Spinning a story with a bit of Broadway

By John Lyle Belden

These are unusual times, so here is an unusual show.

While advising all who feel unwell or uncomfortable to sit this one out, Fat Turtle Theatre is, last we heard, continuing with its production of “This is Us: An Inspirational Steampunk Broadway Cabaret.”

This is a little out of the comfort zone for Fat Turtle, a company that typically does plays, as well as founder Aaron Cleveland, who as the show’s Narrator is called upon to sing. But it does fit within the mission of presenting Indiana works, as the revue of Broadway songs are hung like ornaments on an original story by local playwright Nicole Amsler.

The setting and aesthetic, as noted in the title, are the alternate-history dystopia of Steampunk, with its corsets and clockworks. This helps give the whole production a familiar, yet otherworldly feel. 

Cleveland recites Amsler’s fable about a grieving father who devises “a machine to take all the pain of the world” and how his children strive to save him from it. Honestly, it sounds like the seed from which a great original musical could be grown.

But for now, we get an interesting selection of songs that loosely fit the theme, taken from a wide variety of Broadway shows. While some are easily recognizable, like a tune from “Wicked,” and include current hits like one from “Dear Evan Hansen,” there are also numbers from shows such as “Newsies,” “The Color Purple,” “Kinky Boots,” “Jekyll & Hyde,” “Mean Girls,” and even a beautifully appropriate song from the underappreciated “Pirate Queen.” 

To deliver these song-and-dance bits, we have area talents Tessa Gibbons, Jessica Hawkins, Kaitlin Holden, Jenn Kaufmann, Richelle Lutz, Jennifer Poytner, Brad Root and Jackson Stollings. Direction and choreography are by Andrea Odle, and there is a small band of musicians, led by Linda Parr. 

The result is an entertaining distraction — for a couple of hours — from current events, and the opportunity to enjoy songs even fans of showtunes don’t hear every day. This gang puts their hearts into their performances — as well as a bit of humor, when Hawkins and Stollings take on a fun old standard. Actually, every individual gets a chance to stand center and shine. 

The costumes, by Shannon Rice, include inventive use of blue LED wires to enhance the retro-sci-fi feel and add necessary emphasis when the circuits resemble the human heart. 

There is one scheduled weekend left, March 20-21 at The Switch, 10029 E. 126th St., Suite D, Fishers (in Ji-Eun Lee Music Academy), and as this cabaret is also a company fundraiser, all who are interested, and feel up to it, are encouraged to attend, or at least consider Fat Turtle in your charitable giving.

Details are at FatTurtleTheatre.com.

Phoenix hosts stunning tribute to artist’s life, GHDT’s ‘La Casa Azul’

By John Lyle Belden

“La Casa Azul” translates to “The Blue House,” the place where Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s life both began and ended, the place she always called home, no matter where her celebrated and tragic life took her.

“La Casa Azul: The Musical” is a newly-revised production by Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre playing at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indianapolis. It combines dance and sung-through drama, much like a cross between a ballet and an opera with Latin-flavored music. The actors all embody various individuals and chorus parts, with the exceptions of Valerie Nuccio as Kahlo and JL Rey as her husband, muralist Diego Rivera – who vividly resemble their real-life counterparts – and Abigail Lessaris as La Muerte, the beautiful dancing embodiment of Death.

The whole these parts combine to is an exceptional theatrical experience: stunning, sad, humorous, thought-provoking and inspiring.

Nuccio holds our focus throughout, the hero of the story, winning our hearts despite no effort made to make us love her. Kahlo was brash and outspoken, an unapologetic Communist who hated America and its citizens’ condescending attitudes; still, above all she was a proud woman devoted to her homeland. But the stage also belongs to Lessaris, as Death is ever present. Never speaking a word, her movement and constant attendance speak volumes. At times, Kahlo can even sense her dancing near, occasionally even helping her to her feet to live another day – La Muerte is patient.

The ensemble includes Alyssa Lopez as Kahlo’s sister Christina; Johnathon Contreras as the boyfriend who was with her in a near-fatal accident; Bill Book as her father, who encouraged her to paint during her recovery; Onis Dean as various doctors who rarely give good news; and Dick Davis as Henry Ford (who Kahlo despised) and exiled Leon Trotsky (with whom she had an affair). Jessica Crum Hawkins, who played Kahlo in the 2015 premiere of “La Casa Azul,” portrays Trotsky’s wife.

