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.

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.

Would be a crime to miss ATI’s ‘Scoundrels’

By John Lyle Belden

The criminal culture on the French Riviera of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” is an easy-going atmosphere where there is truly honor among thieves, the setting for the raucous comedy of the 1988 film (starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin) and the more recent Broadway musical, now presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana.

Polished and posh local con man Lawrence Jameson (played by TJ Lancaster) has perfected his act of posing as an exiled prince, extracting funds for his “revolution” from willing rich women, including Muriel (Judy Fitzgerald), an American all too eager to spend her ex-husband’s fortune. Lawrence’s accomplice, Andre (Don Farrell), is also the city Chief of Police, so they pretty much have it made.

But shortly after hearing that a notorious swindler, The Jackal, is in the area, Lawrence meets Freddy (Tony Carter) a crude but effective fast-talker who wants the more mature con artist to teach him his methods. They gain a grudging respect for each other, but get on each others nerves to the point that they make a wager – first to fleece their next mark for $50 thousand gets to stay; the other must leave. Enter the Soap Queen of Cincinnati, Christine Colgate (Deborah Mae Hill). The con is on!

The result is hilarious and thoroughly entertaining. Fortunately, the musical’s book by Jeffrey Lane (songs by David Yazbek) doesn’t force our leads to be copies of the charismatic Caine or unique Martin, but excellently-rendered characters that Lancaster and Carter have obvious fun embodying. They and the supremely charming Hill make the most of the show’s frequent slapstick moments. Fitzgerald fits among the criminals, stealing scenes — especially with fellow ATI founder Farrell. Supporting and chorus parts are ably filled by Michael Corey Hassel, Tim Hunt, Annalee Traeger, Brynn Tyszka and Sabra Michelle, who shines as an Oklahoma oil heiress set on marrying our faux Prince. Direction is by New Yorker Michael Blatt.

ATI opens their 2019-20 season with this show in the intimate confines of The Studio Theater at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, running through Sept. 29. Get info 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.

ATI earns its wings with ‘Wonderful’ radio play

By John Lyle Belden

The bottom line with this show is fairly simple: If you like the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” — or are open to, if you haven’t seen it — you will enjoy the live Radio Play. It is popping up around central Indiana, but I saw the Actors Theatre of Indiana production, playing at the Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel (by the Kristkindlemarkt).

Done in the style of radio dramas performed in the 1940s (when the movie takes place and was released), an upbeat ensemble, accompanied by a sound-effects artist, provide all the sounds of a “playhouse of the air” so that families gathered around the radio sets in their homes can fill in all the details in their minds. Thus, if you close your eyes you still get the full story, almost like watching the classic Frank Capra film. With eyes open, you can see the performers mug and gesture their way through the show, giving those who braved the weather to see it in person a little extra — not to mention seeing all the tricks employed to make every noise from footsteps to stormy winds.

The script is true to the film’s story: Clarence the Angel (Second Class) is dispatched to help George Bailey, a man who spent his whole life helping others and desperately needs help himself. We get the backstory on George’s “wonderful life” so when he wishes he “had never been born” we can see how different things would be without him. In the end, we see the difference one person can truly make — Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!

ATI’s founding trio of Cynthia Collins, Don Farrell (voicing Clarence and other characters) and Judy Fitzgerald (who plays Mary, George’s wife) are joined by Adam Crowe (narrator, villainous Mr. Potter, etc.), Paul Tavianini (George), and Luca Arive, Sadie Cohen, Lincoln Everitt and Annabelle Pfeiffer in children’s roles, to perform the story. Fox59 TV personality Sherman Burdette literally provides the bells and whistles, working all the sound effects like a pro.

For a fresh, festive take on a holiday classic, performances of “It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” run through Dec. 23. For information and tickets visit atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

ATI opens with hijinks of another ‘Tenor’ farce

By John Lyle Belden

You don’t need to have seen the Ken Ludwig farce “Lend Me a Tenor” (though you really should when you get the chance) to understand the sequel, Ludwig’s “A Comedy of Tenors,” now in its local premiere at Actors Theatre of Indiana.

