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: Make Me A Match

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 John Lyle Belden

One of the creators of last year’s “Paper Swords,” Matt Day, wrote this musical with Jordan Brown and Josh Brown, a story of love and empowerment taking place on a TV dating show.

On “Make Me a Match,” a bachelorette — on this occasion, Beth (Emily Sanders), an internet Influencer — gets to pick which of the three male contestants she has to marry. The bachelors are smooth rich boy Steve (Kerrington Shorter), cocky horndog Todd (Ryan Powell) and kindergarten teacher Brad (Josh Brown), who didn’t know he was living in a musical.

Smarmy host Danny Sharp (Ethan Mathias) is treated like a god, while he treats cue-card intern Meredith (Riley Iaria) and makeup girl Lexi (Jordan Brown) like crap. 

There is also a security guard (Aaron Williams) for when things get intense.

One thing that was impressive was that even though there was an on-stage band, the actors didn’t use or need mics. Also, to complete the immersive experience, the audience is the show’s studio audience, and we have an important part to play near the end. 

Mathias makes an excellent bad guy. Sanders counters your expectations of shallowness to show Kardashian-types aren’t quite as dumb as they look. And Iaria and Jordan Brown have appropriately righteous fire. Josh Brown, caught in the middle of this, supplies many of the comic moments. 

This #MeToo musical is better than a lot of what’s actually on television, and more fun. 

Performances are 9 p.m. tonight, as well as 7:30 Thursday, 9 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday (Aug. 20-25), at The Oasis (Shriners’ entrance of the Murat, on the north side), 502 N. New Jersey St.

Civic goes Wilde

By John Lyle Belden

If you think Victorian English manners and society were stuffy and insufferable, imagine how it was for someone living through it. Fortunately, Oscar Wilde had his rapier wit to help him skewer those pretensions in his masterpiece farce, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre presents in the cozy confines of the Studio Theater through April 6.

In 1890s London, among polite folks for whom ignorance is a virtue and honesty a vice, John (Ethan Mathias) and Algernon (Bradford Reilly) have been undertaking some “Bunburying” – that’s not code for something obscene; it’s just the simple practice of being one person in town, and another in the country. John is in love with Gwendolen (Carrie Schlatter), while Algernon has fallen in love with John’s ward, Cecily (Sabrina Duprey). But both ladies insist on marrying a man named Earnest. So both our heroes oblige, and hilarious confusion follows.

Gwendolen’s aunt, Lady Bracknell (Vickie Cornelius Phipps), is very particular about who the girl marries. Meanwhile, Cecily’s governess Miss Prism (Miki Mathioudakis) is trying to get the attention of the Reverend Chasuble (Craig Kemp), but she is also hiding an important secret.

The incomparable Matt Anderson completes the ensemble as the butler at each house. Performances are top-notch, and even the scene changes are entertaining — executed by the actors under Anderson’s watchful eye.

When the world is full of absurdity, nonsense starts to make its own sort of sense. That was Wilde’s world then, and some could argue that reflects our world now. So, enjoy this Earnest effort at classic comedy.

The Studio Theater is at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. For tickets and information, call 317-843-3800 or visit civictheatre.org.

Footlite: Visit ‘Brigadoon’ while you can

By John Lyle Belden

The musical “Brigadoon” is one of our favorite shows. But like the fabled town that only appears in our dimension once every 100 years, productions of this gem seem nearly as rare.

I had thought I would have to settle for a nicely-done high school production a couple of years ago (it’s perfect for such a venue, with its large cast, colorful costumes and spirited Gaelic dancing) and, of course, the classic Gene Kelly film – but then Footlite Musicals picked the show to open its 63rd season.

Brigadoon no longer appears on maps of Scotland, thanks to a “miracle” brought about in the 18th century to spare the town and its people from impending doom. In 1947, a pair of New Yorkers out on a hunting trip find themselves lost in the woods, and in a way, in time.

