IPAI & StageQuest put a new shine on ‘Pippin’

By John Lyle Belden

The Indiana Performing Arts Initiative, a program of Claude McNeal Productions, presents, with StageQuest Theatricals, the Roger Hirson and Stephen Schwartz musical “Pippin.”

StageQuest’s Ty Stover directs this version of a surreal take on a Medieval character — Prince Pippin, son of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne — which differs a bit from other productions, yet keeps the spirit of the Tony-winning show. The stage and costume aesthetic is a sort of urban homeless/punk with dirty faces and mismatched clothes. At least one on-stage clue, and the initial look of our Leading Player (Dave Pelsue), establish a dark cult-like atmosphere with this eclectic company of mostly-young men and women. 

Our leader wishes to tell us a story, the tale of Prince Pippin — not a restless hunchback, as history relates, but a restless healthy educated young man, played by an actor plucked from the audience (Cameron Brown).

Pippin wishes to find his purpose in life, which amuses — and at times irks — his father King Charles (Josiah McCruiston). Meanwhile, his stepmother Fastrada (Laura Lockwood) and dimwit half-brother Luis (Ben Fraley) plot against him. The quest brings on a lot of adventure, but no happiness. Not even a visit to exiled grandmother Berthe (Denise Fort), who basically tells him to just lighten up, brings satisfaction. 

The Leading Player is getting impatient — how will he get the subject of his story to go out appropriately in a blaze of glory? Perhaps an encounter with a lovely widow (Hannah Elizabeth Boswell) and her son (Kate Boice) will do the trick.

Our other players in various roles are Maddie Altom, Isaac Becker, Nik Folley, Seth Jacobsen, Rosemary Meagher, Piper Williams, and Jill Wooster. 

If you’ve seen this show, you know these plot points, but the fun is seeing how they are executed. This troupe does it with great wacky humor and even a sing-along. McCruiston’s big personality makes him a perfect fit for the crown. Brown plays his searching soul a little naive, but without being annoying. Fraley comes across too goofy to be threatening; Lockwood can threaten with a glance. Fort easily keeps up with her younger castmates. Boswell wins us with natural charm. Our tween Boice, already a rising star, shines through the grime on her face. Meanwhile, even in the lightest moments, Pelsue maintains an undercurrent of menace throughout that will lead to a shocking end.

The set includes a small screen at the top of the stage with visual gags and silent commentary (especially during the war scenes). The show features popular show tunes including “Magic to Do,” “No Time at All” and the recurring theme, “Corner of the Sky.” As a whole, the production is both familiar and new — enough of the former to make us comfortable, and enough of the latter to give you plenty to think about after the last curtain call. 

Performances are Friday through Sunday, July 19-21, at Herron High School, 110 E. 16th St. (enter on the west side). Get tickets at ipai.tix.com.

 

Zach&Zack ‘Rocky Horror’ at Athenaeum – ’nuff said

By John Lyle Belden

I could probably skip the synopsis on this one – Anybody here know how to Madison?

“The Rocky Horror Show” (note the omission of “Picture,” this is the live stage version) has returned to Indianapolis like a Halloween tradition, gracing the haunted stage of the Athenaeum,

Presented by Zach&Zack – produced by Zach Rosing, directed by Zack Neiditch – the play greatly resembles the movie scenes and songs, with a few differences (no dinner scene, for instance). The opening theme is a brilliant tribute to the film, complete with cast credits. But the actors here have made these characters their own: for instance, Dave Ruark plays sassy “Sweet Transvestite” Frank N. Furter, not an impression of Tim Curry in the role.

Adam Tran and Andrea Heiden are fun as Brad and Janet – the pair of squares thrust into a night of “absolute pleasure,” and Joe Doyel has stage presence to match his pecs and flex as muscular Rocky (the Creature). But the scenes are not stolen but outright owned by Davey Pelsue as Riff-Raff, combining his considerable acting chops with his rock-star charisma. Also wonderful are Anna Lee as Magenta, Alexandria Warfiel as Columbia, and Josiah McCruiston as Eddie and Dr. Scott.

But is it fair that while Adam Crowe is excellent as the no-neck Narrator, his scenes are pre-recorded so that he can actually see this great show from the audience, while the rest of the cast can’t? And where did his neck go? I blame aliens.

Kudos also to Erin Becker for her “big mouth.”

