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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Shakespeare historical drama provides free fun at Garfield Park

By John Lyle Belden

The Garfield Shakespeare Company is a wonderful community asset in the near-southside of Indianapolis. Performing in Garfield Park, the company provides an opportunity for actors and crew of all levels of experience to bring on the Bard — and for everyone else to watch it all for free.

Through this weekend at the Garfield Park Arts Center, see them perform “Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.” These plays, easily fitting into about an hour each with intermission between, lead up to the popular “Henry V,” and detail some of the events of England’s War of the Roses, struggles between dynasties for the British throne.

While the young “Hal,” Prince of Wales (Dillon Richter), makes merry with best bud Edward Poins (Benjamin Mathis), boisterous braggart Sir John Falstaff (Stephen E. Foxworthy) and company, his father, Henry IV (John Mortell) seeks to squash unrest in his kingdom, even while his health is failing.

The Percy family, especially young “Hotspur” (J.D. Bonitz) don’t like how their former ally is now their ruler and raise up a rebellion. After some wild (and very entertaining) antics by the Falstaff gang, the younger Henry is summoned by his father to take seriously his station and join him in battle. This Hal does, leading to a fateful meeting with Hotspur.

Part 2 deals with the aftermath of the Percys’ rebellion, leading to a “peace” meeting between its leaders and the king’s younger son, Prince John of Lancaster (Eirene Brubaker). The kingdom secure, the crown can pass to young Henry. But is he truly “king” material?

Director Chris Burton has created an excellent environment to experience this rich chapter of history. The audience sits at tables of the “Boar’s Head Tavern,” complete with complimentary platters of fruit and cheese and non-alcoholic beverages. (Friday and Saturday performances also feature sales of Garfield Brewery products.) When a scene happens to take place in the Boar’s Head of the play,  a character might sit by you for a moment, or an argument break out by your table. Simple sets give us Falstaff’s table; Royal chambers; a war camp; or even two environs at once, where similar conversations take place. History comes alive with moments of stark emotion and rowdy humor.

Key roles feature brilliant acting, especially Morrell’s dying king and Foxworthy’s absolutely perfect Falstaff. Burton even has a twist on the Shakespearean habit of casting boys for female parts, by having teen girl Brubaker play the boy Prince John (who was in his early teens when these events took place). Also solid performances from Brant Hughes, Mike Harold, June Greyson, Mallory Ward, Amber Bradley, Ashley Chase Elliott, Elizabeth Fasbinder, Jim Mellowitz, Joshua Minnich, Andrew K. Olin, and Jay Brubaker as one tough Scotsman.

This production is a follow-up to last year’s “Richard II.” Does this mean we can see “Henry V” next spring? Richter told me he is up for it, so we can hope.

Performances of “Henry IV” are 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, March 28-30. Their next production will be an outdoor staging of “As You Like It” in August. Find information at Facebook.com/garfieldshakespearecompany.

Doomed ‘Lady Day’ lives again in Indy dive

By John Lyle Belden

It’s 1959, the last year of singer Billie Holiday’s life, and she is in a city she’d rather not visit, Philadelphia, at a place she loves to be. It’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” a Fonseca Theatre Company production hosted by the Linebacker Lounge, just a couple of doors down from Fonseca’s previous venue at Indy Convergence.

The cozy confines of the Linebacker stand in nicely for Emerson’s. It is a bar (but no grill, though there are delicious Mexican sandwiches next door that you are allowed to bring in) so entrance is restricted to ages 21 and up. Drink service is available before the show and a brief intermission, cash only (there is an ATM on site). But mostly, the place lends atmosphere, a small triumph of “site-specific” theatre.

As for the Lady herself, Monica Cantrell slips comfortably into a role she has played before. Holiday’s distinctive voice and vocal style can be difficult to emulate, especially without sounding like a parody, but Cantrell takes it on with apparent ease — singing soulful jazz ballads and purring stories that are a blend of reminiscing and confessional. Billie tells of idolizing Bessie Smith, honoring her with a rendition of “Gimme a Pigfoot;” life on the road, especially touring the Jim Crow South; and of how she wrote her biggest hit, “God Bless the Child,” for her mother, known as The Duchess.

She tells of men she loved and speaks frankly of her heroin addiction, advising patrons to watch out for “white men in white socks,” the probation officers who monitor her movements after her release from a year in prison. Her mind is not entirely her own, but she’ll pick up a snippet of song — “What a little moonlight can do,” she smiles — to get her thoughts on track.

