The beat goes on for CCP with ‘Ragtime’

By John Lyle Belden

RAGTIME: A modification of the march with additional polyrhythms coming from African music, usually written in 2/4 or 4/4 time with a predominant left-hand pattern of bass notes on strong beats and chords on weak beats accompanying a syncopated (“ragged”) melody in the right hand. Ragtime is not a “time” in the same sense that march time is 2/4 meter and waltz time is 3/4 meter; it is rather a musical style that uses an effect that can be applied to any meter. – from Wikipedia

How appropriate that “Ragtime” is the title of the first show for Carmel Community Players after losing its previous home: The beat of the theatrical season goes on, as events turn ragged with a stage search resulting in a nicer venue – though outside Carmel and further from Indy. A large and immensely talented cast and crew adapt quickly, making props and actor movement serve a larger space, singing their hearts out as seasonal health issues threaten.

Yet it all works.

It is worth the drive up to Noblesville to see this compelling glimpse of an America that, a century later, still casts its shadows on the events and issues of today.

This Broadway musical is largely the story of three families – Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Ronald Spriggs) and Sarah (Angela Manlove), the woman who fell in love with him; Jewish Eastern European immigrant Tateh (Thom Brown) and his daughter (Ali Boice), seeking any possible opportunity in America; and the wealthy white suburban family finding themselves in the middle of upsetting but inevitable social, historic and cultural changes. Being what would now be called the faces of “white privilege,” in this latter group we don’t even bother with names: Father (Rich Phipps), Mother (Heather Hansen), her Younger Brother (Benjamin Elliott), Grandfather (Duane Leatherman) and Little Boy (Lincoln Everitt).

We also see some people who one might actually meet in early 1900s New York, including anarchist Emma Goldman and Civil Rights icon Booker T. Washington, powerfully portrayed by Clarissa Bowers and Bradley Lowe, respectively. Celebrities include Harry Houdini (Jonathan Krouse), popular magician and escapist; and Evelyn Nesbitt (Molly Campbell), the Kardashian of her era.

Appropriately, the most critical roles give the strongest performances – Manlove and Spriggs bringing us to tears, Brown confronting crushing problems with wry humor, and Hansen struggling to reconcile her “perfect” life into a more just worldview.

Also notable are Guy Grubbs as unrepentant bigot Willie Conklin, and – at the opposite end of character appeal – little Gavin Hollowell steals our hearts in the final scene.

In addition, I must give kudos to Everitt for, as frequent narrator and our future-generations point of view, ably carrying such a big role on his small shoulders.

This musical has seen some controversy, particularly in its period-appropriate use of the N-word, but the horrors of racism should disturb us, and in the end this is not just a story about groups, but individual men and women, like us, dealing with the still-continuing evolution of this thing we call America.

Performances are this Friday through Sunday (April 27-29) at Ivy Tech Community College auditorium, 300 N.17 th St., Noblesville. Information and tickets at carmelplayers.org.

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‘It is, it is a glorious thing!’ Agape kids plunder another classic

By John Lyle Belden

A year after their triumphant production of “Les Miserables,” the children and teens of Agape Performing Arts Company take on something much lighter, the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operetta, “The Pirates of Penzance.”

In this classic piece of British silliness – with its biting satire of Victorian devotion to class, honor and duty – our hero Frederic concludes his indenture as a Pirate (he was to become a sea “pilot,” but there was a misunderstanding). His duty done, he leaves the ship to do what any good English citizen would do: Fight piracy. When he sees the dozen daughters of the local Major General, Frederic dumps his middle-aged nurse, Ruth, and seeks to woo the girls. Naturally, they refuse, except for nightingale-voiced Mabel, who takes pity on him. But as romance blooms, we find we aren’t yet done with the Pirate King and his crew, especially when Ruth reveals a technicality that could bring Frederic back into their ranks for the rest of his life.

As this large production features so much young talent over its two-week run (ending Sunday), many of the roles were double-cast. The leads I saw, in the “Gilbert Cast,” included Alex Bast as Frederic and Carlynn Berners as Mabel. Maura Phipps was impressive as Ruth, and Tekoa Rea-Hedrick nimbly recited the popular patter of the “Modern Major General.” In the “Sullivan Cast,” these roles are played by Aidan Morris, Christina Canaday, Sabrina Duprey and Luke Proctor. Working with both casts are Eli Robinson as the charming and energetic Pirate King, and spry Carter Dills, showing his dancing skill as Sergeant of the reluctant Constables dispatched to confront the pirates.