Perhaps I’m not taking this review seriously enough, but then consider what I’m supposed to be critiquing here. For crying out loud, the best lines are typically shouted by the audience! (And yes, you can do that – just no props allowed, by theater policy.) The bottom line is that this is not just a “play” or even your typical musical, it is an experience. And with this competent crew, you are assured a very good time. (Like a – everybody now – “Science fiction, double feature…”)

Of course, tickets are selling fast. Remaining performances are Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 1-3 at the “A,” 401 E. Michigan in downtown Indy. Get info at ZachAndZack.com (or their Facebook page) and tickets here.

IndyFringe: ‘Cindy/Ella’

This show is part of the 14th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 16-26, 2018 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

This silly satire answers the question: What would happen if the producers of the “Kardashians” and other “E!” network shows made a traditional fairy tale?

Cindy, who chafes at being married to the Prince of Malibu (with his odd shoe fetish), is fed up with royal life and runs away to (gasp!) The Valley, where she meets a Fairy Godmother minding an adult novelties store, and finally disguises herself as a mai- I mean personal assistant to a wick- I mean drunken woman (think stepmom) and her ug- I man vapid (and pretty tbh) twin daughters. See? Just like the Grimms wrote it.

It all works in its own wild way, complete with breaking “Extra!” style news bulletins by Michael Cleaver. And it benefits from the superb-as-usual acting of Abby Gilster as Cindy, and the phenomenon that is Josiah McCruiston as our godmother Dontrell. Kudos also to Amity Aschilman for her deadpan counterpoint as Dontrell’s best friend/coworker/roommate Kendra.

We also get Melissa Cleaver as Cindy’s PA/friend Deidre, Scott Prill as a steadfast detective, Amanda Bell and Ashley Duprey each in dual roles, and Jason Plake as our Prince with far more substance in his Speedos than his brain.

“Cindy/Ella” is presented by playwright Elizabeth Griffin Speckman at the IndyFringe Basile (main) Theatre, 719 St. Clair St., just off Mass Ave.

Phoenix blesses us with ‘Rosewater’

By John Lyle Belden

The Phoenix Theatre, at its new home at 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indy, is off to a great start with the musical of “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” – by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken (one of their first collaborations) from the novel by Indiana’s own Kurt Vonnegut – playing through June 3.

The title refers to Eliot Rosewater, son of a millionaire U.S. Senator, who manages the family foundation which gives money to practically everyone who asks. But being generous is not enough to soothe his conscience, bothered by his actions in World War II that resulted in the death of German volunteer firemen. So he disappears from his New York office and pops up at volunteer firehouses across America, seeking his purpose until he finds it – at the family home in Rosewater County, Indiana.

Aside from the significance of telling an Indiana story by a Hoosier author, performing a satire about greed in today’s political climate, and having a show with science-fiction elements (the Phoenix’s very first show years ago, “Warp,” was sci-fi themed), it is notable that this musical is playing during May, Mental Health Awareness Month.

Psychological well-being is at the heart of the Rosewater story, from Eliot’s serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder, to the Senator insisting that no son of his would be “nuts,” to the plot hanging on our hero being insane because he actually considers those “beneath” him to be worthy of dignity – even equals. This latter disorder is too much for his wife to bear, driving her mad to the other extreme: only able to function among the very rich. Even Eliot’s well-meaning signs, saying, “DON’T KILL YOURSELF; CALL THE ROSEWATER FOUNDATION,” point to the need to encourage people to seek necessary help.

Patrick Goss wins our heart as Eliot, surrounded by a top-notch cast that includes Emily Ristine as his wife, Sylvia, and Phoenix founding member Charles Goad as Sen. Rosewater. Isaac Wellhauen is nicely conniving as financial advisor Norman Mushari, who finds a way to divert the Rosewater millions to long-ignored members of the family (for a hefty fee, of course). Suzanne Fleenor, another Phoenix founder and “Warp” veteran, plays Eliot’s psychiatrist. Other parts are also taken by familiar faces: Jean Childers Arnold, Scot Greenwell, Rob Johansen, Devan Mathias, Josiah McCruiston, Deb Sargent, Peter Scharbrough, Diane Boehm Tsao, and Mark Goetzinger as McCallister, the family banker.

Little bits of sci-fi poke in from time to time in true Vonnegut fashion, as the show is also a tribute to the greatest SF writer who never lived, Kilgore Trout. Like the best of the misunderstood genre, the otherworldy perspective allows us to get a fresh perspective on our very human behavior (and gives the props and costumes folks something to have fun with).

The songs and script show the spark of the genius that gave us “Little Shop of Horrors” and those Disney classics. The look and performances are well worthy of the beautiful new space, another triumph for director Bryan Fonseca.

The new theatre has plenty of room, and plenty of free parking, so go check it out. Info and tickets at www.phoenixtheatre.org or call 317-635-7529.

