Star encounter opens ATI return to the stage

By John Lyle Belden

Think of your favorite singer. Imagine that person – someone whose voice spellbound you, someone you could listen to every day for the rest of your life – came to your town. Then, you found yourself talking one-on-one with that person like you’d been friends all your life. And then after joining her on stage, she came home with you for a few hours.

Impossible? For divorced working mom Louise Segar of Houston, Texas, it actually happened.

Quite a character on her own, Louise discovered country music legend Patsy Cline during the singer’s appearances on Arthur Godfrey’s morning television show in the 1950s. She quickly became Patsy’s biggest fan in Houston, constantly pestering the local country radio DJ to spin Cline’s records. When, in 1961, the star was to play a local honky-tonk, Louise made sure to arrive early. Patsy did as well, sent to travel alone by her apathetic record label. Segar’s pushy personality would come to Cline’s rescue, ensuring fair treatment by the venue’s staff and giving her a place to relax (Louise’s kitchen) after the show. She even got Patsy an impromptu interview with the radio station.

This is remembered and relived in the popular Off-Broadway musical, “Always, Patsy Cline,” by Ted Swindley, which opens the 2021-22 season for Actors Theatre of Indiana. ATI co-founders Judy Fitzgerald and Cynthia Collins portray Patsy and Louise, respetively, the former with sweetness and latter with lots of sass.

They are accompanied by an excellent on-stage ensemble of “Bobs,” musicians Nathan Perry, Matt Day, Michael Clark, Greg Gegogeine, Kathy Schilling, and Greg Wolff. The audience also gets involved a bit.

The show is directed by Bill Jenkins, with musical direction by Terry Woods, featuring a wide range of 50s-60s hits including Cline’s chart-toppers (“I Fall to Pieces,” “Crazy,” “Walkin’ After Midnight”).

Third ATI co-founder and artistic director Don Farrell announced on opening night, “Intermission is over!” This fun and sentimental production marks a strong return to regular live theatre. Performances of “Always…” run through Oct. 3 at The Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get tickets and info at atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

IndyFringe: We’ve Come A Long Way, Ladies!

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Audrey Johnson has brought to the Fringe a shortened version of her two-hour production highlighting the history of women’s rights and the Suffrage movement, performing on the Indy Eleven stage.

She uses both traditional songs and innovative costuming to help illustrate the various points shown in the story. Being an operatically trained Mezzo Soprano, Johnson bestows an interesting twist to these common folk songs. She also presents several unique and lesser-known songs and stories of this time, from the early 1800s to 1920.

While the show was written and intended to be toured last year on the hundredth anniversary of the ratification on the 19th Amendment (which granted women the vote), with today’s political climate and controversy over voting rights and disenfranchisement, it is still very topical.

Johnson’s “Of Thee I Sing: American Heritage Through Song” foundation tours the country bringing history through song and performance. This is a good opportunity to get a taste of one of shows. She has a very easy and engaging stage manner, and even during a momentary pause for a technical issue, took questions from the audience.

IndyFringe: The Old Man and the Old Moon

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

Why see this new folktale, created by PigPen Theatre Co. of New York, and presented complete with on-stage musicians and shadow puppets by Carmel High School students?

As one character puts it, “I like a good story.”

And quite a tale it is. Jack Sullivan, who narrates, acts, sings and plays some guitar, introduces us to the Old Man (Micah Phillips) whose job it is to refill the Moon after light leaks out, and the Old Woman (Madelyn Wood) who had been by his side for years, but now wants to take a walk — which includes stepping on a boat headed westward on the Sea.

Panicked, the Man looks for a ship to follow her, but ends up – by mistaken identity – on one headed to the south, and war. Will he find his wife? Will the crew survive this risky voyage? What actually happened to Lt. Pericles Llewelyn McWallander? We do understand that “dirigible” also means “air balloon,” right? And, most importantly, what will happen when all the light has finally leaked out of the Moon?

“The Old Man and The Old Moon” is an adventure fable full of wonder, whimsy, and music, also featuring Ella Asher, Kyle Barker, Josh Baxter, Theo Curtis, Seth Jacobsen, Kaylyn Johnson, Sarah Warf, and shadow puppetry by Elliot Clancy with Marybeth Okerson. Direction by Maggie Cassidy and Grace Fellabaum, with stage manager Gavin Griffin, sound by Ryan Dafforn, lights by Arthur Mansavage and technical direction by Andrew Okerson.

This charming show is an excellent choice for all ages, with plenty of seating room in the Basile Auditorium at the Athenaeum.