In the original, we met world-famous tenor Tito Merelli – with ego and appetites to match his talent – performing in Cleveland. Now, a few years later, former Cleveland mayor Henry Saunders and his son-in-law Max (also characters from the earlier play) are managing Tito in a Three Tenors extravaganza in Paris. Max, a rising star in opera, is listed as the third.

Suddenly, the number two on the bill cancels, sending Saunders and Max scrambling. Meanwhile, Tito’s relationship with wife Maria is tempestuous as ever – and then there’s his free-spirited daughter Mimi. Also, Tito’s biggest operatic rival, Carlo Nucci, is in the hotel. And finally, a hot-blooded Russian soprano with whom Tito once had a fling, Racon, is in town. Summon the singing bellhop, and let the slamming-door fun commence!

Melodrama and misunderstandings get under way from the first scene. The laughs come steadily, with plenty of physical comedy, as the plot rolls with its own twists that differentiate it from the previous play.

Don Farrell plays Tito as a runaway train of emotions – then in the second act, he has to work twice as hard, an exhausting performance that pays off hilariously. Mark Fishback plays Saunders as nonstop neurotic, the control freak with nothing under control. Nic Eastlund’s Max is the softer counterpoint to his boss, a character less fearful than in his prior appearance, but now distracted by the impending birth of his first child. Amy Bodnar puts plenty of fire in her portrayal of Maria, and the same spark is in Jenny Reber’s Mimi. Brynn Tyszka also brings the heat as Racon, working it to comic effect. As Carlo, hunky Jacob Gerard Barnes pratfalls as good as he looks, And when Farrell, Barnes and Eastlund sing, you know this show was cast perfectly.

A fun start to the ATI season, “A Comedy of Tenors” runs through Sept. 30 at The Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Box office at 317-843-3800 or thecenterpresents.org, or visit atistage.org for information.

Permit yourself to enjoy ‘Forbidden Broadway’

By John Lyle Belden

That beloved but misnamed (not actually on a “Square”) spot on Mass Ave. has returned to life with a wonderful send-up of the world of Broadway musicals.

Actors Theatre of Indiana presents “Forbidden Broadway’s Greatest Hits” all this month at the District Theatre (former home of Theatre on the Square), its first production under new name and management. ATI regulars Cynthia Collins, Don Farrell, Judy Fitzgerald and Logan Moore, with Brent Marty at the piano, give us the parodies made famous in the off-Broadway show that has been savaging its on-stage neighbors since 1982 – no one is safe, from Bob Fosse to “Les Mis” to Spongebob.

It’s impressive what gets made fun of – lay-offs of the cast of “Beauty and the Beast,” the rotating stage of “Les Miserables,” those massive headpieces in “Lion King.” Wendy loves that one of her pet peeves, actors reliant on visible microphones, gets skewered by a big-singing stage legend.

Speaking of legendary actors, they get parodied as well, including some girl named Carol and this guy named Mandy.

The result is so very funny. The more you know about the source material, the more hilarious it all is, but this show had everyone laughing.

And these five people playing it all are practically legend-level themselves – they should beware, lest someone down the street at IndyFringe makes fun of them!

Performances through July 29 at the District, 627 Massachusetts Ave., downtown Indianapolis. (ATI then returns to its home in Carmel to start its 2018-19 season, which concludes with more Forbidden Broadway next summer.) For info and tickets, see atistage.org.

ATI’s truly beautiful ‘Bird’

By John Lyle Belden

La Cage - Michael Humphrey, Greg Grimes, Tim Hunt, Kenny Shepard and Don Farrell - photo credit - Zach Rosing
From left, Michael Humphrey, Greg Grimes, Don Farrell (as ZaZa), Kenny Shepherd and Tim Hunt on the stage of “La Cage aux Folles,” presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana at Carmel’s Center for the Performing Arts through Oct. 1. (Zach Rosing photo)

Hours after seeing the musical “La Cage aux Folles” (literally “The Birdcage,” its original film was also popularly mistranslated “Birds of a Feather”) presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana through Oct. 1, Wendy and I discussed whether this was truly a perfect performance.