Phoenix drama where steel of resolve reaches its breaking point

By John Lyle Belden

“Sweat,” the Pulitzer-winning drama making its Indy premiere at the Phoenix Theatre, is a riveting mystery wrapped in a stark examination of recent events.

Set in a Pennsylvania Rust-Belt town, we first meet Jason (Nathan Robbins) and Chris (Ramon Hutchens) as they talk to their probation officer (Josiah McCruiston). The former best friends are released from prison in 2008, having served time for what they did eight years earlier. Neither has come to terms with their act; Jason literally wears the shame on his face.

Much of the rest of the play takes place in the year 2000, in a bar near a local factory where generations of men and women have worked good Union jobs. But the changing times, aided by economic factors such as NAFTA and the decline of labor unions, have cast an air of uncertainty over the town. One plant, where Chris’s father Brucie (Dwuan Watson) worked, shut out its workers and may never reopen. But his mother, Cynthia (Dena Toler), is doing fine at her workplace, where she and her friends Jessie (Angela Plank) and Jason’s mom, Tracey (Diane Kondrat), even consider going for a recently-opened management position.

Bartender Stan (Rob Johansen) used to work at the factory, but thanks to an on-the-job injury he settles for just selling his old friends drinks. He is helped by good-hearted Oscar (Ian Cruz), who patiently puts up with the patrons assuming he’s Mexican (his family’s Columbian) and that he’s an immigrant (he was born in the town, like everyone else).

As for individual performances, director Bryan Fonseca has once again brought out the best in a very solid ensemble, familiar to Phoenix audiences.

As we see the social and economic darkness descend upon these characters, and we get to know their feelings and fears as we watch the inevitable from our perspective of over a decade later, one haunting truth lingers in the background: Something very bad is going to happen to one of them. We never really know until the moment it happens, and at that point, we truly feel the dark side of 21st-century America.

For a look at the hot human aspects of cold economic realities, experience “Sweat,” through March 4 at 749 N. Park Ave. (the last mainstage show at this address before the Phoenix’s big move). Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Hero-ing ain’t easy

By Wendy Carson

We have all heard of Hercules and that he performed numerous “labors” as penance for his past misdeeds. He is always thought of as a noble hero – but what if he was actually a douche?

In “Mad Mad Hercules,” presented by NoExit and Zach Rosing Productions, we see him as a horny, drunk asshole who disrespects everyone and only aspires to become a constellation. To do so, he must complete these labors, which he has no desire to work for. True, he has been tortured and almost killed his entire existence by his reluctant stepmother, Hera. Still, that is no excuse for him being this big a tool.

This being Greek theatre, we have a Chorus to keep things going, fill in exposition, pose as occasional characters in the story and so on. Matthew Altman, Carrie Bennett Fedor, and Devan Mathais do an wonderfully energetic and whimsical job in this case.

Ryan Ruckman portrays Hercules so well, you will fight to keep yourself from punching him out. Nathan Thomas brings great passion to his character, Iolas, who must force Hercules to accomplish those tasks. He had always thought of Hercules as his hero, until he met him.

Beverly Roche is hilarious as Hippolyta, the leader of the Amazons. She also does a great job puppeting Galinthias, who was transformed by Hera into a polecat for helping to birth Hercules.

Speaking of puppetry, Matt Roher is a master at transforming himself into many of the creatures that are essential in the labors. His turn as the Ceryneian Hind is a marvel to behold.

Dena Toler gives a solid turn as the Trisha-Yearwood-idolizing Hera. However, it is her touching portrayal of Echidna, the monstrous mother of the Nemean Lion, that truly shows her amazing depth as an actress.

Josiah McCruiston is delightful as Eurystheus, Ruler of Hercules’s homeland and biggest pain in his ass.

Seemingly underused in the cast is Tony Armstrong as Zeus, the loving father who just can’t keep it in his pants.

The show, written by Bennett Ayres and Directed by Zack Neiditch, is an irreverent and thoroughly enjoyable interpretation of this epic tale. Be sure to catch it before it, too, is but a legend.

Find “Mad Mad Hercules” at the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair (just east of the Mass Ave./College/St. Clair intersection) in downtown Indianapolis, through May 7. Get info and tickets at www.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.

Local writers keeping TOTS busy

By John Lyle Belden

For one more weekend, Theatre on the Square has a sort of double-feature going on: two distinct plays (each requiring its own ticket) by local playwrights, each exploring personal change in different ways: “Puppet Man,” by Andy Black; and “Clutter,” by Lou Harry.

