CCP returns with ‘Last Five Years’

By John Lyle Belden

“The Last Five Years” sounds like the experience of the last five months, but it is the title of the musical bringing live theatre back to Carmel.

Presented by Carmel Community Players at The Cat downtown, the Off-Broadway hit by Jason Robert Brown is an examination of a relationship, a doomed marriage, blending the individual perspectives of the husband and wife – one experiencing it from beginning to end, the other reflecting from the end to the beginning. At mid-performance (it is presented as a 90-minute single act) the two “cross paths” at the wedding. It is an interesting dramatic device overall, and it works.

Bradley Allan Lowe, who fell in love with the songs when gifted a CD of the cast recording in his youth, directs Nina Stilabower and Daniel Draves as Cathy and Jamie, an ill-fated couple who started with joyous promise. He, an ordinary-looking guy, is an up-and-coming novelist. She, a beautiful woman, is a struggling actress. They encourage each others’ careers at first, but especially as his keeps him with literary socialites in New York, while hers has her in obscurity in Ohio, the cracks in their relationship widen until the break becomes unavoidable.

Stilabower is excellent in character and voice, showing what a loss it is for Broadway not to notice Cathy. Draves, presenting a likable mensch, carries himself well while showing Jamie’s full range of feeling. The two occupy a nicely designed stage, by Lowe and Kassie Woodworth, with the juxtaposition of simple furnishings with the visual metaphor of a whirlwind of papers that could be his novel drafts, or pages of musicals she tries out for.

There are also interesting costume choices – credited to Lowe, Draves, Stilabower, and Cathie Morgan. Note that the must-be-seen-to-be-believed Hanukkah pajamas were real, found online. (Ask Lowe where to order them.)

While very entertaining, the show presents with safety in mind. CCP takes the ongoing health crisis seriously: Seating is spaced and limited to 50 percent capacity; temperatures are taken at the door; all patrons must wear masks, and are asked to buy tickets in advance.

“The Last Five Years” runs through Aug. 2 at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way (just south of the Main Street Arts & Design district). Get details and tickets at CarmelPlayers.org.

Powerful ‘Ragtime’ at Footlite Musicals

By John Lyle Belden

Since it launched in 1996, Terrance McNally’s musical “Ragtime” — based on the E.L. Doctorow novel — has become an American “Les Mis,” a great sweeping epic of national identity and tragic power. And now it graces the stage of Footlite Musicals.

Set in the first decade of the 20th century, an upper-middle class family in New Rochelle, N.Y. find themselves at the crossroads of a number of intersecting stories, blending historical figures and events with characters who were a reflection of the era in various ways — good and bad. 

One can’t dispute the star power of such roles as ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Allen Sledge), who faces one racist indignity too many; his tragic girlfriend Sarah (Angela Manlove); extraordinarily kind Mother (Heather Hansen), discovering liberation despite society’s constraints; her headstrong Younger Brother (Jared Gaddis), whose search for meaning takes him to radical extremes; and immigrant Tateh (Daniel Draves), whose artistic soul keeps reaching for the American Dream until he finds it. 

Another impressive performance is by Edgar, the Little Boy, who acts as one of the play’s narrators as well as involvement in numerous scenes — a big task for a young actor, which Lincoln Everitt carries out well.

The “real” people in the show include Henry Ford (W. Michael Davidson), J.P. Morgan (Bryan Padgett), Harry Houdini (Josh Cox), and anarchist Emma Goldman (Lauren Laski) — as well as two whom history would remember in completely opposite ways. Evelyn Nesbitt (Hadas Yasmin) was the Kim Kardashian of her time, a style icon with more notoriety than talent, only known now by her inclusion in Doctorow’s book; while civil rights icon Booker T. Washington (Jerry Davis) is widely celebrated to this day.

Directed by Paula Phelan, this production has solid performances throughout, including from characters who don’t come off quite as heroic in the narrative — such as Father (Mitchell Hammersley) who means well, but finds himself distanced from his family (even when he’s with them) and lost in the changing times; and bigoted fireman Willie Conklin (Josh Cornell), the biggest villain of the show.