Gregory Glade Hancock not only provided the choreography, but also the costume design, music and lyrics – with Kate Ayers. The songs flow as easily as the dancing, easing us through the plot. For clarity, a full synopsis is printed in the program. Stage direction is by Mexican artist Georgina Escobar.

The costumes are a vibrant tribute to Mexico and its culture, as well as the dapper decadence of New York in one scene. The set is adorned with a fractured portrait of Kahlo, a reminder of her many facets which only come together when we see her life completed.

For anyone with an interest in Frida Kahlo and her art, seeing this is almost a duty. Performances run through July 28 on the Russell main stage of the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St. See LaCasaAzulTheMusical.com for information and tickets.

BCP succeeds at ‘Disaster’

By John Lyle Belden

Before we give the world to the Millennials, let’s have one more fun show for the memories of Boomers and Generation X, a silly tribute to 1970s pop music and death-defying films in “Disaster! The Musical,” on stage through June 16 at Buck Creek Players.

This show by Seth Rudetsky (an “ah-mah-zing” personality on Sirius/XM’s Broadway channel) and Jack Plotnick takes on thrillers such as “Earthquake” and “The Poseidon Adventure,” and adds fire, rats, sharks, piranhas and disco.

It’s 1979 New York, and the casino ship Barracuda is holding its grand opening. It only has to float to be legit, so it stays moored to the pier. Owner Tony Delvecchio (Corey Yeaman) sank a lot of money into this venture, so what’s a few cut corners going to hurt? That shaking is just construction on the West End Highway, right?

Chad (Scott A. Fleshood) needs to get back into action with the ladies, so gets friend Scott (Jamison Hemmert) to bring him on the boat as a fellow waiter. But just as he’s getting his “what’s your sign?” working, he runs into Marianne (Allie Buchanan), who left him at the altar, choosing her career as a Times reporter over him.

Others on this journey include disaster expert Professor Ted Scheider (Joe Wagner), who wants everyone off the boat immediately; Sister Mary Downey (Emily Gaddy), out to save souls, but worries for her own when faced with an old temptation; Maury and Shirley Summers (Michael Davis and Laura Duvall-Whitson), a couple in a long, happy marriage on what could be their last voyage; disco diva Levora Verona (Joi Blalock), whose career is on the skids; and ship’s entertainer Jackie Noelle (Jessica Crum Hawkins) and her twins Ben and Lisa (both played by Ava Lusby).

The cast also includes Joshua Cox, Christine King, Paige Land, Carrie Powell, Jason Ryan, and Ben Rockey in dual roles as the dutiful security guard and a rich passenger.

The show manages to balance an absurd, fun atmosphere with a touch of genuine suspense. It unapologetically embraces cheesy elements including puppet killer fish, obviously fake body doubles, and a “CASINO” sign that flips over to signal when the boat has capsized, somehow making it all work. And then there’s the music, as pop hit lyrics are warped to fit the plot, and vice versa. For instance, during the opening number every possible meaning for the words “Hot Stuff” is explored to help set up the various elements of the oncoming calamity.

Fleshood makes ‘70s suave look cool; Yeaman is just sleazy enough for us to enjoy every misfortune he encounters; Wagner makes a likable egghead; Hemmert is charming in a hard-luck way; Duval-Whitson and Davis are sweet enough to induce sugar-shock; Rockey can’t help but steal scenes; and the ladies are top-notch — Buchanan providing a humorous yet respectful reflection of the era’s feminist struggles; Hawkins giving dimension to what could have been just a damsel-in-distress role; Blalock being a sassy force of nature in her own right; and Gaddy making a supporting role look like a star turn.  

Lusby is very impressive in her community theatre debut. The seventh-grader shows a lot of talent and a knack for comedy as she smoothly switches between siblings throughout the show.

Director D. Scott Robinson can be reassured that ironically, in this “Disaster” everything went right. Find the Buck Creek Playhouse at 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74). Find info and tickets at 317-862-2270 or buckcreekplayers.com.

‘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.

At TOTS: A story of street-lights people who don’t stop believin’

By John Lyle Belden

The rock hits of the 1980s form the tapestry of “Rock of Ages,” the Broadway musical in its first local production at Theatre on the Square.

Sarah Hoffman plays Sherrie, a small-town girl, livin’ in a lonely world; Davey Pelsue is Drew (a/k/a aspiring rocker Wolfgang von Cult), a city boy, born and raised in South Detroit – you know how the song goes.