“Singin’ is livin’ to me,” she says. But as she slowly breaks down, it becomes heartbreakingly apparent she doesn’t have much of either left in her.

Music is provided by Tim Brickley, and Jon Stombaugh as Holiday’s accompanist Jimmy Powers. Little Zoe Lee makes an adorable cameo as the singer’s canine companion, Pepe. And I’m pretty sure I heard Bryan Fonseca himself as the voice of Mr. Emerson.

Directed by FTC co-artistic director Dena Toler, “Lady Day” is a beautiful biography of a troubled woman in troubled times. It speaks volumes about addiction and our racial history without preaching. Just listen to that voice, the likes of which we may never hear again, a woman who “got her own,” on the verge of losing it all.

Performances run through April 7. Find the Linebacker, a sweet little spot that boasts Indy’s second-oldest liquor license, at 2631 W. Michigan St. Due to its small size, this show sells out easily, so find info and tickets at www.fonsecatheatre.org.

‘Yank!’ — A different kind of bravery

By John Lyle Belden

Emotions run high during war — excitement, anger, patriotic fervor, devotion, and love. For some soldiers thrown into the crucible that was World War II, the ones they wanted to embrace with all their might weren’t the pin-up girls.

This is the world of “Yank!” the musical making its Indianapolis premiere at the District Theatre.

Stuart (Jonathan Krouse) answered the call to join the fight against Hitler and Tojo, but first he has to fit in with Charlie Company. He can barely hold a rifle, and he’s not sure about his feelings towards his fellow soldiers, especially Mitch (Tanner Brunson), the only one to treat him with kindness. The others suspect he’s different, and even call him “Light-Loafers,” but they come to accept him, because “your squad is your squad.”

On the way to the front, two things happen: Stuart and Mitch start to explore their feelings for each other, and Stuart meets Artie (D. Scott Robinson), a photographer for Yank! magazine, wise to and willing part of the gay underground just outside the U.S. Army’s notice. While Charlie Company goes to combat, Stuart — an aspiring writer, keeping a detailed journal — joins Artie as reporters behind the lines.

Stu is doing well out of harm’s way, but he still has feelings for Mitch. Then he gets the assignment to write about his old unit, and how war has changed them. More changes are coming for Stu, and he will discover how war is especially hell for a gay soldier — facing danger from his own people as well as the enemy.

The cast includes Isaac Becker, Dominic Piedmonte, Scott Fleshood, Joshua Cox and Bryant Mehay as fellow soldiers. Jerry Beasley, Lance Gray and Kevin Bell play hardened officers and NCOs, as well as somewhat softer characters. Jessica Hawkins wonderfully portrays “every woman,” from radio entertainers to a lesbian WAC working for Gen. MacArthur.  

Krouse and Brunson turn in wonderful performances, one constantly feeling deeply, the other deeply conflicted. The supporting cast is solid; Beasley earns his stripes. And with us usually seeing Robinson these days behind the scenes as producer or director, it’s good to see him show his excellence as an actor.

This is a different kind of love story, but still touching — love is love, after all — and an eye-opening look at a hidden part of our history. While the characters are fictional, there was a Yank! Magazine, and playwright David Zellnik thoroughly researched the secret lives of gay soldiers and sailors of the era.

The songs, by David and his brother Joseph Zellnik, are snappy and sentimental in a style befitting the 1940s setting, including some interesting harmony.

Had this been a boy-meets-girl rather than boy-meets-boy, “Yank!” would look like the cinema hit of 1945. But it’s 2019, and LGBTQ GIs are only now living out of the closet. Thus, this show is equal parts entertaining and important. Director Tim Spradlin deserves praise for bringing this gem to downtown Indy, as well as IndyFringe for hosting it at the District (former site of Theatre on the Square), 627 Massachusetts Ave.

This production runs through March 24; get info and tickets at indyfringe.org.

An American classic comes to life on Civic stage

By John Lyle Belden

“To Kill A Mockingbird,” the celebrated novel by Harper Lee, is likely a book you are familiar with, perhaps from reading it in school, or by seeing the Gregory Peck film which closely followed Lee’s story.

The Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre presents a live production of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” the play adapted by Christopher Sergel which is performed annually in Monroeville, Alabama, Lee’s hometown on which the novel’s setting is based. Unlike that production, the local staging doesn’t pick a trial jury from the audience – but attorney Atticus Finch still speaks directly to us.

