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.

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.

Incredible ‘Cabaret’

NOTE: As the Word/Eagle is in flux with the renaming and corresponding change in official website, John is still putting his reviews here.

By John Lyle Belden

The Actors Theatre of Indiana production of Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret” is one of those “even if you’ve seen it before” shows that you absolutely should see.

And if you are only familiar with the Joel Gray/Liza Minnelli movie version of the musical, you haven’t seen it like this – as ATI and director Billy Kimmel opt for the “revival” version of the production. This perfectly suits the brilliant Ben Asaykwee as the randy Emcee (in the Tony-winning style of Alan Cumming).

Asaykwee struts and coos his way through the story of American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Eric J. Olson) and wayward English singer Sally Bowles (ATI co-founder Cynthia Collins) in Berlin just as the Nazis are seizing power. Collins is appropriately brash and charismatic and in great voice. Olson tackles an everyman role (though gay, or at least bisexual) with the perfect touch, our proxy to events that are at first unbelievable in a fun and entertaining sense, then chilled with approaching calamity.

Patrick Vaughn is smooth as the deceptively charming Ernst Ludwig, Debra Babich is strong yet sweet as landlady Fraulein Schneider, and Darrin Murrell as Jewish shopkeeper Herr Schultz makes you ache to know that such a wonderful man is unwilling to see the growing danger around him. Also notable are Judy Fitzgerald as working-girl Fraulein Kost, Nicholas Roman and Kenny Shepard as sensuous bookends Bobby and Victor (and other roles as needed), the BEAUTIFUL Kit Kat girls Nicole Bridgens, Jenee Michelle, Ashley Saunders and Carol Worcel (who also choreographed) and the BEAUTIFUL orchestra.

As history lesson, allegory, love story and brilliant entertainment, this show works on all levels. See it through Nov. 20 at the Studio Theatre (next to the Tarkington) in The Center for the Performing Arts, 4 Center Green, Carmel. Call 317-843-3800 or see www.atistage.org. Note there are a few table seats right next to the stage; inquire with the box office as to availability.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor at The Eagle (formerly The Word), the central-Indiana based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Review: Fun but unusual “Family” show

Gomez Addams (Eddie Curry, center) is caught between honoring the wishes of his daughter Wednesday (Samantha Russell, left) and wife Morticia (Erin Cohenour) in a scene from
Gomez Addams (Eddie Curry, center) is caught between honoring the wishes of his daughter Wednesday (Samantha Russell, left) and wife Morticia (Erin Cohenour) in a scene from “The Addams Family: A New Musical Comedy,” playing at Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre through Nov. 22. — B&B photo

By John Lyle Belden

Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre, 9301 Michigan Road in northwest Indianapolis, hosts “The Addams Family: A New Musical Comedy,” through Nov. 22.

High schooler Samantha Russell more than holds her own in her excellent portrayal of Wednesday Addams next to seasoned pros including Erin Cohenour (Morticia), Eddie Curry (Gomez), Amanda Butterbaugh (Grandma), Jeff Stockberger (Lurch) and Shaun Rice as Uncle Fester, the role he played on national tour.

The story — with Wednesday falling in love with a “normal” boy and trust issues developing between her parents — shows a family that, despite their oddities, are good-natured people we can somewhat identify with. The songs are fun and the comic hijinks entertaining. Though the subplot of Fester’s love affair with the Moon (yes, the actual heavenly body) is a little distracting, it still fits into the odd family culture the Addamses have been famous for, for generations.

The cast also includes Simon Barnes as Pugsley Addams, Blake Spallacy as Wednesday’s beau, and John Vessels and Sarah Hund as his parents. Thing is uncredited, which is unfair as he is quite “hand”some. (No Cousin Itt in this production — maybe in a sequel? — which I’m guessing was a relief to the costume crew.) Also, Jennifer Ladner, Samuel McKanney, Amy Owens, Peter Scharbrough, Kenny Shepard and Christine Zavakos appear as ghostly ancestors — trapped by Fester on this side of the grave until they help Wednesday fulfill her destiny — to help give the show more of an old-time big-dance-number musical feel.

Full disclosure: Your family will enjoy spending time with this family. Get info and tickets at 317-82-9664 or beefandboards.com.

Review: “Silence!” raw but raucous

By Wendy Carson

What can you say about a farcical musical based on “Silence of the Lambs” other than: Be prepared to be shocked and surprised.

In “Silence! The Musical,” now at the Phoenix Theatre, from the opening, in which the “Sheep” begin telling Clarice’s backstory, you know that the author of this production had his tongue planted firmly in his cheek.

While the plot of the story remains mostly intact, there are a few changes to mainstream the narrative in favor of song breaks. The aforementioned Sheep portray not only a Greek chorus but also slip into and out of the guises of various supporting characters in the play.

The songs and dialogue in general are not only outlandish but somewhat offensive. The fact that the biggest production number of the show is based on an obscene line should be a warning. However, the cast is thoroughly game for it all and their level of commitment makes it all bearable.

Chelsey Stauffer, as Clarice Starling, highlights the character’s overwhelming drive to prove herself to the FBI and avenge her father, as well as her gentle naivete of what she has to deal with to accomplish this. Of course, her exaggerated accent just adds to the whimsy of her character.

Paul David Nicely showcases his broad range of talent as Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Singing, dancing and threateningly looming over everything, he pulls out all the stops in embracing the character.

Scot Greenwell is sublime in the role of the deranged serial killer, Buffalo Bill, whom the FBI is desperately trying to hunt down and stop. He fully embraces the campiness of the character in every way possible.

While the irreverence of the production has the potential to be a hot mess, under the skillful hands of director Bryan Fonseca and choreographer Kenny Shepard, it transcends into delightful silliness.

Again, I warn you that due to the content and language, this is a show that should be enjoyed by a mature and not-easily-offended audience. However, if you’re up for some laughs and a wonderfully satirical take on the film, get your tickets now. Call 317-635-7529 or see phoenixtheatre.org.