‘Big Day’ for little guy at Phoenix

By John Lyle Belden

Phoenix Theatre’s holiday tradition continues with “Winston’s Big Day: A Very Phoenix Xmas 14.”

(Note the originator of the series, Bryan Fonseca, also has a holiday variety show at the new Fonseca Theatre Company, but think of them not so much as competitors as companion pieces — each with its own nice yet mildly naughty take on the winter holidays.)

The Phoenix production works on a theme developed by director Chelsea Anderson over the course of the year. It’s Christmas Eve, and elf Winston (Dave Pelsue) — who had been planning to leave the North Pole to pursue a music career, with Rudolph (Ramon Hutchins) as his manager — is tapped to be co-pilot of the Sleigh. But Santa is missing! That means it’s up to the reluctant elf and his bright-nosed companion to make the deliveries and save Christmas. 

During the night, Winston looks in on several scenes, performed by the cast of Nathalie Cruz, Andrea Heiden, Jan Lucas, Pearl Scott, John Vessels, and Justin Sears-Watson. Scenes and songs are by a diverse lot including Anderson, Pelsue, Paige Scott, J. Julian Christopher, Jen Blackmer, Riti Sachdeva, Zach Neiditch, and Phoenix playwright-in-residence Tom Horan.

There is an abundance of wonderful performances, including Lucas and Heiden as ghosts of Charles Dickens; Vessels at his manic best; and dancer Sears-Watson’s smooth moves, as well as showing his singing and acting chops. 

Perhaps one of the best scenes, showing off all the talents on hand, is Blackmer’s “The Twelve Theatrical Genres of the Totally Non-Denominational, Absolutely Inclusive Holidays…” This gentle jab at both political correctness and community theatre, when its reach goes way beyond its grasp, results in a hilarious holiday scene so “inclusive” it hardly appeals to anyone: The Misguided Mechanicals present something like, “Stella and the Zombie Cats of Thebes” (that’s my best-guess title for it; you’re welcome, Chelsea). 

And, of course, there’s Pelsue and Hutchens, doing a great job of tying this whole silly and sweet mess together, as they struggle to rush through their duties, hoping to make their stage time at Fa-La-La-La-La-Palooza. 

Also impressive is Zac Hunter’s stage design, including a turntable with pop-up-book effects, and frequent clever use of the trapdoors.

Yet another holiday tradition to add to your schedule, performances run through Dec. 22 at the Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois, downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

The King turns Queen in Phoenix’s ‘Georgia McBride’

By John Lyle Belden

Phoenix Theatre opens its 2019-20 season with the fabulous Off-Broadway comedy, “The Legend of Georgia McBride” by Matthew Lopez.

Set in the Florida Panhandle, just as Casey (Sam C. Jones), a budding Elvis impersonator with a bit of high school musical experience, is finally getting his act to work, Cleo’s Bar on Panama City Beach decides to change its entertainment. Desperate for a bigger (or any) audience, bar manager Eddie (Ty Stover) takes a chance on his cousin, drag queen Miss Tracy Mills (John Vessels).

Casey is in a bind, as his wife Jo (Bridgette Ludlow) is pregnant, so he stays on as bartender. Then, when Miss Tracy’s fellow entertainer, Anna-Rexia Nervosa (Jonathan Studdard), can’t go on, Casey is pressed into service in dress, wig and makeup, and Georgia McBride is born!

Once our hopelessly hetero hero accepts his new persona, “her” popularity rises on the beach-bar scene, but Casey can’t bring himself to tell Jo what he’s been doing. It’s easy to see that a reckoning is coming for Florida’s newest Queen.

This play is loaded with both humor – in side-splitting comic moments – and heart. In Jones and Ludlow’s performance, you can tell Casey and Jo truly love each other, though he tests her patience with his immaturity, and she his with her bouts of pessimism.

Vessels is amazing, whether playing the confident woman backstage or the hilarious performer in the spotlight. Studdard is excellent in double-duty as Rexy, who informs Casey that the drag life is more than just a lip-synching gig; and as Casey and Jo’s landlord and friend, Jason – his double-take when he find’s out about Casey doing drag is priceless. Stover as Eddie is in his element, as he plays a thin-tempered but lovable Falstaff with bills to pay.

The drag scenes are played to the Phoenix audience as the bar’s audience, so cast members informed us after opening night that people sitting up front could tip them like in a regular drag show. Those scenes include clever musical mash-ups, and wonderful costumes by Stephen Hollenbeck. Suzanne Fleenor directs.