While the youths and their adult mentors take their stagecraft seriously, evident by the choreography, excellent costuming, and commitment to the comic bits, no matter how slapstick, there was a definite air of fun throughout. Thus, you won’t find this reviewer nitpicking – no doubt flaws and technical issues are being addressed as I write this, readying this crew to sail afresh on Friday. Speaking of which, it is notable that during the curtain call after each performance, all backstage crew members are called on stage to take a bow as well. Everyone’s hard work is appreciated.

Direction is by Kathy Phipps, with student assistant Mikaela Smith; musical director April Barnes, with Alex Bast. Choreography is by Faith Anthony and Arabella Rollison.

Performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday (Sullivan), 3:30 p.m. Saturday (Sullivan), 7:30 p.m. Saturday (Gilbert) and 3:30 p.m. Sunday (Sullivan) at McGowan Hall (Knights of Columbus #437), 1305 N. Delaware in downtown Indianapolis. Info and tickets at www.agapeshows.org.

Agape Performing Arts is a program of Our Lady of the Greenwood Catholic Church, Greenwood, Ind.

Observe a witness to history at the IRT

By John Lyle Belden

An exceptional treat for theatre fans and history buffs, the James Still masterpiece, “Looking Over the President’s Shoulder,” has returned to the Indiana Repertory Theatre through May 6.

Aspiring opera singer – and proud native of Lyles Station, Indiana – Alonzo Fields took one of the few jobs available to a black man in Boston in the 1920s: a household servant. Then a chance encounter with First Lady Lou Henry Hoover leads to a position at the White House, where he ascends to Chief Butler. As he says in the play, Fields planned to only work through the winter before returning from Washington to Boston and his music – “That ‘winter’ lasted 21 years.”

David Alan Anderson transforms fully into Fields, recounting his career to us as he waits for the bus after his last day at the White House. Through him – and Still’s researched work, based in part on Fields’ memoir – we gain an insight into the lives and personalities of four presidents and their wives, as well as visiting British prime minister Winston Churchill.

The political scene is largely beside the point, though the racist policies of of the era can’t be ignored. Fields remembers encountering segregated facilities, and reflects on President Harry Truman’s orders to integrate the military. Serving through the end of Herbert Hoover’s term and 12 years of Franklin D. Roosevelt gave him a unique perspective on the White House during the Great Depression, as well as World War II.

The most striking thing about the narrative is the focus on the presidents and their families, their humanity and the way they conducted themselves in public and private. In this context, the Executive Mansion becomes a fully fleshed-out character as well. Adding to the context of history we may already know, we gain a deeper understanding of the Hoovers, the Roosevelts, the Trumans, and the Eisenhowers. And, in turn, we get the measure of this man before us, our unassuming hero, as well as the hard-working staff who invisibly keep the White House running smoothly, allowing our leaders to do their jobs as best they can.

The IRT is at 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indy, next to Circle Centre. For information and tickets, call 317-635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.

BCP hosts the original version of ‘Dolly’

By John Lyle Belden

Buck Creek Players presents, “The Matchmaker,” the Thornton Wilder farce that inspired the hit musical, “Hello Dolly” – and it’s easy to see how, as there were several moments in this non-musical comedy that I found myself thinking, “a song would go nice here.”

Set in the 1880s, this satire of society and attitudes of the era has a Yonkers, N.Y., merchant, Horace Vandegelder (C. Leroy Delph), hiring matchmaker Dolly Levi (Gloria Bray) to find him a wife, while denying his daughter Ermengarde (Sami Burr) permission to marry her true love, artist Ambrose Kemper (Manny Casillas). Meanwhile, Horace’s top clerk, Cornelius Hackl (Ben Jones) and his bumbling assistant Barnaby (Evan Vernon), fed up with a lack of respect at their jobs, decide to spend a day in nearby New York City – where, of course, everyone else will end up. The adventure begins at the hat shop of Irene Malloy (Brigette McCleary-Short), who Horace had sought to woo, but Dolly has someone else in mind for the rich man’s bride.

Bray holds the center well as the title character, never holding back on the clever charm and wit. McCleary-Short is also impressive in a character who would feel right at home among the independent women of today’s New York. Otherwise, Wilder apparently had trouble writing for the women, as Ermengarde has few lines, and Irene’s shy assistant Minnie Fay (Katie Thompson) practically none – though she makes up for it with effective physical comedy.

Jones truly shines, making his supporting role feel like a lead, his excellent comic timing and delivery aided by the slapstick skills of Vernon, as they play well off of McCleary-Short and Thompson’s characters.

I must also commend stage first-timer Nickie Cornett for her charming moments as the Cook for Flora Van Huyson (Kassy Cayer, a study in melodrama), Ermengarde’s aunt, at whose home the farcical situations reach their climax.