“Puppet Man” is about a prison inmate with serious issues who finds solace by participating in the institution’s puppet shows held for visiting children. Pretty Boy (Taylor Cox) can’t get his guilty mind to shut up, so he dulls the sound with drugs, making his situation worse. When he finds out about the puppet program, his dealer Word (Carey Shea) makes him join in a plot to use the volunteer instructor’s privileges to sneak contraband into the prison. That compassionate visitor, Doc (Miki Mathioudakis), lets Pretty Boy into the program despite suspicions by her and the other inmate puppeteers, especially Sidewinder (Josh Ramsey). Fabulous Fantasia (Josiah McCruiston) and the mysterious Dayton (Matt Anderson), who only speaks through his puppets, help him to craft “Pretty Girl,” the puppet star of the next show. Then Pretty Boy discovers that the voice he now hears in his head is hers.

Though I am not personally familiar with the culture of life behind bars, Black’s story feels real enough, with desperate men making desperate choices while others calmly plot to take advantage of them, a place where the smallest things we take for granted outside have enormous value. While each character is a broadly-drawn type, they don’t come off as cliché. Cox handles being the central character with skill – a tall order, given McCruiston and Anderson’s ability to steal their scenes. Pretty Boy is a complex personality, and his mental issues provide the underlying drama – is this show more like “Avenue Q,” in which the puppets teach us all life lessons, or “Hand to God,” in which the puppets channel dark impulses? Kinda both, actually, punctuated with dark humor. I encourage you to see for yourself what I mean.

“Clutter, or, The Moving Walkway will Soon be Coming to an End” is three scenes depicting the changes in four people’s lives over six years. First we meet Bobby (Ben Fraley) and Eddy (Nick Barnes), two best friends struggling to keep their business afloat. Eddy is the more scattered of the two, which only adds to Bobby’s tension. Aside from planning a networking party, they discuss their romantic prospects with an offstage coworker. We meet that woman, Barb (Anna Lee), in the second scene, three years later, talking about the frustrations of life with her best friend, Bev (Kelsey Van Voorst). Eventually, Barb sees a man she used to work with offstage, and decides to take her chances with him. Move on to the third scene, again three years later, involving all four characters at the home two of them share.

The theme seems to center on inevitable endings and the struggle to improve and change one’s path. One character appears to have turned his life around with “Mission” – a self-help method that helps him focus his life, but doesn’t automatically solve his problems. All seem to be seeking something new, yet something that remains stable, at the same time. Note a “shoe is on the other foot” metaphor with which woman wears the red shoes. The show has dynamite dialogue and sharp humor, thanks to Harry, but subtle pacing that – along with being a one-act – gives the sense that it is part of a larger story, feeling incomplete by itself.

There is a slight over-run on stage times – “Clutter” on the second stage follows “Puppet Man” on the main stage – but if you spring for both shows, it’s possible they could hold the curtain for the second. Or, as they are independent stories, you can simply see one or the other. Remaining performances are Friday through Sunday, Jan. 20-22, at TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave.; call 317-685-8687 or see 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.

Getting through the holidays with TOTS

By John Lyle Belden

While most people are familiar with the “Nice” offering by Theatre on the Square, a live stage version of “A Christmas Story,” the show on the smaller second stage, “A Christmas Survival Guide” – tagged “Naughty” – is a little more obscure. So that’s what we’ll discuss here.

As for the naughtiness, it’s mainly for some language and Grinchy-Scroogey attitude as a jaded quintet – Gabby Niehaus, Shauna Smith, Anna Lee, Josiah McCruistion and Eric Brockett – their piano accompanist, Levi Burke, and stage manager, Nikki Sayer (her actual position, not just a role) deal with going through yet another holly-jolly season, whether they like it or not.

Still, a show is a show, and when the spotlight is on one of this ensemble, he or she shines, whether it’s Niehaus cooing “Santa Baby,” Smith crooning the “New Years Eve Blues,” Lee abducting “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” Burke tickling the ivories in a solo, or McCruistion frankly singing anything.

It helps that the cast are given copies of the book, “A Christmas Survival Guide,” from which we hear excerpts in the recorded voice of TOTS staffer and local uber-talent Claire Wilcher.

The best bit in this revue of songs and comedy features Lee as a lonely woman dealing with two rather needy and misunderstood roommates, portrayed hilariously by Brockett and McCruistion.

One note to shy audience members: Sitting down front could get you pulled onstage when the gang find themselves a reindeer short.

For something a little different (for teens and older) with a ring of the familiar, in a cozy intimate setting, this show makes a nice change of pace from your typical holiday fare. Performances of this and “Christmas Story” run through Dec. 23 at TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave.; call 317-685-8687 or see www.tots.org.