ATI and CSO combine for one killer production

By John Lyle Belden

Today’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” at the Palladium of the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel – a first-time collaboration of Actors Theatre of Indiana and the Carmel Symphony Orchestra – explores the full potential of its dramatic and musical experience.

This popular musical is an inspired choice, with its blending of the macabre, dark humor, and tragic and romantic love, backed by an operatic aural tapestry.

The ATI company — including members of its 2016 “Sweeney” production including director Richard J. Roberts — and the CSO, under the baton of Janna Hymes, are joined by the Indianapolis Arts Chorale with area singers including members of the Indianapolis Children’s Choir. Their powerful vocal presence is like another section of orchestra, on par with the strings or wind instruments. Taken together they provide a properly dense dramatic atmosphere for the actors upon the stage to flourish.

The ATI co-founders reprise their roles. Don Farrell totally disappears into the wig, makeup, and scowl, so that all you see is Sweeney, the barber unjustly exiled so that a corrupt judge could take his wife. Now Todd has returned for vengeance; his plan includes giving the best shave in London – if you survive it. Judy Fitzgerald likewise transforms into Mrs. Lovett, baker of the “worst pies in London,” but the problem isn’t her talents, but her lack of good flesh for the meat pies. Mr. Todd’s impulsive nature with his silver razors presents her with a ghoulish opportunity. Cynthia Collins returns as the mad Beggar Woman, ever present and revealed to be more than just the one to babble “Mischief! Mischief!” outside Lovett’s shop.

Joining the cast for this spectacular: Matthew Conwell is the charming and aptly-named Anthony Hope, who repays his off-stage rescue by wooing and rescuing Sweeney’s long-lost daughter Johanna (bold beauty Elizabeth Hutson). Conwell’s voice is superb, filling the song “Johanna” with harmonious longing. David Cunningham is wonderful as the tragically naive Tobias Ragg. Mario Almonte III is sharp as rival barber Adolfo Pirelli.

For the villians, Tim Fullerton plays judge Turpin as one whose growing madness makes him increasingly dangerous, a true rival to Todd. ATI veteran Michael Elliott presents Beadle Bamford with easy slimy charm.

Rory Shivers-Brimm reprises his earlier turn as characters including madhouse keeper Jonas Fogg, truly triumphant considering his recent recovery from health issues. Karaline Feller completes the cast in roles including the Bird Seller. Thanks to Roberts’s direction and effective use of costumes by Katie Cowan Sickmeier, various players easily morph into supporting roles, such as the pie shop customers, giving the illusion of a larger cast.

Scenic designer Paul Bernard Killian and prop master Amanda Pecora make creative use of this unique setting, with simple set pieces, only the infamous baking oven being instantly recognizable. As for what could be the true “star” of the show, the Barber Chair is deceptively simple. Painted blood red, it takes its proper place on the stage, but doesn’t pull focus from the brilliant work of its human costars. Roberts makes great use of the space as well, further including the orchestra as part of the production by having characters encircle it and making use of the Palladium’s rear balconies.

Did I say “today” at the beginning of this? Yes, for those looking online on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, you have the opportunity to make the second of two performances tonight at 8 p.m. (Tickets at thecenterpresents.org or Palladium Box Office). Friday celebrated a triumphant “opening night” (with jokes that they were “halfway through the run”).

For those who can’t make it or read this later, note this as a shining example of what future collaborations can be. Hymes noted after Friday’s show that they had only two weeks of rehearsal to put the various components together – a testament to the level of talent and dedication local theatre performers and musicians put into their work for you, the Central Indiana audience.

Summit: Finding life’s meaning in unlikely ways

By John Lyle Belden

Summit Performance explores connections, being in the moment, and the fears that affect both, in the comic drama “Be Here Now,” by Deborah Zoe Laufer, directed by Amy Lynn Budd.

Bari (Carrie Ann Schlatter) is an aspiring professor of philosophy, specializing in nihilism, who needs to finish her dissertation. Being in a process that requires a lot of work to argue that nothing at all matters, she’s stuck. Also, her headaches aren’t helping.

Patty (Cynthia Collins) and Luanne (Zariya Butler), coworkers at her other job, a distribution center for knicknacks of various faiths, dislike Bari’s “smug gloom” and seek to somehow make her happy. Desperate, Patty sets up a date with her cousin Mike (Ryan Ruckman), who has issues of his own.

Suddenly, Bari collapses. After a brief seizure, she awakens to unheard music, experiencing fantastic visions — and the realization that absolutely everything is awesome.

While this play is Bari’s story, Mike is a complex presence as well, with a tragic past and an eccentric present life of gathering cast-off items and building them into little houses. And he has a pet crow. Ruckman is solid, maintaining an easy charm that makes his oddities quaint rather than disturbing.

The setting, a little town just a couple of hours away from New York City, is sort of a metaphorical character of its own: Cooperville, where nearly everyone has the last name of Cooper, including Patty. She believes in astrology and fate, and easily justifies her fear of ever leaving town by citing the dangers of the Big City. Collins plays her a little curmudgeonly, but with a big heart. By contrast, her niece Louanne blithely walks the thin line between optimistic and naive. Butler serves up a perfect dose of sweetness.