The play includes the device of various characters, notably Dolly, speaking directly to the audience. It’s hard to say whether that, or a lot of the humor, has aged well. (There was, however, a bit of unexpected amusement by younger audience members, associating Ermengarde’s name with the “Ehrmagerd” internet meme.) The show also features clever stage design by Dan Denniston, with setpieces for a number of locales easily moved in and out of the scene.

One weekend remains of “The Matchmaker” at Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road Exit off I-74); call 317-862-2270 or visit www.BuckCreekPlayers.com.

Civic hosts Christie’s deadly countdown

By John Lyle Belden

Set in the intimate confines of the Studio Theater, rather than its regular stage next door, the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre invites you to look in on a classic mystery: See those 10 people at the party? They are all guilty of something, and one by one they will die. Who will be standing at the end? Are you sure you know?

The Civic presents Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” Director Charles Goad (who we are more used to seeing on the stage than behind it) has trusted his talented cast the freedom to bring out the dark humor in the play’s growing suspense. Even when a character is one you wouldn’t mind seeing become the next victim of “Mr. Unknown,” he or she is presented in an entertaining manner.

Matt Anderson and Christy Walker sharply portray the domestics who literally help set the scene in a fine house on an island off the English coast. Vera (Carrie Schlatter at her steadily unraveling best) thought this was just a job opportunity. Army Cpt. Lombard (Joshua Ramsey as a unflappable man proud of all his qualities, good and bad) was advised to bring his revolver, just in case. Anthony (Bradford Reilly, doing upper-class spoiled well) is up for any kind of adventure. Mr. Daniels – or is that Blore? – (Steve Kruze, working the fine line between gruffness and guilt) was, or is, a cop – making him impossible to trust. Retired Gen. MacKenzie (Tom Beeler, showing mastery of a subtle character) can see this for the final battle it is. Emily (Christine Knuze, working a stiff upper lip that could break glass) is as sure of her own innocence as she is of everyone else’s immorality. Dr. Armstrong (David Wood, becoming even more likable as we find the man’s flaws) feels he could really use a drink, though he doesn’t dare. And prominent judge Sir William Wargrave (David Mosedale in top form) knows a thing or two about unnatural death, having sentenced so many to the gallows.

The cast is completed by Dick Davis as Fred, the man with the boat.

These actors give a delicious recreation of the old story which doesn’t feel dated, considering a strong storm on a remote island would cut off smartphone reception just the same as past means of communication. The plot is propelled by the old poem “Ten Little Soldiers” (a more palatable version than the frequently used “Ten Little Indians” or its original, more controversial, title). Ten tin soldiers stand on the mantle, their number decreasing throughout the play as the victims accumulate. The verse is on a plaque by the fireplace, and reprinted in the program for us to follow along.

I don’t want to give spoilers, but bear in mind that Christie wrote more than one way to end the story. See for yourself at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel through April 8. Call 317-843-3800 or visit civictheatre.org.

Hilarious lessons for us all at ‘Fairfield,’ the final Phoenix show at its old home

By John Lyle Belden

It’s not easy being an educator these days, having to dialogue with fellow teachers, staff, and parents; keeping students engaged; and fulfilling all sorts of jargon-fueled metrics. All while being inclusive and diversity aware!

At “Fairfield,” the comedy running through April 1 at the Phoenix Theatre – the last show at its old location – first-year Principal Wadley (Milicent Wright) and rookie first-grade teacher Miss Kaminski (Mara Lefler) each try to guide students through Black History Month. Wadley, an African-American, hopes for a simple diversity curriculum leading into the “Celebrethnic” Potluck at month’s end. Meanwhile, young, eager – and Caucasian – Kaminski has more ambitious ideas; and when her tone-deaf spelling list and an ill-advised history role-playing exercise become known to the children’s parents – well, just be glad February has only 28 days.

This hilarious farce by Emmy-nominated playwright Eric Coble, loaded with razor-sharp social commentary, appears to have elements of HBO’s “Vice Principals” and the drama “God of Carnage,” with the attitude of “South Park.” From a central stage cleverly designed by Zac Hunter, the educators speak over the audience to the pupils of Fairfield Elementary. A conspicuous absence of child actors keeps the focus squarely on the adults, as while everything is “for the children,” in essence it’s really all about them and what they want (for the kids, of course).

The cast includes Doug Powers and Jean Arnold as parents of a gifted white boy caught up in the role-playing incident with a black classmate, whose parents are played by Dwuan Watson and LaKesha Lorene. As they all “dialogue” with Wadley and Kaminski, we find that when you scratch beneath their liberal progressive veneer, old suspicions and stereotypical thinking still persists. Powers also portrays the district Superintendent (and Kaminski’s uncle), who hates having to deal with racial tension, especially when it could mean firing his only black principal. And Watson also plays a civil-rights struggle veteran called on to speak to students – giving a far more detailed lesson than anyone expects.

