Challenges of modern farm life in Still’s ‘Amber Waves’ at IRT

By John Lyle Belden

The story of the Olson family of rural Indiana is like that of many farmers across America, which is part of what makes “Amber Waves” by James Still such an important play.

Mr. Still, the playwright-in-residence at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, where this drama plays on the upperstage through April 28, took inspiration from his own upbringing on a Kansas farm, which his family has since lost.

The Olsons face the very real danger of losing what generations of kin had built, even as they witness an old friend’s farm, and its family’s possessions, going up for auction. Mike (Torsten Hillhouse), the only one of the “Olson boys” to stay on the farm, tries to only think of what chores and repairs must be done in the coming days, to keep the faith that it will be enough, and to search the skies for long-overdue rain.

Mike’s wife, Penny (Mary Bacon), is totally devoted both to her husband and their vocation. She largely succeeds in staying positive, even as unpaid bills pile up, but teenage son Scott (William Brosnahan) and 12-year-old daughter Deb (Jordan Pecar) become increasingly aware that something’s wrong.

Much of the story involves Deb’s point of view. She works for elderly neighbor Johnny Apple (Charles Dumas), who always seems to find more odd jobs for her to do, giving her a few more much-needed dollars. Her situation also strains her relationship with best friend, Julie (Riley Iaria), from a more wealthy family. Meanwhile, life goes on, with the County Fair, school activities, the Homecoming game — normal aspects of country living.

The atmosphere is made complete with music and songs by Tim Grimm and Jason Wilber, performed onstage by Grimm and Rachel Eddy.

First performed in 2000, the play has been updated, including tech references, but the core story is as current now as it was then. There is even a mention of recent tariffs affecting crop prices. It tugs at the heartstrings in a genuine manner, as we see a family experience what feels like a lifetime in a single year.

Directed by Lisa Rothe, the performances feel natural, like these actors truly are family, or that Hillhouse really stepped off a tractor before coming onstage. Bacon is outstanding as a mother finding the multiple roles of a farm wife almost overwhelming, but persevering through willpower and love.

The simple wooden stage set and old latch-handle refrigerator at the back suggest a timeless, well-worn comfortable setting (kudos to scenic designer Narelle Sissons). Lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger makes clever use of glass-jar lighting. Grimm grounds this production with his music, singing and connection to the original production; Eddy provides a perfect compliment, an Appalachian virtuoso of various string instruments, and a beautiful voice.

The IRT is located at 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indy, near Circle Centre. Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

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Doomed ‘Lady Day’ lives again in Indy dive

By John Lyle Belden

It’s 1959, the last year of singer Billie Holiday’s life, and she is in a city she’d rather not visit, Philadelphia, at a place she loves to be. It’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” a Fonseca Theatre Company production hosted by the Linebacker Lounge, just a couple of doors down from Fonseca’s previous venue at Indy Convergence.

The cozy confines of the Linebacker stand in nicely for Emerson’s. It is a bar (but no grill, though there are delicious Mexican sandwiches next door that you are allowed to bring in) so entrance is restricted to ages 21 and up. Drink service is available before the show and a brief intermission, cash only (there is an ATM on site). But mostly, the place lends atmosphere, a small triumph of “site-specific” theatre.

As for the Lady herself, Monica Cantrell slips comfortably into a role she has played before. Holiday’s distinctive voice and vocal style can be difficult to emulate, especially without sounding like a parody, but Cantrell takes it on with apparent ease — singing soulful jazz ballads and purring stories that are a blend of reminiscing and confessional. Billie tells of idolizing Bessie Smith, honoring her with a rendition of “Gimme a Pigfoot;” life on the road, especially touring the Jim Crow South; and of how she wrote her biggest hit, “God Bless the Child,” for her mother, known as The Duchess.

She tells of men she loved and speaks frankly of her heroin addiction, advising patrons to watch out for “white men in white socks,” the probation officers who monitor her movements after her release from a year in prison. Her mind is not entirely her own, but she’ll pick up a snippet of song — “What a little moonlight can do,” she smiles — to get her thoughts on track.

“Singin’ is livin’ to me,” she says. But as she slowly breaks down, it becomes heartbreakingly apparent she doesn’t have much of either left in her.

Music is provided by Tim Brickley, and Jon Stombaugh as Holiday’s accompanist Jimmy Powers. Little Zoe Lee makes an adorable cameo as the singer’s canine companion, Pepe. And I’m pretty sure I heard Bryan Fonseca himself as the voice of Mr. Emerson.

Directed by FTC co-artistic director Dena Toler, “Lady Day” is a beautiful biography of a troubled woman in troubled times. It speaks volumes about addiction and our racial history without preaching. Just listen to that voice, the likes of which we may never hear again, a woman who “got her own,” on the verge of losing it all.

Performances run through April 7. Find the Linebacker, a sweet little spot that boasts Indy’s second-oldest liquor license, at 2631 W. Michigan St. Due to its small size, this show sells out easily, so find info and tickets at www.fonsecatheatre.org.