The “Legend” continues through Oct. 6 at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois in downtown Indianapolis. Information and tickets at phoenixtheatre.org.

ATI: Ruth sure is missing out on a great show

By Wendy Carson

Ambition. It’s all that drives some people. Even though they have talent and skills, they strive to be recognized and adored for it. How far will a person go to get what they want?

This question is the main premise of the show, “Ruthless: The Musical,” presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana. It is a musical parody of classic noir “The Bad Seed” and “All About Eve,” with a whole lot of campy fun thrown in.

Judy Fitzgerald nimbly portrays Judy Denmark, a doting mother who, while abundantly proud of her daughter Tina, possesses a fierce drive of her own. John Vessels delivers with all of his vamping glory as Sylvia St. Croix, who will do anything to be part of show biz – again.

Suzanne Stark’s portrayal of viciously bitter reviewer Lita Encore channels Madeline Kahn and Megan Mullally in evoking the requisite Evil Wielder of the Poisonous Pen (we’ll try not to take it personally).

Laura Sportiello brilliantly pulls off the gawkiness and questionable talent of Tina’s rival, Louise Lehrman, while also proving she is not one to be underestimated. Meanwhile, Cynthia Collins is fun as the put-upon Miss Thorn, a third-grade teacher whose own showbiz aspirations were crushed by stark reality. Her self-written musical about Pippi Longstocking and questionable casting choices provide the fodder to set this chaos in motion.

Finally, we turn to Nya Skye Beck’s performance as Tina Denmark, the talented and seemingly perfect child whom we all wish we had. Only a fourth-grader, Beck’s level of talent at acting, singing and dance is amazing. During the show, my partner John said, “She is the real deal,” and I heartily agree. I hope to see her in many more productions in the coming years, before the call of Broadway whisks her away.

The first act more reflects “Seed,” with Act Two taking aspects of “Eve” with Sportiello in an alternate role. Satire abounds – there’s a big musical number called “I Hate Musicals” – secrets are exposed, and it all comes down to an ending to die for. On the whole, this show is hilarious and highly entertaining.

“Ruthless” runs through Feb. 17 at the Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. ATI notes the content is relative to a PG-13 rating. For info and tickets, visit atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Phoenix shines with ‘Bright Star’

By John Lyle Belden

A show like the musical “Bright Star” brings with it a lot of expectations.

It is co-written by the legendary Steve Martin (with singer-songwriter Edie Brickell), a connoisseur of the absurd, even as a playwright (see “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” “The Underpants”). But if one recalls the spirit of his film “Pennies From Heaven,” Martin also loves the innocence of a feel-good musical. And “Bright Star” delivers with its upbeat attitude (the title is also the third musical number) and just an edge of drama – sort of an “Oklahoma” set in the Carolinas. Wendy compares the feel to “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou.”

We are alerted to the fact that this is based – loosely – on a true story. But, I would advise one not to read the story of the Iron Mountain Baby, printed in the program, until after you see the show, as it makes the plot more predictable than it already is. Besides, the true events happened in earlier decades, and in Missouri. “Bright Star” is a fictional tale (with the luxury of replying to “oh, that couldn’t have happened” with “it actually did, once”) taking place in Hayes Creek, Asheville, Zebulon and Raleigh, N.C.

In addition, there’s the burden of living up to being a Broadway hit. Considering it’s the Phoenix Theatre launching the local premiere, and the standing ovation by the packed audience at Thursday’s preview, this expectation has been well met.

At the end of World War II, Billy Cane (Ian Laudano) comes home from the Army to find his Daddy (Joey Collins) and childhood best friend Margo (Betsy Norton) waiting for him, but his mother passed on. Billy aspires to be a writer, and gives his essays to Margo, who runs the local bookstore, to edit for submission to magazines. He decides to take his best works and deliver them by hand to the Asheville Southern Journal – a fool’s errand, as copy editor Daryl (John Vessels) is a strict gatekeeper. But senior editor Alice Murphy (Molly Garner) sees something in this young man, and agrees to read his work.

We then get a look at Murphy’s past, and from there the story flows back and forth between the 1920s and ’40s, but Martin and Brickell’s plot – and director Suzanne Fleenor – don’t let things get confusing. Speaking of flow, the choreography, nicely done by Carol Worcel, seems to extend even to inanimate objects as furniture and setpieces on subtle casters seem to dance in and out of scenes as needed.