Charlie Metzger is Tommy Albright (the Kelly lead role), a man whose life seems to be going well, but it’s not making him happy. Ethan Mathias plays Tommy’s best friend Jeff Douglas, a cynical soul who almost never loses his dry humor. They wander into the magical town to find its unusual residents on a happy day – the wedding of two of its citizens. Charlie Dairymple (Donald Marter) is to marry bonny Jean MacLaren (Ellen Vander Missen), which doesn’t set well with Harry Beaton (Josh Vander Missen), who had hoped to woo and win the lass himself. As for our visitors, Tommy finds himself “Almost Like Falling in Love” with Jean’s sister Fiona (Sydney Norwalk); and Jeff winds up on the bed of Meg (Kristen Tschiniak), who was hoping for more than an innocent afternoon nap. The day is quite eventful, not only with outsiders in town, and the wedding, but also a fateful chase of one who would risk their very existence.

The cast are wonderful all around, and in good voice – especially Marter with his renditions of “I’ll Go Home With Bonnie Jean” and “Come to Me, Bend to Me.” My partner Wendy notes that the latter song, often sung in a commanding tone, is far more tender here, a yearning and longing for the one Charlie loves.

Choreographer Linda Rees has worked up plenty of nice traditional movement, including a Sword Dance, keeping the many actors stepping lively throughout the show.

I always consider Jeff a dream role, as he doesn’t have to sing a note, and he gets so many great witty lines. Fans of the show might notice one sharp barb missing – we were informed it was on purpose, decided on even before considering today’s social climate. Also, a tale of “butchers” who were out to destroy the town actually refers to cruel raids that did occur in Scotland in the mid-1700s, giving this fictitious world a historic anchor.

I can’t help but wonder what it’s going to be like in 2047, when the successors to Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe, the show’s creators, will stage what happens in Brigadoon’s next “day.” But for now, I insist you make the trek to the highlands of the Hedback Theater, 1847 N. Alabama St., to see this production before it vanishes into the mists. Performances are Thursdays through Sundays, Oct. 4-7 and 11-14. Call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.

IndyFringe: ‘Paper Swords: A Musical’

This show is part of the 14th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 16-26, 2018 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

First, a definition for those of you who do not travel in such circles: “LARP” stands for Live Action Role-Playing. This is very similar to when you played make-believe as a child but in this case, everyone involved is playing a game and they are all using the same rules. Now, to the show —

Our story begins with a bunch of Knights battling it out in the Kingdom of Elerin. They represent two distinct factions, Silvermore (who wear green tabards) and Ferndray (who wear blue tabards).

Our hero, Avery, is of Ferndray and one of the best fighters. A new girl in the kingdom, Elena, catches his eye and, even though she is part of the rival group, he pursues her and they end up dating (out of game, in the real world).

In a secondary plot, Avery’s best friends Will (a clumsy, guy who has more heart than brain) and Liz (his the ever-present best friend who keeps him safe) awkwardly fall in love.

Now that things are going well in the kingdom, enter the King. After his hysterical solo, “I’m the King and You’re Not,” he declares that the kingdom (in real-world terms, land he owns) is too small to support the growing number of LARPers that are playing in it. Therefore, the two groups must oppose each other in a great battle — the champions get to stay, while the losers must find another land. He also decrees that if neither side battles, both groups will be banished from the Kingdom. Needless to say, this puts our hero’s relationship in peril.

In the weeks building up to the battle, both groups train endlessly, straining Avery and Elena’s relationship. Then, when Avery shows up to Elena’s house, he secretly learns the King is her father! Drama naturally ensues.

All are tested in the climactic battle. Will our knights have a place where they can be truly accepted as themselves and that they consider home? Can good will be enough to cover taxes and insurance on the lot? And why are they suddenly looking out from the stage at us?

The actors — including Donovan Whitney (Avery), Alicia Hamaker (Elena), Jordan Brown (Liz), Clarke Remmers (Will), Sarah Tam (Bren, leader of Silvermore), and Ethan Mathias (the King) — do a stellar job portraying their roles in a manner that shows their individual characters without slipping into self-parody. The script — book by Kelsey Tharp, songs by Matt Day — respects the hobby as much as the people who enjoy it, keeping the emphasis on the characters and the drama they feel.

My overall thoughts on the show are that with a bit of a rewrite and more polish, this show could be the runaway hit of next year’s GenCon. See it here first, on the third floor of the Firehouse union hall, 748 Mass Ave.

It’s Shakespeare, but it’s fun – really!

By John Lyle Belden

Fans of William Shakespeare need only be told that Indy’s Eclectic Pond Theatre Company has staged “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with one weekend remaining at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair in downtown Indianapolis.

Those less familiar with the Bard, casual fans, or those who think of him in the context of dramas like “Hamlet,” might also find this production a surprising treat.