IndyFringe: The Betsy-Patsy Show

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

This autobiographical “dramusicomedy” written and performed by Elizabeth Young-Collins, with writing and direction by Holly Hathaway Thompson, easily lends itself to comparisons to the popular show, “Always – Patsy Cline,” which would be unfair as that show is about Cline, while “The Betsy-Patsy Show” is about Young-Collins, as she looks back on her troubled life with an eye towards her childhood idol, leaning on the Country legend’s hits to put her own events in perspective.

Betsy is a recently-accomplished singer, and she shows us the path that took her here as she unpacks “the last damn box from the attic,” reflecting on running for Miss Muncie (Pennsylvania), her parents’ alcoholism, plus the discouragement – and encouragement – she received along the way. In Cline’s songs she found comfort, and in her tragic story a fellow traveler. She shares both with us with a raw sweetness and gentle humor that leaves us relieved she finally found someone “who could carry my sound system,” with hope that, maybe, we can, too.

It is a gem of a show that can use a bit of a polish, but with her willingness to be vulnerable on stage, I’m rooting for her. This is the kind of personal performance we go to Fringe for, with performances in the Murat Oasis.

IndyFringe: Cabaret Latino

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

Klein & Alvarez Productions’ Magic Thread Cabaret presents “Cabaret Latino: Songs of the Americas” with vocalist Iris Ramirez and Latin jazz ensemble Pavel Polanco-Safadit and Direct Contact (vocals by Polanco-Safadit and Leah Crane), in the room-for-dancing Basile auditorium at the Athenaeum.

Tom Alvarez, our emcee, and Dustin Klein, music director and assisting Pavel on the piano, curated a list of familiar Latin hits – from “La Bamba” to “Despacito” – given new life by these world-class performers. Ramirez gives smooth finish to songs like “Besame Mucho” and strums a guitar with folk tunes like “De Colores,” while Crane gets things moving with hits like “Livin’ La Vida Loca” and Pavel infuses every number with infectious joyous energy.

There’s no way I can do this show justice in a brief review. If you have any interest at all in seeing a music revue at this festival, this hour of south-of-the-border celebration is a must.

During a year of challenges, a man-eating plant is discovered in Greenfield

By John Lyle Belden

With this year’s shutdown, what’s a student thespian from Greenfield-Central or other area schools to do? A few have found their way to Skid Row, now set up on the stage of Greenfield’s Ricks Centre in the Ricks-Weil Theatre Company production of “Little Shop of Horrors.”

Though it’s held outside the restrictions of Indianapolis/Marion County, the R-W crew are taking measures for the audience’s health and safety, including closing every other row of seating, and no concessions.

Directed by Indy actor Dan Scharbrough, with musical direction by Kathy Borgmann, choreography by Jennifer Darr, and costumes by producer Beth Ray-Scott, the familiar musical follows the story of an old Roger Corman film – via book and songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken – in which an ordinary guy finds an extraordinary plant with a macabre appetite.

Seymour (Steven Allen) can’t find the brightly-colored flytrap in any of his reference books, so he names it after his sweet co-worker Audrey (Ciara Huckeby) and presents it to his flower-shop boss Mushnik (Corey Yeaman). It’s a hit, but it’s wilting. Clumsy Seymour’s minor injury near the flower clues him in to what the plant really wants – blood! But he’s not the only one sporting bandages; Audrey is getting the worst of her “semi-sadist” boyfriend, local dentist Orin Scrivello (Cael Savage).

The cast also includes A.J. Springman as Patrick Martin of World Botanical Enterprises, Marie Hall as a Homeless Woman, and a full Greek chorus of “Ronettes:” Carolyn Bolton, Saige Chandler, Frances Hull, Ali Kern, Juliana McGuire, Leah Olin, and Vicki Kortz, who also voices Audrey II.

Befitting a comic musical, the “Horrors” are more fun than scary, even with characters getting eaten. Allen and Huckeby are well cast, with appealing looks and good voices. Our Audrey manages the skid-row accent without sounding too cartoony. Savage plays the grade-A jerk with just enough tongue in cheek. Having more than three Ronettes works in this production, with different ones at times coming on and off stage singularly or in twos or threes – like on a busy street. While there is plenty of youthful energy, the actors range from high school and college to… out of school a while.

As for the “star,” Kortz giving what is often cast as a deep-voiced monster a fierce feminine tone makes her Audrey II appropriately threatening (I’d say something here about the “mean green Mother,” but that song’s not in the stage version).

For anyone who has only seen the 1986 Frank Oz movie, note that aside from different songs (some familiar hits, like “Suddenly Seymour,” are still there) it has a different ending, closer to the original 1960 film.

Another note: In the second (and final) weekend, July 24-26, former G-C drama teacher Ted Jacobs will play the Dentist, while Savage plays Mr. Martin.