An evening with the marvelous Melissa Schott

 By John Lyle Belden

I remember in 2005 seeing the Footlite Musicals production of “42nd Street,” and being blown away by the performance of Melissa Schott in the lead role. I had no idea that — like her character, ingenue Peggy Sawyer — she had just taken her first big chance on a major stage role, and come out on top. All I knew was that she lived in New Palestine, within the coverage area for the Greenfield Daily Reporter, the paper I wrote for.

Melissa SchottWith such a talented “local” to watch for, I soon saw her perfect portrayal of the legendary singer in “Always, Patsy Cline.” So, it was no surprise when — again nearly on a whim — she tried for and got entertainment work in New York.

And this year, for one wonderful weekend, she came “home,” recently performing her first cabaret revue, “Songs in the Key of Me,” at The CAT in Carmel, presented by Magic Thread Cabaret.

Schott said the show’s title refers to how, in taking so many roles as other people, “it’s easy to forget your own voice.” To find those pieces of herself, she brings out the works of people who have influenced her, from Karen Carpenter to Sara Bareilles.

She set the mood by opening with “That’s Life” and “Ain’t We Got Fun,” but also touched our hearts with Cline’s hit “Crazy,” as well as “Pretty Funny” from the musical of “Dogfight.”

Being a classic triple-threat, Schott brought out her tap shoes for a couple of numbers, including — naturally — “42nd Street.”

She shared the stage with old friend Scott Harris of Nashville on the piano, but took over the keys to start the second act, singing and playing Bareilles’ “Gravity.” She also invited Broadway performer Cory Lingner up for a duet of “Only Us” (from “Dear Evan Hansen”).

Revealing yet another facet of her talent, Schott played a song she wrote, “Worlds Away,” inspired by her longing for home while on tour.

Her musical journey had many stops that felt personal to her, including “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “On a Bus to St. Cloud.” She sang “She Used to be Mine,” from Bareilles’ hit musical “Waitress,” then noted that she would be playing a waitress herself, briefly, on a future episode of the Emmy-winning streaming TV show “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”   

Hopefully being a long-time fan doesn’t make me too biased, but her charm, talent, dancing and singing are still superb. And with her residence in the Big Apple, Melissa Schott is one casting-call away from true stardom. Wherever you happen to be able to see her perform, by all means do; and hopefully, she will bring her “Songs in the Key of Me” to another stage very soon.

She closed the show with a medley of tunes from Broadway’s “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” A few days ago, I heard one of the songs from the official cast album, and — meaning no disrespect to a Tony winner — Schott was just as good.

Follow Melissa’s showbiz adventures at melissaschott.com or on Facebook. See magicthreadcabaret.com for future showcases of local talent, presented by Tom Alvarez and Dustin Klein (kleinandalvarez.com).

Phoenix goes bananas for ‘Xmas’

By John Lyle Belden

You know, it’s just not Christmas season without a visit from Anna Banana!

..Said no one ever. (But don’t tell Anna!) Now that she’s the fourth-most-popular female holiday icon (since most people can’t think of more than three) she gets to host “A Very Phoenix Xmas 13: Merry Superstitious” at the Phoenix Theatre.

As you can already tell, the oddball tone of the previous 12 incarnations of this holiday tradition is still very much alive. However, this edition — directed by quirky Q Artistry founder Ben Asaykwee — features an all-female cast. Past Phoenix stars Jolene Mentink Moffatt, Phebe Taylor, Jaddy Ciucci and Jenni White are joined by Shawnte P. Gaston, the powerhouse presence of Tiffanie Burnett, the instrumental prowess of Beef & Boards regular Sarah Hund and the manic energy of ComedySportz star Frankie Bolda.

While they all play multiple roles, it’s Bolda in the banana outfit, and Ciucci makes a feisty Virgin Mary. But while the comedy is a bit irreverent, the content doesn’t get sacrilegious or too mature. Something amiss does happen to Santa, though, that reverberates through the show.

The series of sketches has numerous authors, including Asaykwee, Jean Childers-Arnold, Lou Harry, Steven Korbar,  Zack Neiditch, and Steffi Rubin. Mariel Greenlee choreographed a touching dance scene, performed by the ensemble, inspired by a historic holiday event.

There are also witches, a history lesson, a look back at a (sorta) famous kick-line, breaking news, surprising mashups, and (in Harry’s contribution) what could be described as “Law & Order: Scriptural Victims Unit.” Plus, the cast tell us what’s on their wish list this season.

For an unusual — What other Christmas show has a talking banana? — funny and fully entertaining holiday treat, check out this “Very Phoenix Xmas,” with performances through Dec. 23 on the mainstage at 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

We have a lot to learn

By John Lyle Belden

Understanding being black in America is not something that one “history month” a year can cover. But at least now, we have the textbook. Fonseca Theatre Company presents “Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies” by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm, directed by Ben Rose.

