23-24) at the IndyFringe theatre, 719 E. St. Clair.

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.

Go west (of downtown) to see ‘Laramie’

By John Lyle Belden

As I suspect it was for many other straight people, I can look back and see a rough point between “before” and “after.” A friend, coworker or family member turns out to be gay, or even officially comes out, and then others you know. You start to see things from the LGBTQ+ perspective. Then, suddenly, some jokes aren’t funny anymore, certain attitudes are absurd, and you feel embarrassed you used to indulge in any of that. Soon, you think of these individuals as friends, family, regular people — then no longer see them as “them.”

For America, one of those points was in the fall of 1998. Before then, to me. Laramie, Wyoming, was just a town where some of my cousins might still live, where I once visited historic Fort Laramie. To the general public, it was known as the home of the University of Wyoming, if they knew of it at all.

But the kidnapping, beating, torture and murder of Matthew Shepard in October 1998 changed that.

The story of a 20-year-old gay man essentially crucified and left to die rocked the world, and shook the town to its core. The media frenzy and public assumptions about the people there didn’t help. Playwright Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project of New York went to Laramie in the months that followed. Their work, “The Laramie Project,” is not so much a traditional play as a live documentary. Its nonfiction text is all from writings and recordings at the time, including court proceedings, and the feelings of Laramie residents, those who knew Shepard and the perpetrators, and Tectonic company members. The only agenda of this project was the truth, an honest look at the people involved, the Laramie citizens, and ultimately all of us.

“You must tell your story,” one of the clergy interviewed says.

Now, local company No Holds Bard presents the story at Indy Convergence, just west of downtown, with profits going to the Matthew Shepard Foundation. The cast of Abby Gilster, Clay Mabbitt, Denise Jaeckel, Nathan Thomas and Tristan Ross (who also directs) are talents who make a good play entertaining and a great play unforgettable — this one will stay with you for a while. These men and women portray various friends, relatives, witnesses, officials, reporters and regular people, as well as Tectonic members undertaking this delicate mission.

Ross’s range includes portraying Kaufman, the Judge, infamous minister Fred Phelps, and Shepard’s heartbroken father. Thomas not only plays sympathetic persons including the bartender who unknowingly saw the beginnings of the crime, the man who found Shepard on the fence, and a young theatre student finding himself coming out as an Ally; but also unflinching portrayals of the two men who committed the heinous acts.

I often refer to various works, from Shakespeare tragedies to goofy farces, as “must-see” — this time it is not hyperbole, or just me throwing my stage friends a bone. This is a show every American, teenage and older, should see. Ross, whose work I already love, and friends are even more wonderful in sharing this with Indianapolis now, as the 20th anniversary of Shepard’s death was just days ago.

Going back to my starting point about changing attitudes, whether any member of cis-hetero America has transitioned to the “after” phase is up to us individually. It has become painfully plain that some are still stuck in the “before” — or even like it there. Thus, the importance of this work, even after two decades.

Tickets are only $15. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday 2:30 p.m. Sunday at 2611 W. Michigan St. Pay onsite, or get tickets here.

Fonseca’s debut drama shows what we are capable of building

By Wendy Carson*

I honestly don’t know what is more horrifying about Robert Shenkkan’s play, “Building the Wall,” the details of atrocities committed or the sheer fact that I can see all of it happening in the real world, pretty much the exact way it does in the script.

The story revolves around a college professor conducting an interview with a reluctant prison inmate. Throughout their dialogue, you discover why Rick has been incarcerated – and his truth of the situation that led him here.

Clay Mabbitt does an amazing job at weaving Rick’s story without forcing a biased slant on the situation. This is a man who sees himself as inherently good but also acknowledges he allowed much of the inhumane treatment to continue, climaxing with their inevitable final solution to the situation.

Millicent Wright as the academic, Gloria, deftly leads him through his tale. Since his lawyer prevented him from defending himself or even speaking at his trial, she wants to help him get his story out in his own words so that he can finally be heard.

Again, the story presented here is fictional, but it contains so many references to actual historical events and situations that it feels just a bit too real. In fact, we found it hard to believe it was written in 2016, and not this year.

This is the first play for the newly-founded Fonseca Theatre Company, established by a group of central Indiana artistic people led by the company’s namesake – and this play’s director – Bryan Fonseca. Like his past work establishing the Phoenix Theatre, this is the first of a planned season (and seasons to come) of thought-provoking, important theatre on West Michigan Street.

Aside from helping create an enduring arts scene in the near-westside of Indy, FTC’s mission is to embrace and celebrate diversity in all its diverse forms. As one can guess from the present-day setting and the play’s title, its inspiration comes from the President’s promise, and the continued heated debate, regarding immigration and immigrants. What does a play with a black woman and a white man have to do with this? In “Building the Wall,” it is not Latinx people who have to justify what they’re doing or explain how they got where they are.

In the end, this is everybody’s problem.