And yes, there will be a giant man-eating plant on the stage (in puppet form). Audrey II puppeteers include Allen (small) and Olin (big).

The H.J. Ricks Centre for the Arts is at 122 W. Main St. (US 40) in downtown Greenfield. Tickets are $13, $10 for students, at www.seatyourself.biz. See Ricks-Weil Theatre Company on Facebook for more information.

Fonseca returns with reflection of our ongoing racial struggle

By John Lyle Belden

Current and recent events compelled Fonseca Theatre Company to stage “Hype Man: A Break Beat Play” as its first production while live theatre starts to return to central Indiana. But more telling of the persistent seriousness of its issues is that this drama by Idris Goodwin was written over two years ago.

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From left, Aaron “Gritty” Grinter, Grant Byrne, and Paige Neely in the Fonseca Theatre Company production of “Hype Man: A Break Beat Play”

In a large, racially diverse, American city, in a time not long before 2020, up-and-coming white rapper Pinnacle and his Black hype man Verb wait on the creator of their beats, Peep One, to arrive at the studio so they can rehearse for their appearance on the Tonight Show. She enters, telling them she was delayed by traffic around a police chase. Minutes later, social media alerts give the full story: An unarmed black teen was killed, shot 18 times by cops while attempting to surrender.

The show must go on, as Pinnacle is focused on his national TV debut and upcoming tour, but as his hip-hop hit, “The Boy Shine,” gets its ovation, Verb makes a gesture for racial justice that throws their lives into chaos.

Local recording artist Grant Byrne plays Pinnacle, “born between a rock and a Glock,” blind to the fact that despite the disrespect he gets from uptown whites, his fair skin gives him a veil of privilege – and as a member of the hip-hop community, responsibility. Byrne manages to keep him likable, but driven and too focused on his “brand,” needing to learn to get out of his own ego and his fear of getting bogged down by serious issues like injustice. Still, his stage style is tight, as, with a wry smile, he spins Goodwin’s rhymes like they’re his own.

Local entertainer and the show’s music director Aaron “Gritty” Grinter is Verb, Pinnacle’s childhood best friend and long-time collaborator. The most complex character, his TV moment was to be a personal comeback, after past (unspecified) incidents had him in court-ordered therapy. The young man’s shooting affects him deeply, “I was that kid so many times!” Grinter is well-suited to the role, a natural motivator channeling the fire awakened within the Hype Man.

Indy native Paige Neely is Peep One, who tries to walk the middle path between the others’ bold personalities. Having been adopted by an apparently middle-class family (likely white), she doesn’t deny her blackness but identifies mostly as a woman in hip-hop, which is struggle enough. She understands Pinnacle’s fixation on the business of showbiz, but knows what Verb wants to accomplish is even more vital. Neely makes her more three-dimensional than the script seems to suggest, ably going from referee to friend, to a girl with her own mind and dreams, as the story demands.

This play is the directing debut of Daniel A. Martin, who is experienced with more comic fare, but as (among other things) an improv artist, does well with a trio in a very collaborative, sharing environment. The drama feels as real as the latest TV and online news, and though the death described is fictional, it has occurred in one form or another numerous times (including here in Indianapolis). The play doesn’t exploit, make light of, or preach on the issues, but helps to continue our local and national conversation.

In consideration of the ever-present health issues, FTC producing directors Bryan Fonseca and Jordan Flores Schwartz, and company staff, are taking the Covid-19 threat seriously. The stage (excellently designed by Daniel Uhde) is outdoors, behind the Basile Building, 2508 W. Michigan St., with plenty of parking at the adjacent park. There is appropriately-spaced seating, hand sanitizer handy, and all (except for actors while acting) are required to wear face masks (this was policy before the Mayor made it mandatory countywide). Local artist Kathryn Rodenbach made and donated some nice cloth masks, which can be picked up for a donation of whatever you want to give.

“Hype Man” runs through July 26. Get details and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org. To delve deeper into the issues of the play, Fonseca added this page as well.

Civic: ‘Nothing’ actually a big deal

By John Lyle Belden

For the first time in its long history, the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre takes on Shakespeare with the comedy, “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Directed and adapted to one movie-length act by Emily Rogge Tzucker, the story — traditionally set in medieval Italy — takes place in 1945 as our soldiers come home from the War to an Italian villa in the Hollywood hills. As is usually the case, the character names and Shakespearean dialogue are largely untouched. 