As for Bari, Schlatter expertly carries her philosophical load, expounding on questions that would give Hamlet a stroke, at times seeming to babble like one who is high (which technically the character is “tripping” at times) yet thanks to Laufer’s script, giving profound insights. This being modern times in enlightened society, she (and the others) understand there is likely a serious medical explanation for what is happening to her. But realizing that even if it’s endangering her life, it does seem to make her feel happy for perhaps the first time, does she really want to give that up?

When all is said and done, you might find yourself looking for the “garbage house” in your own backyard. See for yourself to understand what I mean. “Be Here Now” runs through Feb. 2 on the Basile Stage at the Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

ATI tells important ‘Story’

By Wendy Carson

“This is a story about two rabbits.”

Seven innocuous words that begin not only a beautifully illustrated children’s book, but also a major political ballyhoo about race and censorship.

“Alabama Story,” a play by Kenneth Jones making its Indiana premiere with Actors Theatre of Indiana, is based on a true story of one simple book that sparked a major racial controversy due to its depiction of a white bunny marrying a black bunny. 

The setting is 1959 and even though George Wallace (“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”), has yet to be voted in as Governor, he is the leading political voice of Alabama. Racism is a fact of everyday life and the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement are just starting to stir. Rosa Parks had recently sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was still a local pastor. 

Enter Emily Wheelrock Reed (Cynthia Collins), the state librarian, and her diligent assistant, Thomas Franklin (Samuel L. Wick). Franklin brings the initial hubbub over “The Rabbits’ Wedding” to her attention, but Reed dismisses it until Senator E.W. Higgins (Don Farrell) starts pressuring her to remove the book from the library system. 

We also see the story of two children who grew up together. Lily Whitefield (Maeghan Looney), the daughter of a cotton plantation owner and Joshua Moore (Cameron Stuart Bass), the son of one of the Whitfields’ servants, descended from their slaves. They meet up again as adults, in exchanges that echo the book, but overshadowed by painful events of their past.

Overseeing all of this is the book’s author and illustrator himself, Garth Williams (Paul Tavianini). He takes on all of the supporting roles as well as giving his personal insight to the drama. Williams reiterates that he only chose the black and white colors for the rabbits due to his love of Oriental artworks which draw on those two colors for balance. He never meant for his tale to become what many believed to be a subversive indoctrination of their children into believing that interracial marriage was normal.

Bass’s performance shows that even though Franklin is living a better life himself, he never forgets the trauma and struggles he went through and his people are still enduring. Looney does a commendable job of showing the naiveté of the privileged class during these changing times.

Collins shows the strong, stalwart woman that Reed was, holding her own and never wavering no matter what came her way. Wick is endearing as Franklin, a free-thinking young man who was raised to be prejudiced but refuses to succumb to the hatred.

Tavianini brings a “Mr. Rogers” -type warmth to Williams, who also wrote and illustrated numerous other children’s books (including books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and E.B. White), none of which sparked any controversy.

However, the standout performance is by Farrell. He oozes all of the slick sliminess of a typical Southern politician. His soft-spoken words hold a thousand brutal attacks within, the demure and friendly smile hiding the fangs that are ready to strike you down with their poisonous barbs. He does such a great job embodying the character, you will likely want to punch him (but please don’t). 

ATI chose this play to be their first foray into serious drama and they have done an excellent job of it, under the direction of Jane Unger. This show is important to give you context as to this country’s history and what our future could be again should we glorify the past instead of learning from it.

Performances run through Nov. 17 in The Studio Theater at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get information and tickets at atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

ATI ‘Forbidden Broadway’: Here we go again!

By Wendy Carson

Upon entering the lobby for Actors Theatre of Indiana’s newest staging of “Forbidden Broadway,” we were surprised and delighted to see a blown-up copy of our previous review of the show. They also had poster copies of the other reviews — we were just happy to be among them.

So, since this show was just staged by ATI less than a year ago, you are probably thinking that you’ve already seen it and there’s no reason to see it again. That’s where you are dead wrong.

Forbidden Broadway,” created and curated in New York by Gerard Alessandrini, is a living creature that is constantly changing and evolving in new and delightful ways. Yes, some of the skits are the same ones covered in the previous incarnation, however at least half of the offerings here are different. In fact, the tribute to Carol Channing, slyly tipping its hat to her recent passing – as well as her generosity towards her legacy — is making its debut in this show.

There is even an audience sing-a-long during the tribute to Stephen Sondheim’s impending 90th birthday. Also, for those of you who have seen or are seeing The Civic Theatre’s delightful production of “Newsies,” their tribute will leave you howling.

For those who haven’t seen any of this, it is all a loving tribute to Broadway musicals and those who worked on and in them. It’s never mean – one can mock the cumbersome Lion King puppets and Les Mis rotating stage, while still understanding at the core it’s still meaningful art. While the more you know about the shows, the funnier it is, the all-in performances of ATI founders Cynthia Collins, Don Farrell and Judy Fitzgerald with Logan Moore, and Keith Potts on piano, entertain no matter how “in-house” the gags get. Note the content does get very PG-13 (those Avenue Q puppets still can’t keep their felt paws off each other).

So, get out there and prepare to laugh yourself silly at the glorious antics and talent of the latest production of “Forbidden Broadway,” through May 19 at The Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Call 317-84-3800 or visit atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.