Marquis seems to be a typical 14-year-old: doing well in school, hanging out with friends, noticing girls. But when his attempt at the latest internet fad lands him in a police station holding cell for trespassing, he finds himself with someone who sees him as anything but normal. Tru, the cellmate,  appears to be what most would picture a black youth to be, and he wonders why Marquis isn’t. Let the lessons begin.

Chinyelu Mwaafrika plays Marquis, bright-faced and naive, and despite his dark skin, a boy so “white” he needs the guidance of a “magical Negro” — the role Joshua Short as Tru takes on with gusto, complete with penning the titular guide. Yet, his character is more human than film trope, always toying with our and the other characters’ expectations. 

The only other African American in the cast is Warren Jackson as police Officer Borzoi; it is left to the audience to decide if he is an Uncle Tom collaborator with the establishment or a committed law officer with a realistic view of misbehaving young men (which you believe, or to what extent a mix of the two, no doubt says more about your own beliefs and biases).

We soon meet Marquis’s adoptive mother, Debra (Mara Lefler), embodying the well-meaning liberal who is blind to her own racial insensitivity. The next day, at private high school Achievement Prep, we meet Marquis’s classmates and best friends, Hunter and Fielder (Patrick Mullen and James Banta), as well as the girls clique of Meadow (Ivy Moody) and her disciples Prairie (Lefler) and Clementine (Dani Morey), who has a crush on Marquis.

All this — plus plenty of jibes at our meme-driven, eyes-on-phones, culture — lead to a lot of hilarious situations. But, as Rose says: It’s all funny, until it’s not. For instance, the opening scenes deal with the hot online trend of “Trayvonning” — a joke frequently repeated until its uncomfortable aspects are smoothed over. But it also has you primed for the gut-punch of the very final scene.

There are lessons for us throughout this production, starting with a slide show that runs while we take our seats in the intimate confines of Indy Convergence. Tru is a fount of wisdom, both in what he says and what he writes. In addition, we get a funny take on the young white man who takes on hip-hop culture too wholeheartedly.

Jackson and Banta also play mythical characters Apollo and Dionysus. The latter calls on Marquis to enjoy the trappings of white privilege, but hooded and African-garbed Apollo whispers a more vital truth to him.

Hearing of the violent death of an unarmed black person makes us wonder how such tragic circumstances could come about. No one should die for a handful of Skittles, yet they do. One of the lessons of “Being Black for Dummies” is that sometimes just putting up your hands is not enough.

What lesson will you take from this powerful play?

Performances run through Dec. 2 at Indy Convergence, 2611 W. Michigan. Get information and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.

CCP: Look who’s back!

By John Lyle Belden

For a number of years in the recent past, Carmel Community Players would stage the musical “Forever Plaid.” So, now the good old days are back in more ways than one.

The Plaids, a struggling four-part vocal group, were on their way to a promising gig in 1964 when their car was struck by a bus on its way to New York taking fans to see the Beatles live on Ed Sullivan’s show, killing the quartet instantly. But thanks to a cosmic alignment, a hole in the ozone, or some other metaphysical reason, the Plaids have returned to Earth to perform the show they didn’t get to do when they were alive.

The rapport and harmony of CCP’s incarnation of the foursome are natural and well-polished, a reflection of three of them having sung the roles together before: Darren Gowan as Sparky, Syd Loomis as Jinx, and Rich Phipps as Frankie. They are joined by Howard Baetzhold as Smudge, the character who tends to have trouble getting in synch anyway, but as things progress fits right in. The backing musicians are director Sandy Baetzhold on piano and “Uncle Dick” Richard Leap on drums.

There is more going on than sharp four-part harmony on oldie hits including “Catch a Falling Star,” “Sixteen Tons,” and “Perfidia.” They deliver a Calypso segment as well as their high-speed rendition of Ed Sullivan’s classic acts, along with amusing patter as they try to sort out their unusual situation.

Tired of the news and troubles of 2018? Take a step back as gentlemen from a gentler era entertain you as only the Plaids can. There are moments of audience participation – with one lucky fan getting the chance to become an Honorary Plaid – and all get to sign the Plaid Book of Life.

“Forever Plaid” won’t last forever. Performances run through Oct. 7 at The Cat performance venue, 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel. For info and tickets, visit carmelplayers.org.

IndyFringe: ‘Broadway’s Leading Ladies: A Tribute’

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

Presented by Dustin Klein and Tom Alvarez and their Magic Thread Cabaret, “Broadway’s Leading Ladies” is a rousing revue sung by local divas Shelbi Berry, Rayanna Bibbs and Virginia Vasquez.

From the moment the trio get to “work” on a hit from “Hamilton,” we are treated to one powerful performance after another. You’ll want Vasquez to “Gimme, Gimme” more, see Berry “Defying Gravity,” and be reassured that Bibbs is “…Not Going.” Yes, as the latter song says, you’re gonna love them.

Kudos also to the three-piece band of Klein, Greg Gegogeine and Greg Wolff, as well as Austin Schlenz for his on-stage assistance.

No tables at this cabaret, on the third floor of the Firehouse union hall (748 Mass Ave.), but we don’t care — they would only get in the way of the standing ovation.