As a teen, Alice falls in love with Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Patrick Clements), son of Zebulon’s no-nonsense Mayor (Charles Goad). She is seen as the “black sheep” of her family, headed by her Bible-toting father (Paul Tavianini) and mother (Maryjayne Waddell), so it isn’t surprising when she gets in trouble. Jimmy Ray wants to do right by her, but the Mayor wants no scandal and takes matters literally into his own hands.

In Billy’s era, he has been accepted as a writer for the Journal, but struggles to find his voice – while also dealing with advances by Daryl’s assistant, Lucy (Ashley Dillard). Meanwhile, back in Hayes Creek, Margo wonders if a new dress will be enough to wake Billy up to her growing feelings for him.

All the plotlines come together in ways you see coming but are still satisfying. This is aided by some first-rate performances – Laudano as the happy optimist, Garner giving Alice deep wells of strength, Clements with his powerful voice and effortless manner, Collins radiating wisdom through his aw-shucks hillbilly facade, Norton as charming as ever as Margo, the antics of Dillard and Vessels that lend comedy relief without getting too silly, Tavianini’s firm hand reaching toward the light, and Goad’s grasping hand committing to the role of villain. Ensemble members also get their moments, including Kenny Shepard as the Mayor’s assistant, and Conner Chamberlin as Max – the lonely guy who has no shot with Margo, but can’t help trying.

An excellent band of strings and bluegrass instruments, led by Brent Marty at the piano, occupies the back of the stage like a natural part of the environment.

I’ve heard from the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St., that the show’s run – through Oct. 7 – is selling out fast. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

Help pick the killer du jour at ATI’s ‘Drood’

By John Lyle Belden

Regardless of if you’d consider a murder mystery fun, you are bound to get a kick out of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana through May 13 at The Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

The biggest mystery of the story is how it ends. Charles Dickens died while writing it, with no definitive clues left as to his intended perpetrator, or even if Drood actually dies.

In this Broadway musical, written by Rupert Holmes, we witness a Victorian-era comic troupe bring the story to life, while letting the audience vote to settle questions such as the identity of the killer. True to English music hall “panto” tradition, the lead male is played by a woman, we are encouraged to “boo-hiss” the villain, and silliness could break out at any time.

ATI co-founder Cynthia Collins takes on the title character, a bright, likable gentleman engaged to the lovely Rosa Bud (Harli Cooper) since they were children. Drood’s uncle, church choirmaster John Jasper (Eric Olson) wants to possess Rosa – or at least one of his personalities does. Meanwhile, the Rev. Crisparkle (Darrin Murrell), has arrived from Ceylon with the Landless twins: Neville (Logan Moore), a hot-tempered young man who also feels desire for Rosa, and Helena (Jaddy Ciucci), who worries about Neville’s temper while otherwise acting exotic and downright mysterious. We also meet Durdles (John Vessels), the good-natured gravedigger; opium-den matron Princess Puffer (Judy Fitzgerald), whose customers include Jasper; Mr. Bazzard (Paul Collier Hansen), played by a man always up for minor parts; and Flo (Karaline Feller), who is, well, pretty. We are guided through this cast and story with the help of The Chairman (T.J. Lancaster), who also has to pitch in for an absent actor.

In scenes laced with cheeky humor and song, clues are dropped and a minor bit of tension raised as the story leads up to Drood’s disappearance. Then more revelations are made as an obviously-disguised person appears as private eye Dick Datchery. But soon, the lights go up as the Chairman notes that this is as far as the Dickens text goes. Who’s who and what’s what? Time to vote! (Note this election is not rigged; any of several suspects could be selected and can be different from one performance to the next.)

Performances are great all around. Lancaster is an excellent guide, while Collins holds the center well. Meanwhile, Olson plays a cruel maniac so well, it just seems too obvious to consider him the killer! The show has a great music hall feel, with the musicians at the back of center stage, and appropriate look thanks to designer P. Bernard Killian, complemented by costumes by Stephen Hollenbeck.

I’ve used “fun” a lot to describe recent plays, but it certainly applies here in a style that feels more intimate and engaging for the audience in the Studio Theater’s black-box style space. As one only has to applaud their choice or turn in a ballot from a pre-printed list, it’s not too involved an “audience participation” situation, yet you do feel like part of the festivities, making for a fully satisfying theatrical experience – even if your candidate for murderer doesn’t get chosen.

Get information and tickets at www.atistage.org or thecenterpresents.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.