Of course, anything can and does happen in live theatre, but without going into pointless nitpicking (issues only we noticed or that evaporate between weekends), this production can only be described as flawless – like the faux female stars of the nightclub of the show’s title, a hotspot on the French Riviera in the late 1970s.

Bill Book and Don Farrell are wonderful as the couple who own, run and live above La Cage, its emcee Georges and star diva (the Great ZaZa) Albin, respectively. Book is in top form, and Farrell is definitely the leading lady. Good thing, too – as the role of saucy butler/maid Jacob has “scene-stealer” written all over it, and Daniel Klingler plays it to the limit, with uproarious results.

Our happy couple is thrown into turmoil when their son, Jean-Michel (Sean Haynes) comes home engaged to – a woman! – Anne (Devan Mathias), the daughter of anti-gay government minister Mr. Dindon (Ken Klingenmeier). To make matters worse, Dindon and his wife (Mary Jane Waddell) would be arriving with Anne for dinner at their house the next day. The young man’s plan is for Georges to “straighten” up and for Albin to stay out of sight – but, of course, nothing ever goes as planned.

Again, great performances by handsome Haynes (Wendy said she could get lost in his eyes) and bubbly Mathias. Klingenmeier is appropriately stiff, and Waddell so nice as the wife who secretly yearns to cut loose; the couple also smoothly play the proprietors of a local cafe.

Speaking of supporting roles, the versatile John Vessels has fun here, especially as stage manager Francis. And then there are the beautiful Les Cagelles: singing, dancing “illusions” played by Greg Grimes, Michael Humphrey, Tim Hunt and Kenny Shepard. Chez magnifique!

Judy Fitzgerald completes the cast, shining as fun-loving restaurateur and welcome friend Jacqueline.

La Cage aux Folles” was first a French play in 1973, then a film in 1978, and brought to Broadway (adapted by Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman) in the early ’80s. You’d think that after 40 years, a story like this would feel quaint and dated; alas, it’s as relevant as ever. This production, directed by Larry Raben with choreography by Carol Worcel, lets the weight of its subtext float on an atmosphere of fun. Scene changes are swirling dance routines, a laugh is never far from the tear, and the arch-conservative does get his well-deserved comeuppance. The songs include timeless anthems “I Am What I Am” and “The Best of Times (is Now),” each as defiant in their own way as they are memorable – and wonderfully executed here.

It’s a good time to go “bird” watching: Performances are at the Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get tickets at thecenterpresents.org. Find info on this and other ATI shows at atistage.org or facebook.com/ActorsTheatreOfIndiana.

Thanks a ‘Million’

NOTE: As the Word/Eagle is in flux with the renaming and corresponding change in official website, John is still putting his reviews here.

By John Lyle Belden

On a December day in 1956, something extraordinary happened.

And the fact that it did happen, and occur largely spontaneously, is practically unbelievable – but then, there’s the sound recordings, and that famous photo. On that day, in the little studio of Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn., four legends – Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis – held an impromptu gospel/country/rockabilly jam session that a local newspaper would declare the “Million Dollar Quartet.”

The Broadway musical of that same title, commemorating that day, is presented locally by Actors Theatre of Indiana at The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel through Oct. 2.

In the play’s dramatization, Perkins (Jeremy Sevelovitz) and his brothers are in a recording session, trying to come up with his next hit, when Sun’s owner and producer Sam Phillips (Don Farrell) surprises him with the label’s latest signee – a hyper Louisiana boy, Lewis (Taylor Gray), who is days away from his own first hit. Phillips wants to add boogie-woogie piano to enrich Perkins’ rockabilly sound – which the guitar legend resists, at first.

