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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‘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.

Bobdirex’s ‘Notre Dame’ rings true

By John Lyle Belden

Upon hearing that Bob Harbin and his Bobdirex productions are staging “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” a musical featuring the Alan Menken/Stephen Schwartz songs of the 1996 Disney animated film, you might wonder (as I did): Bob likes to go big and take chances, but didn’t the movie “Disney-fy” the Victor Hugo novel, making it too saccharine with an entirely-too-happy ending?

Take heart, purists. While there are a number of similarities to the animated version (and nearly all performed versions through the years have taken some liberties with Hugo’s text), this musical – originally produced in Germany by Disney Theatricals in 1999 – embraces the darker aspects of the story and doesn’t shy from its tragic elements.

This show effectively uses multiple members of the cast as narrators through the story, but most of that job falls to Clopin (Keith Potts), king of the Gypsies. We begin with how Frollo (Bill Book), the Archdeacon of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, came to adopt and raise Quasimodo (Jacob Butler), a severely deformed young man who lives sheltered among the church bells, tasked with ringing them. With no living human friends, he talks to the bells, the Saints’ statues and his fellow grotesques, the Gargoyles (Curtis Peters, Matt Rohrer and April Armstrong-Thomas).

The annual Festival of Fools draws Quasimodo out into the church courtyard, where, after meeting beautiful dancer Esmeralda (Shelbi Berry), he is crowned by Clopin as “King of the Fools.” But this king is mocked rather than honored, and Quasimodo returns to his bell tower.

The gypsy girl’s beauty draws the notice of not only the Hunchback, but also the Captain of the Guard Phoebus (Logan Moore) and Frollo. The Archdeacon struggles to convert his carnal longings into a desire to save her soul, and decides that if he can’t make her pure in his hands, he’ll have it done by fire.

The result is a stirring story of struggle between the sacred and profane, and how the line blurs between them. An ever-present choir punctuates scenes with chants like Kyrie Eleison, completing the atmosphere of the well-built Gothic set. The show’s Disney influences give it energy and welcome touches of humor, but isn’t overdone.

Harbin has not let us down, as we get excellent performances from all, especially Book and Potts, each charismatic in their own way. Berry is stunning. And Butler gives an award-worthy performance as our unlikely hero.

Once again, Bobdirex has delivered a must-see show, with performances Thursday through Sunday (June 29-July 2) and July 7-9 at the Marian University Theatre, 3200 Cold Spring Road, Indianapolis. Thursday, June 29, all military members get in free, with discounts for their companions. For more information, call 317-280-0805 or visit bobdirex.com.

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.