For the unfamiliar, the story, set in Mayscomb, Ala., in the mid-1930s, is told by Finch’s young daughter, Jean Louise, known as Scout. The play gives us a grown-up Jean Louise (Michelle Wafford), who emerges from the audience to narrate for her younger self (Bridget Bingham), who is trying to make sense of all the things happening around her.

Scout, her brother Jem (Dalyn Stewart) and friend Dill (Ben Boyce) are occupied with what the reclusive neighbor Boo Radley might look like. The only clues are items left in a tree in his yard. But a bigger distraction comes when Atticus (Steve Kruze) is appointed by Judge Taylor (Tom Smith) to defend a black man, Tom Robinson (Antoine Demmings), who has been accused of beating and “having his way” with teenager Myella Ewell (Morgan Morton) by her father, town drunk Bob Ewell (Joe Steiner). The children endure taunts for their father defending a black man, but Atticus counsels them to endure and be confident he is doing the right thing. Scout wonders if she can feel pride in her father at all, until an incident with a mad dog reveals there’s more to the man than she ever suspected. Likewise, Jem wonders why his punishment for his vandalism of bitter, hateful neighbor Mrs. Dubose’s (Holly Stults) garden is to deliver kindness, until he comes to understand the whole situation.

The Robinson trial is a big spectacle, so the children sneak in to see it for themselves (thus allowing us to witness it), finding only room to sit in the “Colored” section with the Rev. Sykes (Brad Thompson). They marvel at how Atticus takes advantage of flaws in the testimony, and the kids are sure this will come out in their (and Robinson’s) favor. What does happen gives life lessons the children will never forget. And the events that follow will result in men killed, Jem injured, and Scout becoming a whole lot wiser.

Other notable characters include Sheriff Heck Tate (Clay Mabbit); the Finches’ cook, Calpurnia (Chandra Lynch); and an appearance by Boo Radley (Colby Rison) himself.

Under the direction of Emily Rogge Tzucker, this important story rises from the page to remind us of how horrible, yet accepted, hatred and injustice can be – then, and even more than 80 years later. Of course, that includes the bigoted context of the South in the 20th century, in which no person would even think of saying “African American” and “black” was mostly just a color you painted. So, be warned, the word “nigger” is used numerous times, by characters with either malice or apathy towards its dehumanizing effects. And if my writing the word out in the previous sentence bothers you too much, you should steel yourself before seeing this play – and go anyway.

Scout’s purpose in this story is to learn to see the world through others’ eyes – a man who would rather do what’s right than what’s popular, a person in unspeakable pain, a person judged purely by his skin tone, even a person who just can’t deal with other people – and thus teach us to do the same. Experience it for yourself at the Tarkington theater at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, through Feb. 23. Information and tickets at civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org, or call 317-843-3800.

IRT reminds us of the very human cost of the Holocaust

By John Lyle Belden

A recent survey reported that an alarming percentage of people don’t believe the Holocaust happened, or that as many were killed as history attests (six million Jews, perhaps 17 million overall).

This makes productions such as the drama “The Diary of Anne Frank” — which opened the weekend before Holocaust Remembrance Day at Indiana Repertory Theatre — so vital to public conversation.

After the Nazis came to power in their native Germany (initially via elections, don’t forget), the Frank family moved to The Netherlands, where Otto Frank ran a small factory in Amsterdam. But then Germany started invading its neighbors, with the Dutch quickly succumbing to the blitzkrieg. Letting friends and neighbors assume they had made a run for Switzerland, Otto secreted his family, along with that of his best friends and fellow Jews, the Van Daan’s, in an upstairs “secret annex” to his plant. Non-Jewish allies, Mr. Kraler and Miep Gies, ran the factory and kept their secret, bringing them supplies at night. Along with his wife, Edith, Otto had his daughters — quiet, studious Margot, and energetic Anne, who stilled herself by obsessively writing in her diary. Hermann and Auguste Van Daan were accompanied by their teenage son, Peter. Miep later brought them an eighth refugee, dentist Albert Dussel, who kept to himself and kept sane thinking of his Gentile fiance waiting elsewhere in the city. Thus a group of people lived as best they could for two years, until their nightmares came true.

Those are the facts, the rest we know from the words of a girl growing up while her world crumbles outside. These words — from romantic optimism to despairing angst — come to life on the IRT’s stage, which is skillfully crafted by Bill Clarke to portray its cramped quarters (though more horizontally-arranged than the actual annex for dramatic reasons) with impeccable detail. Inhabiting it are an excellent cast of local and Seattle-area actors (this production will move — sets, actors and all — to Seattle Children’s Theatre later in the year).