In the modern tradition of putting the old plays in new settings, the “Athens” of ETC’s “Dream” is located in the world of a 1960s teen beach movie. The fairy folk have Polynesian-inspired garb, while our human characters are in hip threads for a California summer.

Though Shakespeare comedies typically overwhelm the viewer with their multitudes of characters, this play keeps the groupings simple, and, under the direction of Zach Neiditch, easy to follow.

Athenian nobles Theseus (Jay Hemphill) and Hippolyta (Carrie Fedor) are soon to marry. It will also be the wedding of young Hermia (Betsy Norton), but she wishes to wed Lysander (Ethan Mathias) rather than Demetrius (Matt Walls), to whom she has been promised. Hermia’s bestie Helena (Andrea Heiden) wants Demetrius, who isn’t interested. Lysander and Hermia head into the forest during the night, seeking to elope. Helena tells Demetrius, and they follow.

Meanwhile, a group of local artisans – the “mechanicals” – are in the same forest, secretly rehearsing a play they hope to present at the wedding. They are led by Quince (Marcy Thornsberry) who has a hard time containing the boisterous ego of her star, Bottom (Tristan Ross).

And also meanwhile, fairy royalty Oberon and Titania (Hemphill and Fedor) have a disagreement. She storms off, and he decides to have some mischief at her expense – which impish Puck (Sarah Hoffman) is all to eager to provide. Oh, and while she’s at it, she could also make a couple of the mortals wandering the woods fall in love as well.

What follows, of course, are transformations and confusion for the characters, but – despite the Elizabethan language – an easily understandable and hilarious twisting path towards the inevitable happy endings. The production even concludes with the Mechanicals’ play within the play, wherein Ross over-acts to wonderful effect.

As usual, we end with Puck’s apology, but it is hardly needed. This “Dream” is a joy for everyone from the energetic cast to the audience surrounding the IndyFringe stage. Get info at www.eclecticpond.org and tickets at www.indyfringe.org.

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

Review: Little Women – The Musical

Sisters Jo (Julia Bonnett, lower left) and Amy (Karen Woods Hurt) reconcile after the anger between them nearly led to tragedy, while friend Laurie (Ethan Litt) and sister Beth (Betsy Norton) look on in a scene from "Little Women: The Broadway Musical" at the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre in downtown Carmel. -- Civic Theatre photo
Sisters Jo (Julia Bonnett, lower left) and Amy (Karen Woods Hurt) reconcile after the anger between them nearly led to tragedy, while friend Laurie (Ethan Litt) and sister Beth (Betsy Norton) look on in a scene from “Little Women: The Broadway Musical” at the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre in downtown Carmel. — Civic Theatre photo

By John Lyle Belden

For anyone who enjoyed – or haven’t read and are curious about – the classic Louisa May Alcott novel, I highly recommend “Little Women: The Broadway Musical” at the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre through Sept. 26.

The story of the four March sisters coming of age in 1860s Concord, Mass., is told in a nicely-paced play that gives each moment its proper weight, then breezes to the next with the help of a song or two. We meet Jo (Julia Bonnett), the headstrong writer bursting with confident energy; beautiful Meg (Betsy Norton); musical and tragic Beth (Amanda Kennedy); and Amy (Karen Woods Hurt), whose brash immaturity at first makes her the least likable, but results in making her the most complex and interesting of these four characters – a credit to Hurt as well as the musical’s book by Allan Knee. Still, the narrative is from Jo’s point of view, and Bonnett is more than up to the task.

For the rest of the cast: Katie Schuman embodies wise mom Marmee. Dan Scharbrough perfectly balances menace and paternal kindness as gruff Mr. Laurence, who lives next door. Ethan Mathias ably handles the growing conflicting emotions of Professor Bhaer, Jo’s neighbor in New York. Ethan Litt and Justin Klein lend appropriate boyish energies to the roles of Laurie and Brooke, the young men in the girls’ lives. And Vickie Cornelius Phipps is excellent as fussy Aunt March, as well as Mrs. Kirk, Jo and Bhaer’s landlord.

This would be an excellent show for those with “little women” (or men) who could see themselves in the characters. Jo’s enthusiasm, especially, is contagious, perhaps encouraging those who would want to write up some stories themselves. The Tarkington stage is at The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Call 317-843-3800 for tickets.