New ‘Oak Island’ musical a treasure

By John Lyle Belden

At last, “Oak Island: A New Musical” by Marian University alums Joe Barsanti (music) and Brandi Underwood (book and director) has its world premiere on the Basile stage at the Indyfringe Theatre. The show’s music was introduced in concert during the 2021 IndyFringe Festival, and this is its first full staging, produced by American Lives Theatre.

Oak Island is an actual place, located near Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. It has been the subject of stories and legends since at least the 1700s, as well as a recent nine-episode reality TV series. Like many islands from the Maritimes to the Caribbean, it is rumored to be the location of buried treasure (a top candidate for whose is pirate Capt. Kidd; more fanciful legends cite the Knights Templar, among others). For generations, repeated expeditions found old coins and mysterious objects. But time and again, when it seems a definitive answer is within reach, seawater floods in and the shaft collapses. Professional treasure hunters make plans to solve the mystery (and beat the “curse”) to this day.

But this musical is not about the treasure hunt; it focuses on the hunters, and one family in particular.

Frank (John B. Hayes) let this obsession take over his entire life, sharing the search with his son Will (Joseph Massingale) while his wife Grace (Carrie Neal) and other son Drake (Zach Hoover) stayed behind in the States. But now the father has died, leaving his sons to consider their legacy.

Andrew Horras and Tommy McConnell play Will and Drake, respectively, as young boys in flashback and memory, competing with the lure of distant gold for their father’s affection. In one of the best scenes, “Nothing You and I Can’t Do,” we see the adult brothers remember an impromptu backyard treasure hunt their father prepared for them, as their younger selves race about following the clues. Each came away with a different perspective on and lessons from the event, reflected in the bitter friction between them now.

Wendy noted that another song, “Miles Between Us,” sounds like something you’d hear on the radio.

Other roles are played by Maggie Lengerich, Jack Lockrem, Kerrington Shorter, and Dan Flahive, who portrays friendly Oak Islander Paul as well as rival treasure hunter Eugene, who offers to buy Frank’s claim from the sons.

The musical shows a lot of promise, with the creators always open to feedback. It manages to dwell on loss without becoming too maudlin, and creates an interesting conflict not only with two sons having very different experiences with their father – the more estranged struggling with the lost opportunity to reconcile – but also with the siren song of obsession. Is there an obligation to make their father’s sacrifices worthwhile? Does the next generation carry on the search, knowing what it could cost?

Massingale and Hoover, who sang their roles in the Fringe concert, comfortably embody the siblings, even with their roiling mix of emotions that include equal parts love and resentment. Hayes gives us a no-nonsense father (ironic when considering the eccentricity of his mission) while Neal’s Grace lives up to the name, understanding and accommodating to a fault. All four personalities are quick to point out selfishness in the others, while blind to their own.

We have an excellent opportunity with this show to be able to say you saw it before it potentially goes on to bigger stages. Performances run through Sunday at 719 E. St. Clair, off Mass Ave. in downtown Indianapolis. For information and tickets, visit americanlivestheatre.org or indyfringe.org.

Summit’s ‘Crew’ a bold workplace drama

By John Lyle Belden

You see the signs, and not just the unusual ones on the bulletin board. Management holds a lot of private meetings; rules start tightening up; workers leave and are not replaced; rumors circulate. The writing is on the wall, perhaps literally when notices go up: people are going to lose their jobs, and perhaps the entire workplace will soon close. 

What had been unthinkable in times of booming industry and union strength has become too common now. I went through a similar situation, perhaps you have, too. And in a recent era, this was the fate of Detroit auto workers in Dominique Morrisseau’s “Skeleton Crew,” the drama presented by Summit Performance at the Phoenix Theatre.

Faye (Dwandra Nickole Lampkin) is within months of 30 years at the plant. She is also: a proud UAW rep; a feisty cancer survivor who can’t – won’t – give up smoking; stubborn protector of her crew, especially Shanita (Akili Ni Mali) and Dez (Kerrington Shorter); practically a mother to the foreman, Reggie (Daniel A. Martin); wise and philosophical, always with something to say; eager to take your money in cards, but not always successful; and a multi-skilled worker who never seems to leave the factory. The fact that she is gay is honestly her least significant trait. 

Shanita is the best on the production line, proud of following her father and helping build something others will be proud to own. She doesn’t even let pregnancy slow her down. As for Dez, he’s got big plans, nice shoes and a gun in his bag. He talks smooth and means well, but the fire within him isn’t always under control. He and Reggie don’t get along, as they seem to assume the worst of each other. Then again, Reggie is right that Dez has been gambling on the premises. 

And as word swirls around that the plant is doomed, someone is quietly stealing from the plant – taking their severance one metal part at a time.

Needless to say, there is a lot of drama and tension as the uncertainty builds. But Morisseau has sprinkled in a healthy dose of workplace humor, and a bit of feeling among the members of this workplace family. It doesn’t take much digging nowadays for these skilled actors to bring the emotions – from concern to frustration – to the surface. Lampkin is a rock. Mali radiates confidence. Shorter gives substance to the angry-young-(black)man archetype. And Martin, known to many for his comic skills, again shows his true range.

Director Melissa Mowry strikes the right balance in the look and feel of the play. The stage (designed by Mejah Balams) is a plant break room, a temporary respite from the noise and stress just outside the back-wall door. Opaque windows show images of industry, and at transitional points in the story, silhouettes of cast members moving rhythmically – men as machines – choreographed by Mowry with the actors. It’s a brilliant visual element that sticks with you.

Powerful drama with strong performances, “Skeleton Crew” has two weekends remaining, through March 13 at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St. For tickets, visit phoenixtheatre.org or go to summitperformanceindy.com.

IndyFringe: Make Me A Match

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

One of the creators of last year’s “Paper Swords,” Matt Day, wrote this musical with Jordan Brown and Josh Brown, a story of love and empowerment taking place on a TV dating show.

On “Make Me a Match,” a bachelorette — on this occasion, Beth (Emily Sanders), an internet Influencer — gets to pick which of the three male contestants she has to marry. The bachelors are smooth rich boy Steve (Kerrington Shorter), cocky horndog Todd (Ryan Powell) and kindergarten teacher Brad (Josh Brown), who didn’t know he was living in a musical.

Smarmy host Danny Sharp (Ethan Mathias) is treated like a god, while he treats cue-card intern Meredith (Riley Iaria) and makeup girl Lexi (Jordan Brown) like crap. 

There is also a security guard (Aaron Williams) for when things get intense.

One thing that was impressive was that even though there was an on-stage band, the actors didn’t use or need mics. Also, to complete the immersive experience, the audience is the show’s studio audience, and we have an important part to play near the end. 

Mathias makes an excellent bad guy. Sanders counters your expectations of shallowness to show Kardashian-types aren’t quite as dumb as they look. And Iaria and Jordan Brown have appropriately righteous fire. Josh Brown, caught in the middle of this, supplies many of the comic moments. 

This #MeToo musical is better than a lot of what’s actually on television, and more fun. 

Performances are 9 p.m. tonight, as well as 7:30 Thursday, 9 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday (Aug. 20-25), at The Oasis (Shriners’ entrance of the Murat, on the north side), 502 N. New Jersey St.