Miranda Troutt wins and breaks our hearts as Anne, star and narrator of her story. Her frequent bouts of optimism both uplift and annoy her housemates, but she doesn’t hold back in her writings of her teenage frustrations. Hannah Ruwe portrays Margot, who is stronger in spirit than in body and striving to be more mentor than rival to her sister. Benjamin N.M. Ludiker plays Peter as an introvert gradually coming to terms with the force of nature who is slowly falling in love with him. Ryan Artzberger turns in another powerful IRT performance as Otto, whose bravery is contrasted with Betsy Schwartz’s worrisome Edith. Robert Neal and Constance Macy give layered performances as the Van Daans, his character pragmatic to a fault, hers desperately clinging to artifacts of their past life. Sydney Andrews is a ray of much-needed sunshine as Miep. Mark Goetzinger is solid as Kraler. Rob Johansen is oddly endearing as our feeling-out-of-place dentist.

This play does an excellent job, as director Janet Allen put it, “to put a human face on genocide.” Anne’s face smiles to us through old photographs, but we get a real person’s full spectrum of genuine human emotions and yearnings in her writings, and works like this that they inspired. For a deeper look beyond the dry pages of history texts and by-the-numbers online articles, get to know these very real people whom a regime declared less than human, condemned to extermination. Note that only one of the eight in the annex survives the war (spoiler alert — it’s not Anne).

IRT’s “The Diary of Anne Frank” will be presented to thousands of local students during its run. There are also public performances through Feb. 24 on the mainstage at 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indy (near Circle Centre). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

Go west (of downtown) to see ‘Laramie’

By John Lyle Belden

As I suspect it was for many other straight people, I can look back and see a rough point between “before” and “after.” A friend, coworker or family member turns out to be gay, or even officially comes out, and then others you know. You start to see things from the LGBTQ+ perspective. Then, suddenly, some jokes aren’t funny anymore, certain attitudes are absurd, and you feel embarrassed you used to indulge in any of that. Soon, you think of these individuals as friends, family, regular people — then no longer see them as “them.”

For America, one of those points was in the fall of 1998. Before then, to me. Laramie, Wyoming, was just a town where some of my cousins might still live, where I once visited historic Fort Laramie. To the general public, it was known as the home of the University of Wyoming, if they knew of it at all.

But the kidnapping, beating, torture and murder of Matthew Shepard in October 1998 changed that.

The story of a 20-year-old gay man essentially crucified and left to die rocked the world, and shook the town to its core. The media frenzy and public assumptions about the people there didn’t help. Playwright Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project of New York went to Laramie in the months that followed. Their work, “The Laramie Project,” is not so much a traditional play as a live documentary. Its nonfiction text is all from writings and recordings at the time, including court proceedings, and the feelings of Laramie residents, those who knew Shepard and the perpetrators, and Tectonic company members. The only agenda of this project was the truth, an honest look at the people involved, the Laramie citizens, and ultimately all of us.

“You must tell your story,” one of the clergy interviewed says.

Now, local company No Holds Bard presents the story at Indy Convergence, just west of downtown, with profits going to the Matthew Shepard Foundation. The cast of Abby Gilster, Clay Mabbitt, Denise Jaeckel, Nathan Thomas and Tristan Ross (who also directs) are talents who make a good play entertaining and a great play unforgettable — this one will stay with you for a while. These men and women portray various friends, relatives, witnesses, officials, reporters and regular people, as well as Tectonic members undertaking this delicate mission.

Ross’s range includes portraying Kaufman, the Judge, infamous minister Fred Phelps, and Shepard’s heartbroken father. Thomas not only plays sympathetic persons including the bartender who unknowingly saw the beginnings of the crime, the man who found Shepard on the fence, and a young theatre student finding himself coming out as an Ally; but also unflinching portrayals of the two men who committed the heinous acts.

I often refer to various works, from Shakespeare tragedies to goofy farces, as “must-see” — this time it is not hyperbole, or just me throwing my stage friends a bone. This is a show every American, teenage and older, should see. Ross, whose work I already love, and friends are even more wonderful in sharing this with Indianapolis now, as the 20th anniversary of Shepard’s death was just days ago.

Going back to my starting point about changing attitudes, whether any member of cis-hetero America has transitioned to the “after” phase is up to us individually. It has become painfully plain that some are still stuck in the “before” — or even like it there. Thus, the importance of this work, even after two decades.

Tickets are only $15. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday 2:30 p.m. Sunday at 2611 W. Michigan St. Pay onsite, or get tickets here.