IndyFringe: YAS, Twain

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 Wendy Carson

Zach & Zack have returned to the Fringe with their latest historical farce. This look into the life and times of Mark (or maybe Shania) Twain enacted by a diverse cast gives you an unusual insight into highlights and lowlights of Twain’s story.

From the beginning of the show, when each cast member comes out dressed as Twain (complete with overstated mustaches) arguing about the exact wording of one of his quotes, you know this will not be a typical offering. Then Mary Margaret Montgomery bursts in late and begins to start her presentation on Shania Twain (she wasn’t listening at rehearsals).

The narrative begins in earnest once they unfurl the blue fabric representing the Mississippi River. The part of Twain is never played by a single actor but each member of the troupe embodies a different element of his story.

Twain’s younger years and the origin of his pen name (he was born Samuel Clemens) are touched upon as well as his and his brother’s ill-fated trip to Nevada. They were too late for the Gold Rush, but this period brought about the inspiration for his first story which launched him to a decent amount of fame.

We touch on several of the people and stories that influenced him throughout the years, including his tempestuous courtship and marriage with his future wife Olivia, portrayed brilliantly by Tiffany Gilliam.

Everyone is then treated to the delightful interlude that is, “Matt and Evan Explain the Novels”. This wacky bit highlights Matthew Altman and Evan Wallace’s comedy chops as well as giving a brief overview of the various novels Twain wrote.

Christian Condra’s turns as Twain’s brother, Orion, and the Fallen angel, Satan, highlight his spectacular range as an actor. Shawnte Gaston is slips from character to character so effortlessly that one could easily overlook the intense skill needed to embrace the magnitude of her talent. Montgomery’s spunk and determination to promote her own Twain story offers much-needed comic relief in a tale that takes many darker turns than one would expect.

If audiences flock to this (Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 21 & 24-25, at the District Theater) as vigorously as they did with past Zach & Zack shows, buy your tickets immediately as future performances are already close to selling out.

Civic has big fun with ‘Hairspray’

By John Lyle Belden

In the hit Broadway musical “Hairspray,” based on the classic John Waters comedy, Wilbur Turnblad – father of Tracy and husband of Edna, our heroines – says, “You gotta go big to be big!”

That was the apparent credo of the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre production of the musical, playing through May 12 at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

As befits this spectacular – with a “wow” factor especially necessary for an audience who likely already saw a stage or film version, or the live television broadcast – everything about Civic’s “Hairspray” is big, big, BIG! – the staging, the light displays, the beautiful flying setpieces, the chorus sets with singers in silhouettes, the dance numbers, Edna’s bra…

And this all-volunteer local cast more than rises to the occasion. Evan Wallace is “divine” as Edna, while Nina Stilabower is perfect in song and steps as Tracy, an eager teen with a heart as big as her dress size and her desire to dance on the Corny Collins TV show – the place to be seen in early-1960s Baltimore.

While show producer, strict stage-mom and former Miss Baltimore Crabs, Velma Von Tussle (Mikayla Koharchik), wants nothing to do with the girl, Corny (Justin Klein) lets Tracy join the cast “student council,” where she starts to steal the attentions of lead heartthrob Link Larkin (Zachary Hoover) away from Velma’s spoiled daughter, Amber (Emily Hollowel). This, plus Tracy’s unapologetic love of “race music” and desire that “every day be Negro Day,” can only spell trouble.

Yes, there’s even a big social-conscious message, delivered with power and a sense of fun with the help of R&B deejay Motormouth Maybelle (Joyce Licorish) and her smooth-dancing son Seaweed (Michael Hassel).

Also notable are J. Stuart Mill as Wilbur, the coolest dad ever, and Jenny Reber as Tracy’s best friend, Penny.

And it’s all done bigger than life, as big as Broadway – including the infamous giant can of Ultra Clutch. Under the direction of Executive Artistic Director Michael J. Lasley, Civic concludes its 2017-18 season with a joyous triumph.

“You just can’t stop the beat” – and who’d want to?

For tickets and info visit www.civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org, or call 317-843-3800.

Review: ‘Lobby Channel’ something to see

CRP Lobby Channel

By John Lyle Belden

Casey Ross Productions’ latest show is a perfect conversation starter for this age in which humanity has never been so connected, yet individuals still find themselves so lonely.

In “Lobby Channel,” a new musical written and directed by Ross’s friend (and local actress) Paige Scott, based on a story once told on NPR’s “This American Life,” a pair of morning radio jocks are trading insults as usual when one tells of something extraordinary – his home VCR managed to pull from the cable system a closed-circuit feed from an unfamiliar building somewhere in the city.

With only one view and no sound, Ted (Bradford Reilly) watches an empty hallway for hours, waiting for the brief appearances of a beautiful woman in a pillbox hat. She approaches, alone, often dropping her keys as she reaches her door, and hours later she departs for destinations unknown.

As the story unfolds, the woman in the black dress and hat (Miranda Nehrig) appears, ghost-like, expressing Ted’s wonder at who she could be. His partner Brian (Evan Wallace), unsure what to think of his story, throws another barb at Ted, saying the woman must be a stripper. In response, her next song takes a seductive turn, almost too much for Ted to bear.

Is Ted a sort of stalker? Is this the beginning of an unconventional love story? The play concludes in a logical manner, but still leaves those questions hanging for us to wonder – as good theatre should.

Reilly ably expresses the frustration of someone trapped in an incomplete puzzle, unsure of what to do with the pieces he has been given. Wallace easily portrays the friend who gives you a hard time, but still has your back. And Nehrig’s beauty and voice are a perfect fit for our mystery woman. Scott’s haunting music and lyrics suit the mood perfectly, providing the right tension to hold this simple-yet-complex story together.

It’s one act, clocking in at just under an hour, yet this show packs a lot into its frame. It echoes both a time not long ago when personal privacy was a sacred thing and today with social media like open books that we all show each other. We all get to know perfect strangers, imperfectly. Do you really understand this person, or are you only watching their “Lobby Channel”?

The musical’s performances are Friday through Sunday, through May 22, at the Grove Haus, 1001 Hosbrook Ave. near Indy’s Fountain Square. See uncannycasey.wix.com/caseyrossproductions/ or Casey Ross Productions on Facebook for info and tickets.