Performances are Fridays through Sundays, through Oct. 7, at FTC’s temporary home, Indy Convergence, 2611 W. Michigan. See www.fonsecatheatre.org for details and tickets.

(*John Lyle Belden also contributed to this review.)

IndyFringe: ‘Jubilee in the Rear View Mirror’

By John Lyle Belden

These things happened.

We must never forget that. These things happened.

Jubilee, Mississippi, does not exist, and “Jubilee in the Rear View Mirror,” the short drama by Garret Mathews that had a run at the recent IndyFringe festival, is fiction, but racial strife and murderous bigotry in Mississippi in the 1960s were real. These things happened.

Kates (portrayed by Donovan Whitney) represents the various college students – black, like him, or even white – who volunteered as civil rights workers, helping disenfranchised Southern blacks to register and vote. People who put up with derision, verbal and even physical attacks, from white residents who declared them “outside agitators” and an enemy to society. People who landed in a Southern jail cell, like Kates, speaking on a college level with a cellmate who barely finished high school, only adding to the layers of difference between them, yet trying to hard to bridge.

These things happened.

Buell (Clay Mabbitt) represents the Southerners who don’t feel things are quite right, but it’s the world they were born into. Perhaps they play along because it keeps you out of trouble. Perhaps they find other ways to act out at the world, like getting drunk and attacking a traffic light, landing in jail next to this nig… this outsider.

These things happened.

Tadpole (Sam Fields) seems like an unreal stereotype, but we all know someone like him, and in the rural South 50 years ago, there weren’t public services to care for people with mental challenges, but local folks would adopt them and take care of them. But what if your caretaker is in jail?

These things happened.

Spottswood (Kevin C. Robertson) represents the face under the KKK hood, the men invested in the racist status quo, who didn’t even see non-whites as human. Men who not only defied the outsiders, but reveled in the fact that they could kill them, and likely never face justice.

These things happened.

The jail Guard (Dustin Miller) represented the common go-along/get-along citizen. They just don’t want trouble, and really don’t feel comfortable with strangers coming in and upsetting things.

These things happened.

These actors, under the direction of Susan Nieten, do an excellent job of breathing life into these archetypes, making them human – all human – and standing before us, bringing the arguments and ideas of the time to life, presenting “all sides” better than the bluster of a present-day politician reveals. They bring to life Mathews’ imagined scenes, based on numerous interviews of people who were there, in real Southern towns.

These things happened.

And when you see this show, wherever it next gets staged – and you should – even with a different cast and director, and you see what its events lead to, remember:

These things happened.

For information on the inspiration for “Jubilee” visit Mathews’ website, www.pluggerpublsihing.com.

Review: Quirky ‘Crumble’ holds up

By John Lyle Belden

Theatre on the Square presents the tragic comedy – or comic tragedy – “Crumble (lay me down Justin Timberlake),” through June 18.

This is one of those stories with characters so quirky, in so many ways, that they somehow feel like someone you know. Even, in this case, entities that are not even technically alive.

In this play, we meet a house (Clay Mabbitt) that used to be considered a mansion, but has been falling into disrepair. He feels so lonely at the neglect by and indifference of his human occupants that he might have to kill them in hopes of getting better people to move in. The residents are neurotic mother Clara (Carrie Ann Schlatter) and hyper daughter Janice (Paeton Chavis). The husband/father Gary (Joshua C. Ramsay), dead for about a year at Christmas, is a shadowy ghost.

Ramsay is also the vision of Justin Timberlake that comes alive from the poster on Janice’s bedroom wall to advise and confess his love to her before flying away. As she sings macabre songs and deconstructs a doll, Janice works on her holiday surprise.

Meanwhile, Clara tries to keep her sanity while making four-star gourmet meals like she prepares at work for herself and her daughter. She speaks in poetry, and her only friends are her crazy-cat-lady sister, Barbara (Amy Hayes), and a phantom celebrity of her own.

The presentation as a single 80-minute act helps builds tension towards something frightening and dangerous, but with moments of surprising dark humor on the way. The five veteran actors are each excellent in their own way. Chavis convincingly plays a disturbed tween struggling to understand what has happened, while convinced that some part of it is her fault and only she can make it right. Schlatter easily carries us along on her mental roller coaster, so desperate to connect with her daughter that she buys all seven unusual items on Janice’s gift wish list. Hayes is endearing as the ever-helpful sis who stays willfully blind to her own issues. Ramsey turns on the charm, adding humor and emotional depth to his moments as helpful hallucinations.

And aided by the clever script by Sheila Callaghan and direction by Rob Johansen, Mabbitt makes the house a fully-realized character, perhaps the most “real” person in this drama.

Overall, this is the kind of story that only works as a stage play, and an example of why an active theatre scene like Indianapolis enjoys is so important. There are mature topics, and Janice expresses herself very colorfully, so this show is for teens and older.

Find TOTS at 627 Massachusetts Ave. Get info and tickets at www.tots.org or 317-685-8687.

(This was also posted at The Word [later The Eagle], Indy’s LGBTQ newspaper)