A last-minute addition to the cast, Truman Peyton charms as little Coalhouse Walker III in the finale.

The split-level set is used to good effect, with excellent light effects and projections to punctuate scenes, and a nice representation of a Model T to drive across the stage. Zak Techiniak directs the live orchestra.

Part of the impact of this very powerful musical story is in the unflinching look at the treatment of minorities of the era, including the use of vicious language, in context. It is disturbing, as it is meant to be — a visceral reminder of how far we have come in a century, yet how close we are to falling back.

Performances run through Oct. 13 at 1847 N. Alabama St.,near downtown Indy. Call 317-926-6630 or visit footlite.org.

Footlite presents who-will-do-it murder mystery musical

By John Lyle Belden

One thing is clear from the beginning of “Murder Ballad,” someone is going to die.

Playing at Footlite Musicals, this intense no-intermission rock opera presents four characters: our Narrator (Miranda Nehrig), who guides the fateful story’s journey while eventually becoming a character in her own right; Tom (Dave Pelsue), a proud bartender with dreams but little to show for them; Sara (Bridgette Michelle Ludlow), a frustrated poet fiercely in love with Tom, but feeling them drifting apart; and Michael (Daniel Draves), a writer who gives up his verse to make a perfect life for Sara.

After a coy courtship, Michael and Sara marry, have a daughter, make a home – but eventually, feeling restless again, Sara calls Tom at his new, successful bar. Old feelings awaken; this will not end well.

Pelsue, a veteran of shows such as “Rock of Ages” and “Tooth of Crime,” is totally in his element. Nehrig combines singing chops with exceptional acting – her ability to effectively speak volumes with a simple facial expression suits the Narrator role well. Ludlow makes a wonderful, powerful Indy theatre debut. And Draves works well the full range of emotions – his tenderness in apt contrast to his eventual rage.

Audience seating is on the Footlite stage, with actors sometimes moving among the cabaret tables for a more immersive experience. There is also a great on-stage band, with Eddie McLaughlin, Kris Manier, Will Scharfenberger and music director Ainsley Paton.

At the core, this is a story of love, betrayal and consequences, things we can all relate to. The principal mystery – who is killed, at whose hands – is revealed at the end. But then, we get what may be the musical’s best song in the Finale: a commentary on how we in the audience so enjoy murder as entertainment (so long as it’s not us getting hurt).

So, maybe we all got a little blood on our hands. Still, it’s one hell of a show.

“Murder Ballad” has one more weekend of shows, Thursday through Sunday (Jan. 17-20) at 1847 N. Alabama St.; call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.

Footlite presents a class ‘Act’

By John Lyle Belden

I only have a vague memory of seeing the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg film, “Sister Act.” But you don’t have to have seen it at all to appreciate the Broadway musical version, presented by local talent at Footlite Musicals. Goldberg’s only connection to the stage edition was as producer, otherwise the show was stripped down to the general plot and rebuilt with original songs (by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater) and its own sense of fun.

Set in 1970s Philadelphia, aspiring singer Deloris Van Cartier (Morgan Webster) witnesses her manager and boyfriend, Curtis (Ollice Aurelius Nickson), commit murder. With the help of Eddie (Donald Marter), a cop with a crush on Deloris, she is hidden with a cloister of nuns at a church with its own problems. Attendance at services has been falling, and the choir is horrible – apparently each sister sings in a different key. Mother Superior (Karen Frye Knotts) prays fervently for help, but can this spoiled foul-mouthed lounge entertainer be the answer?

Webster seems a bit over the top at first, but that’s just Deloris being herself. As she, in disguise as a fellow nun, wins over the sisters, she grows on us as well. Knotts is maternally likable as the one old-fashioned resister to the choir’s new soulful style. The rest are mostly reminiscent of the quietly hip sisters of “Nunsense,” especially Sister Mary Patrick (Nina Stilabower) and shy postulant Sister Mary Robert (Bailey Jane Williams), who it’s fun to watch come out of her shell. Nickson is equal parts charming and menacing as he hunts for the woman whose testimony could put him away, accompanied by a goofy trio of henchmen, played by Daniel Draves, Josh Vander Missen and Jonathan Studdard. Marter makes the unlikely romantic hero “Sweaty” Eddie a character to root for. And W. Michael Davidson is a blessing as the church pastor, Monsignor O’Hara.