Directed by Ansley Valentine, this show is full of bust-a-gut funny moments and I-can’t-believe-they-just-said-that lines, while deftly skewering educator double-talk and our national hypocrisy on politically correct topics. Everyone around me, as we tried to catch our breath from laughing so hard, declared that the Phoenix is departing the old church at Park and St. Clair on a strong note.

Help say farewell to the underground Basile Theatre and its pesky load-bearing poles (cleverly blended into the set, as usual). Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Experience Venice through the eyes of its visitors in IRT’s ‘Appoggiatura’

By John Lyle Belden

The Indiana Repertory Theatre play “Appoggiatura,” by IRT playwright-in-residence James Still, is a “Venecia story:” A story of Venice, Italy.

Venice, the centuries-old artistically and architecturally rich city of gondola-filled canals, is a unique place, and it can’t help but become a character in any story set there. I understand this, because I once spent the day there; so I, too, have a Venecia story – but that’s not what we’re here to discuss.

This play is also the third in Still’s loose “trilogy” involving characters related to a man named Jack, who died on 9/11. But this is not about him, except that relatives give brief mention in the way you can’t help but talk of someone you loved so dearly and lost so tragically. And it is not at all in the same style as the two previous plays: “The House That Jack Built” (premiered by IRT in 2012), a family drama set around a New England Thanksgiving table; or “Miranda” (on the IRT upperstage last year), a spy thriller set in Yemen. This play truly is, you must understand, a Venecia story.

Venice is not only rich in art, architecture and history, but also in music. The strains of violin and operatic voices are performed throughout this show, framing and accentuating scenes (yet this is not a musical) with a masqued man who might even be the spirit of Venice-born composer Vivaldi. Venice is a city of patient natives and multitudes of tourists, which our characters can’t help but bump into. It is a city of labyrinthine narrow streets between the canals, so that the directions of “go right, go left, go straight, go straight” will take you virtually anywhere, especially to the centrally-located world-famous Piazza San Marco.

In this setting, we meet Helen (Susan Pellegrino) and her grown granddaughter (and Jack’s daughter), Sylvie (Andrea San Miguel), who arrive in Venice on a rainy night with luggage missing and their rooms not ready. They are accompanied by Aunt Chuck (Tom Aulino), who is definitely not happy with the way things are turning out. But he also still feels the loss of his husband, Gordon, who had previously been Helen’s husband.

The next morning, they are greeted by their “tour-guider,” Marco (Casey Hoekstra), who reassures them that they and their luggage being lost is only part of their Venecia story, which they will eventually come to treasure. As it turns out, Marco isn’t much of a “guider,” but still a good man to have around.

As she wanders the city, Helen is reminded of her own previous Venecia story, crossing a bridge into the past and encounters with a young Helen and Gordon (San Miguel and Hoekstra) on their honeymoon. Chuck also finds echoes of the man he loved at a Venecian fountain. The blending of time and space, especially when 21st-century technology gets mixed in, would be concerning to a hard-core sci-fi fan, but this is a romantic tale – and no dangerous side effects of paradox seem to take place.

Still’s characters are charming and likeable, even the extras (performed by wandering musicians Andrew Mayer, Paul Deboy and Katrina Yaukey) such as a man (Deboy) walking and singing to his two (puppet) dogs – based on a memory from Still’s own personal Venecia story. San Miguel plays her Millennial character as impatient, searching and a bit cynical, but not whiny; a measure of how much we care for Sylvie is that we understand her perspective during a heated Skype conversation with her fiance (Yaukey) in the States. Pellegrino and Aulino touch our hearts as two people united by their longing for the same man, each taking an opposite approach: she always sunny, he ever under a cloud. Hoekstra’s Marco is eager and a bit of a hustler, but with an easily detected good heart.

As Venice is a literal maze of history and blended eras, I can forgive fantasy elements that wouldn’t work as well in other settings. And, while I know a trilogy is supposed to be just three stories, I feel that there should be a follow-up with what happens between Sylvia and her beloved in Vermont. It is refreshing to see a story with elements of same-sex love that never dwells on it; it’s just a part of normal relationships. And it is notable that in the 20-teens, references to 9/11 no longer shock, yet retain their sting. I must also note how truly funny this play is at various points, but it’s not a full-on “comedy,” just a lifelike reflection of both the comic/drama masks we all wear.

Otherwise, this is a hard show to critique, as its blend of music, drama, love, and comic moments stands alone and could only be categorized as – dare I say it again: A Venecia story.

Save the cost of airfare to Italy and head downtown to 140 W. Washington St., Indianapolis. Performances are through March 31. Call 317-635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.