They work at the Bourbon Room, an LA bar and club owned by Dennis Dupree (Dave Ruark) with Lonny (John Kern), our Narrator – they want nothing but a good time, and it don’t get better than this.

But foreign developer Hertz Kleinaman (Bryan D. Padgett) and son Franz (Zach Ramsey) have plans to tear down the Sunset Strip. When City Planner Regina Kuntz (Andrea Heiden) objects, the Mayor (Josiah McCruiston) fires her, so she leads the resistance, reminding all that they built this city on rock and roll.

Facing the final countdown, the Bourbon Room has one last show, headlined with newly-solo rock god Stacee Jaxx (Thomas Cardwell) and featuring Wolfgang’s debut. In all that’s happening, Drew loses Sherrie, and it will take more than words to win her back. And yes, “Oh, Sherrie” is also in the show (but not the title song, as they couldn’t get rights to Def Leppard’s hits).

This exceptional, energetic cast includes Paige Scott as “Mama” Justice, owner of the nearby Venus Gentleman’s Club; Jonathan Krouse as Joey Primo, Jaxx’s replacement in Anvil; a dancing chorus including Jessica Hawkins, Jordan Fox, Tessa Gibbons, Katherine Jones, Janice Hibbard and Jessica Hughes; and Hannah Boswell as the wonderfully anonymous Waitress No. 1. Director Ty Stover let Boswell expand her role to help smooth scene changes, she said, and she has become an audience favorite.

Not everyone is radio-perfect in reproducing the old FM-band tunes, but this isn’t meant to be a revue. Some lyrics and verses are altered by context, and some songs nicely mashed-up, to serve the musical’s story. The performers front-and-center, however, are stellar – especially Hoffman, as well as Pelsue, who delivers as though this musical was written for him.

The show is incredibly fun, whether you remember the decade of big hair and big attitudes, or only know the 30-year-old songs (yes, that old) from the Classic Rock station. The onstage bar actually offers retro sodas and beer before each act, and cast members occasionally cross the fourth wall to sit with you.

Got too much time on your hands? You have no excuse not to see this. Here they go again at TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave., through April 1. Call 317-685-8687 or visit www.tots.org.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Review: ‘Passion’ on TOTS stage

By John Lyle Belden

“Beauty is power,” we are told. But what if one is not beautiful; how does she get what she desires?

This question is at the heart of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, “Passion,” playing through March 26 at Theatre on the Square.

In a past era, Italian army officer Giorgio (Scott Russell) has found love with Clara (Jessica Hawkins), who is inconveniently married. He is assigned to a new post, where, while meeting the other officers, he learns that a woman, Fosca (Lori Ecker), lives in the quarters of the commanding Colonel (Norman Brandenstein), her cousin.

Fosca suffers from unspecified mental and physical ailments, leaving her weak and enhancing her unattractiveness. Giorgio takes pity on her, and being the only man to show her true kindness, she falls in love with him. His heart is with Clara, but Fosca’s persistence starts to affect him.

Is Fosca manipulative and cruel, or misunderstood and seeking affection the only way she knows how? Do Giorgio’s acts and reactions show weakness, or tested inner strength? The answers audiences must decide for themselves, and Ecker and Russell don’t make it easy with their nuanced performances.

Fosca is more plain than ugly, in a long, black, shapeless dress with minimal makeup and hair severely pulled back; but in her era as in ours, to look so ordinary is enough, coupled with her odd demeanor and an attitude that hints at a lack of inner beauty as well. Still, Ecker can’t help but shine and makes us feel for her, even when other characters can’t or won’t.

Clara, on the other hand, has bright dresses, colorful makeup and an angelic demeanor (she even knows Giorgio is friends with Fosca) that lets you forget she’s an adulteress; and Hawkins gives her a clear, charming voice and easy smile.

Russell plays Giorgio as the eager, loyal hound who rests easy at Clara’s feet and is devoted to the troops he serves with and over. Such qualities are easily misunderstood and abused by Fosca, who drives him to physical illness that seems to mirror her own.

This musical is not known for its catchy showtunes, but for possibly being Sondheim’s most complex romantic story, a show he counted among his favorites in interviews for “Sondheim on Sondheim.” To judge for yourself, see “Passion” at TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave. in downtown Indy. Call 317-685-8687 or see www.tots.org.

(Review also posted on The Word.)