BCP musical a story of love and letters

By Wendy Carson

Buck Creek Players’ latest offering, “After the Fair,” brings us a feminine twist of the traditional Cyrano tale.

In a country town in Victorian England, Edith Harnham is a well-to-do woman of a certain age who finds herself stuck in a rut. Her love for her husband, Arthur, is fading, and she feels trapped by her station and circumstances. However, her young maid, Anna, provides her with an escape of sorts. The girl falls in love with a gentleman she meets at the fair, and the two set upon a romantic correspondence. Since Anna can barely read or write, Edith serves as her go-between, penning her letters, and a web of love and deceit is cast.

Lori Ecker shows Edith to be a very passionate woman who has just lost touch with that side of herself, and blossoms once it is recaptured. Scott S. Semester as Arthur blusters his way through most of the show ignoring all but his own business until something reminds him of why he fell in love with his wife in the first place.

Tara Sorg is a delight to behold as Anna, the simple country girl who falls hard for a man she knows nothing about. Her wide-eyed optimism is refreshing even though her naïveté could ultimately be her downfall.

Rounding out the cast is Zachary Hoover as the dashing yet churlish Charles. While he knows his time with Anna was just some wild oats being youthfully sown, her letters touch his heart and sway him to consider her to be more than a mere dalliance.

How will this play out, and will there be a happily ever after? This Off-Broadway musical based on a Thomas Hardy short story doesn’t give our characters an easy out as tension and complications mount. Though enmeshed in the strict class structure of the time, we can still relate to the characters’ yearnings – falling in love, with its joys and pains, happens in every era.

Performances of “After the Fair” run through Feb. 10 at the Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road Exit off I-74). Call 317-862-2270 or visit www.buckcreekplayers.com.

 

Footlite brings simple complexity of ‘Bridges’

By John Lyle Belden

“The Bridges of Madison County” is an unusual love story, its surprising depth reaching beyond the plot of a lonely housewife having an affair with a traveling photographer. That made it successful as a novel, movie, and finally as “The Bridges of Madison County: The Broadway Musical,” presented by Footlite Musicals through March 18.

It is 1965, and Francesca (Lori Ecker), an Italian war bride, is alone at her husband`s Iowa farm while he and their children are two states away for a national 4-H livestock show, when a strange but handsome and charming man arrives in the driveway. He is Robert Kinkaid (Rick Barber), a photographer for National Geographic Magazine, sent to get shots of the famous local covered bridges. As the rural roads aren’t clearly marked, he has gotten lost looking for the last bridge on his list.

With Francesca’s help, Robert finds the bridge, but they start to lose their way in a manner that will affect them both for the rest of their lives.

What comes to pass seems as inevitable as it is wrong, so we see this couple in how they help each other more than how they are likely to hurt the others they love. But actions have consequences, and force hard choices.

Ecker is outstanding, and Barber has a voice as strong as his muscular body. Though they are committing the sin, you can’t help but feel for them – maybe even root for them.

Darrin Gowan is rock-steady as Francesca’s husband Bud. He could have been played as a victim, a sucker, or one whose behavior pushed his wife into another man’s arms, but we get no such cliché. Just as Francesca acts of her own free will, Bud is constantly true to his obligations and those he loves, even if there’s something about them he frustratingly can’t control. Their son, Michael (Joseph Massingale), and daughter, Carolyn (Elly Burne), are also interesting three-dimensional characters. In each we see both the practical nature of their father and the free spirit of their mother.

Jeanne Chandler as neighbor Marge is a wonderful surprise, her character a bit nosy but out of honest concern for the family next door she has come to love. And Chandler’s solo song allows her to steal the scene in style. Kudos to Bob Chandler for taking the role of Marge’s husband Charlie on short notice after the injury of original cast member Daniel Scharbrough in a fall (according to Dan’s Facebook posts, he is recovering).

The set, designed by Jerry Beasley, is beautiful in its simplicity – especially the covered bridge – giving just enough pieces to let your imagination complete the scene, while the actors (including a large but well coordinated chorus) are free to move and help the setpieces flow in and out as needed.

If you have any liking for a romantic musical – particularly if you enjoyed the James Waller novel or Clint Eastwood/Meryl Streep film of “Bridges” – this nicely put together community production, under the direction of Tim Spradlin, is well worth your time.

Find this charming little piece of Madison County, Iowa, at the Hedback Theatre, 1847 N. Alabama, Indianapolis; call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.

Girl seeks protection from the forces of history in ‘Golem of Havana’ at Phoenix Theatre

By John Lyle Belden

Just the title of the new musical playing at the Phoenix Theatre, “The Golem of Havana,” suggests the complex nature of its story, but the various threads weave together into a fascinating historical tapestry, set in Cuba during its 1950s Revolution.

The title entity is dreamed up by a Jewish girl in Havana, inspired by the legends her family brought with them from eastern Europe (having survived the Nazis and gotten away from Soviet occupiers). Rebecca (Lydia Burke) creates a homemade comic book about the Golem – a giant clay guardian crafted and enchanted by a Rabbi to protect the people – that followed the Jews across the ocean to continue its service.