It’s all good music and good times, with a little drama, as this “Sister Act” makes a joyful noise and “Spreads the Love Around.” Performances are weekends through Oct. 8 at 1847 N. Alabama St., near downtown Indy. Call 317-926-6630 or visit Footlite.org.

Review: Complex killer musical at BCP

By John Lyle Belden

For about a year now, it has been the unofficial Year of Sondheim around central Indiana stages. And now it appears to be Buck Creek Players’ turn, with its production of the musical, “Assassins.”

This play brings together in a dark-humored fantasia various men and women who killed – or tried to kill – the President of the United States. The genius of this piece by Sondheim and James Weidman is that it compellingly presents these individuals’ point of view without glorifying their acts.

The Proprietor (Steven R. Linville) in this room outside of time and space is offering guns to the various frustrated characters seeking – something. Perhaps it’s personal relief; perhaps it’s attention; perhaps it’s to change the world. The solution? Shoot the President.

The characters represent people who actually existed (a couple are even still alive), who you may or may not have heard of, but they all look up to the one we all know: Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth (Mark Meyer). Charles Guiteau (David Wood) would be shocked that we don’t know his name as readily, as he expected his shooting of President James Garfield (briefly played by chorus member W. Michael Davidson) to boost sales of his book and lead to him becoming President himself – rather than be hanged, which happened instead.

We also hear of the irrational motivations behind Leon Czolgosz (Jake McDuffee) shooting William McKinley, Guiseppe Zangara (Scott Fleshood) shooting at Franklin Roosevelt, John Hinckley Jr. (Trenton Baker) shooting Ronald Reagan, and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Stacia Ann Hulen) and Sara Jane Moore (Cathy Tolzmann) taking shots at Gerald Ford (played, complete with pratfall, by Bryan D. Padgett).

Most intriguing are the ramblings of Samuel Byck (Daniel Draves), taken from the actual tape recordings he made and sent to journalists, before attempting his plan to crash a passenger jet into the White House to kill Richard Nixon (his gun was used on others as he tried to take over the plane).

To let us know these assassins’ stories, we hear from a Balladeer (Luke McConnell), who eventually finds his own dark and infamous purpose.

These are not heroes; most are arguably insane, but it’s hard to say they are entirely bad people. These facts add depth to performances throughout the cast. Guiteau’s delusions make Wood’s portrayal one of the more entertaining. Hulen as a loopy-hippie Fromme and Tolzmann’s Kathy-Bates-esque turn as Moore provide much of the dark humor, especially in Moore’s total incompetence with a firearm. Mary Hayes Tuttle boldly portrays famed anarchist Emma Goldman, an influence on Czolgosz, who McDuffie infuses with desperation. Fleshood plays Zangara earnestly, an appropriate approach for someone whose pain was real but actions made little sense. And Draves is like an obscenity-spewing force of nature as Byck – the dirty Santa suit he wears to protest Nixon making him look even more unhinged. Baker’s Hinckley is a lost, confused boy with a gun.

Above all, Meyer exudes a charisma befitting Booth, a renowned actor before committing the one act he is known for, as he takes charge of this macabre exclusive club. Linville and McConnell ably represent American Culture and History, respectively, as tangible beings with genuine influence on the stories we see, making it feel inevitable when McConnell’s young man picks up the rifle.

(Note: This production doesn’t hold back on language. But then, the topic already makes this not a show for children.)

With sharp direction by D. Scott Robinson with Christine Schaefer, and interesting set design by Aaron B. Bailey, this is worth taking a shot at seeing down at the Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74), through June 12. Just kindly leave your firearms outside.

No actual Presidents were harmed in the making of this musical. Find info at www.buckcreekplayers.com or call 317-862-2270.

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