Meanwhile, Cash (Brandon Alstott) is expected to stop by; Phillips has a surprise contract extension for him, but Cash has a surprise of his own. Then, Presley (Adam Tran), who started with Sun but sings for RCA, stops by with his latest girlfriend (Betsy Norton), and can’t resist picking up a guitar and joining in. All four singers, and even the young woman, sing solos and harmonies of familiar songs from the era, including the stars’ biggest hits.

Of course, there’s also a little drama as Cash and Phillips need to resolve conflicting plans, Jerry Lee gets a little too brash, and Phillips seriously considers the future of his struggling operation. We also get flashbacks to show what the Sun boss first saw in each of these eventual legends. But overall, the music is what drives the show.

And what a wonderful show it is. Gray was understudy for Lewis on the musical’s national tour, but is overjoyed to be the number one Killer for ATI, as are we who see him expertly capture the energy and raw talent of Jerry Lee. Sevelovitz, also no stranger to his role, plays the heck out of his guitar as Perkins, recreating the look, sound and attitude of the original man in Blue Suede Shoes. The local actors: Alstott seems right at home as the Man in Black, Tran radiates The King’s charisma, and Norton is as charming as ever as beautiful Dyanne (based on Elvis’s actual companion; her name was changed to avoid confusion with another personality of the era). ATI co-founder Farrell ties it all together as the man in charge. The talents of Kroy Presley as Brother Jay on stand-up bass and Nathan Shew as Fluke on drums ably round out the cast. Direction is by the nationally-renowned stage and TV director DJ Salisbury.

The action takes place in one movie-length act, ends with a rousing encore for the curtain call, and is satisfying throughout. The content is family-friendly (aside from period-appropriate stage cigarettes) and even includes a couple of sacred songs.

Performances are Sept. 23-25 and Sept. 30-Oct. 2; call 317-843-3800 or visit atistage.org.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor at The Eagle (formerly The Word), the central-Indiana based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

At ATI: A salute to another era, and some sweet stories

By John Lyle Belden

Actors Theatre of Indiana is easy to overlook, with its home space being The Studio Theater, next to the bigger Tarkington stage in the Center for the Performing Arts up in downtown Carmel. Yet this little company produces some excellent and worth-seeking shows.

“The Andrews Brothers,” which played just in time for Veterans’ Day, was a valentine to the old USO shows that kept GI’s, sailors and Marines’ spirits up during World War II (and the organization is a valuable resource to service members to this day).

Three men (played by Michael Dotson, Jay Emrich and Don Farrell) – conveniently, brothers with the last name “Andrews” – who couldn’t make the cut for service due to health reasons, but still wanting to do their part, want to move up from being USO stagehands to performing on that stage. When illness prevents the Andrews Sisters from making a South Seas gig, the Brothers get their big break in a way they hadn’t imagined.

Our trio, with pin-up girl Peggy Jones (Mary Jayne Waddell) sing and dance their way through many memorable hits from the era, both as guys, and, hilariously in the second act, as the “Sisters.” It’s all a lighthearted affair, and was a fun trip down memory lane for many in the audience who remembered those days. This led to many wonderful conversations between them and the cast after the show.

As for myself, I and Wendy fell ill in the following days and the distraction of fighting the flu (yes, I had my shot, so I guess it could have been worse!) kept us from writing a timely review.

But ATI is on stage again, and while the previous show was for the young-at-heart, this one is a treat for actual little ones (and the parents and caretakers who read them their bedtime stories): “A Year With Frog and Toad.”

I remember reading the sets of short stories about best-friend amphibians by Arnold Lobel to my son years ago, and can even recall a few favorites. Those scenes are there in the live musical play, crafted by Willie and Robert Reale. The lead characters are brought to life excellently by Bradley Reynolds and Don Farrell, with the help of some supporting critters (Kyra Kenyon and Shelby Putlak), including a very eager snail (Tim Hunt).

If you or your kids are at all familiar with these woodland companions, make plans to visit them on Friday, Saturday or Sunday through Dec. 27. Call 317-843-3800 or visit atistage.org.