Her father, Pinchas (Eric J. Olson), is a struggling tailor living on dreams, while her mother, Yutka (Lori Ecker), tries to keep his ambitions grounded. Meanwhile, family friend and government policeman Arturo (Carlos Medina Maldonado) promises to help them through his connections.

Rebecca befriends the family’s black Cuban maid, Maria (Teneh B.C. Karimu), who worries about the fate of her son, Teo (Ray Hutchins), who has joined the Revolutionaries. While praying for her son’s safe return, Maria introduces Rebecca to her faith in the goddess Yemaya, and at a time when the Hebrew god seems so distant, this local deity feels more responsive when it seems, at first, that things are changing for the better.

But the faith and humanity of all are tested when Teo arrives at the family home, injured, and hunted by authorities seeking to execute him. Yutka confronts conflicting urges to protect the man or to turn him away and protect her family, while remembering what happened to her and her sister (Betsy Norton) when they were betrayed to the Nazis in Hungary.

The cast also features Wheeler Castaneda, Rob Johansen, and Paul Nicely as Cuban President Fulgencio Batista.

The songs and music (under the musical direction of Karimu) flow nicely with the story. Under the steady hand of director Bryan Fonseca, the gripping drama of people caught in the changing tides of history keeps the focus on the heroic and tragic stories of individuals rather than the background events – a good thing, since neither the doomed Batista regime nor the imminent Castro victory are celebrated by history.

Burke gives us an appealing and endearing character. Hutchins reveals the pain that informs Teo’s choices. Olson’s happy optimist and Ecker’s pragmatic pessimist show how opposites do attract and make a family we can root for. Maldonado also does well in his layered portrayal of a man of mixed loyalties. Nicely shows his skill in revealing just enough humanity in a cold-hearted character to make him truly frightening.

As Rebecca says, stories matter, and “The Golem of Havana” matters not just as a Jewish story or a Cuban story, but also as a human story. It runs through July 16 on the Phoenix mainstage at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) in downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

Review: ‘Passion’ on TOTS stage

By John Lyle Belden

“Beauty is power,” we are told. But what if one is not beautiful; how does she get what she desires?

This question is at the heart of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, “Passion,” playing through March 26 at Theatre on the Square.

In a past era, Italian army officer Giorgio (Scott Russell) has found love with Clara (Jessica Hawkins), who is inconveniently married. He is assigned to a new post, where, while meeting the other officers, he learns that a woman, Fosca (Lori Ecker), lives in the quarters of the commanding Colonel (Norman Brandenstein), her cousin.

Fosca suffers from unspecified mental and physical ailments, leaving her weak and enhancing her unattractiveness. Giorgio takes pity on her, and being the only man to show her true kindness, she falls in love with him. His heart is with Clara, but Fosca’s persistence starts to affect him.

Is Fosca manipulative and cruel, or misunderstood and seeking affection the only way she knows how? Do Giorgio’s acts and reactions show weakness, or tested inner strength? The answers audiences must decide for themselves, and Ecker and Russell don’t make it easy with their nuanced performances.

Fosca is more plain than ugly, in a long, black, shapeless dress with minimal makeup and hair severely pulled back; but in her era as in ours, to look so ordinary is enough, coupled with her odd demeanor and an attitude that hints at a lack of inner beauty as well. Still, Ecker can’t help but shine and makes us feel for her, even when other characters can’t or won’t.

Clara, on the other hand, has bright dresses, colorful makeup and an angelic demeanor (she even knows Giorgio is friends with Fosca) that lets you forget she’s an adulteress; and Hawkins gives her a clear, charming voice and easy smile.

Russell plays Giorgio as the eager, loyal hound who rests easy at Clara’s feet and is devoted to the troops he serves with and over. Such qualities are easily misunderstood and abused by Fosca, who drives him to physical illness that seems to mirror her own.

This musical is not known for its catchy showtunes, but for possibly being Sondheim’s most complex romantic story, a show he counted among his favorites in interviews for “Sondheim on Sondheim.” To judge for yourself, see “Passion” at TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave. in downtown Indy. Call 317-685-8687 or see www.tots.org.

(Review also posted on The Word.)

 

Fringe review: Home Grown Original

By John Lyle Belden

Let us simplify your expectations. Ironically, “Home Grown Originals,” at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre, stretches the concept of a “Fringe show” by not being edgy or avant garde or having some odd agenda. It’s straightforward: a group of eight friends playing some really good Hoosier-made music.

Alex “Tunesmith” Murphy recently wrote a bunch of songs, then recorded them with his ensemble, the Band O’Leers. Now he presents these rockabilly-country-blues tunes on the IndyFringe Basile stage, featuring vocals by Murphy, Tim Spradlin and Lori Ecker.

It’s an entertaining crowd-pleasing set, featuring oughta-be-hits like “Kiss Me Like You Mean it,” “Future Ex-Wife” (feel free to sing along on the chorus) and “You’re only Human if you Try.” If guitars and a corny joke or two are your bag, head on over and give them a listen.

The CD of the songs is also available, featuring vocals by local legend Karen Irwin.