At the fabulous estate of Leonato (Tom Beeler), Don Pedro (Joshua Ramsey) returns with his troops, including Claudio (Nicholas Gibbs), who has fallen for Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Carly Masterson); Benedick (John Kern), who enjoys verbally sparring with Leonato’s shrewish niece, Beatrice (Sara Castillo Dandurand); and Pedro’s surly brother, Don John (Darby Kear), who would rather stir up trouble than celebrate. Events include characters conniving to get Benedick and Beatrice to hook up, as well as the “fatal” wedding ceremony of Claudio and Hero. John’s wicked plot is uncovered by the goofy yet zealous constable Dogberry (Kelsey VanVoorst) and true to the Bard, we’ll get a very happy ending.

The cast also includes Jim Mellowitz as Antonio, Leonato’s brother; Sabrina Duprey and Leah Hodson as Hero’s best friends Margaret and Ursula; Max McCreary and Elisabeth Speckman as Borachio and Conrade, Don John’s devious but careless accomplices; Bill Buchanan and Matt Hartzburg as the Friar and the Sexton; Joe Steiner as Verges, Dogberry’s right-hand man; and Jonathan Doram as Balthazar, the soldier who performs Shakespeare’s song “Sigh No More” (music by Brent Marty), as well as one of Dogberry’s Watchmen, with Buchanan. To complete this list, Hartzburg, Julie Ammons and Stephanie Johnson play house servants.

The convoluted story is easy to follow and the actors do an excellent job of bringing it to life, complete with perfectly overdone comic moments. Master comic VanVoorst is in her element. Kern crisply delivers Benedick’s constant — and eventually contradictory — musings. The look provided by set and lighting designer Ryan Koharchik — with mood-setting skies and interesting circular motifs — and costume designer Adrienne Conces provides the perfect atmosphere for the mischief and merriment, while reflecting the height of the era’s style.

Don’t “let it be marked down that you are an ass” (as Dogberry would say) for missing the opportunity to enjoy Civic’s midwinter romp, through Feb. 22 at the Tarkington stage in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Call 317-843-3800, or visit civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

‘Big Day’ for little guy at Phoenix

By John Lyle Belden

Phoenix Theatre’s holiday tradition continues with “Winston’s Big Day: A Very Phoenix Xmas 14.”

(Note the originator of the series, Bryan Fonseca, also has a holiday variety show at the new Fonseca Theatre Company, but think of them not so much as competitors as companion pieces — each with its own nice yet mildly naughty take on the winter holidays.)

The Phoenix production works on a theme developed by director Chelsea Anderson over the course of the year. It’s Christmas Eve, and elf Winston (Dave Pelsue) — who had been planning to leave the North Pole to pursue a music career, with Rudolph (Ramon Hutchins) as his manager — is tapped to be co-pilot of the Sleigh. But Santa is missing! That means it’s up to the reluctant elf and his bright-nosed companion to make the deliveries and save Christmas. 

During the night, Winston looks in on several scenes, performed by the cast of Nathalie Cruz, Andrea Heiden, Jan Lucas, Pearl Scott, John Vessels, and Justin Sears-Watson. Scenes and songs are by a diverse lot including Anderson, Pelsue, Paige Scott, J. Julian Christopher, Jen Blackmer, Riti Sachdeva, Zach Neiditch, and Phoenix playwright-in-residence Tom Horan.

There is an abundance of wonderful performances, including Lucas and Heiden as ghosts of Charles Dickens; Vessels at his manic best; and dancer Sears-Watson’s smooth moves, as well as showing his singing and acting chops. 

Perhaps one of the best scenes, showing off all the talents on hand, is Blackmer’s “The Twelve Theatrical Genres of the Totally Non-Denominational, Absolutely Inclusive Holidays…” This gentle jab at both political correctness and community theatre, when its reach goes way beyond its grasp, results in a hilarious holiday scene so “inclusive” it hardly appeals to anyone: The Misguided Mechanicals present something like, “Stella and the Zombie Cats of Thebes” (that’s my best-guess title for it; you’re welcome, Chelsea). 

And, of course, there’s Pelsue and Hutchens, doing a great job of tying this whole silly and sweet mess together, as they struggle to rush through their duties, hoping to make their stage time at Fa-La-La-La-La-Palooza. 

Also impressive is Zac Hunter’s stage design, including a turntable with pop-up-book effects, and frequent clever use of the trapdoors.

Yet another holiday tradition to add to your schedule, performances run through Dec. 22 at the Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois, downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

A little ‘Chrystmas’ magic

By John Lyle Belden

Bryan Fonseca returns to his tradition of the holiday show he had nurtured for a dozen years, with Fonseca Theatre Company’s “A Very Bryan Chrystmas: How the Grinch Culturally Appropriated Christmas.”

(That original series is also continued at the Phoenix Theatre, but think of them not so much as competitors as companion pieces — each with its own nice yet mildly naughty take on the winter holidays.)

Bryan’s cast of Jean Arnold, Paul Collier Hansen, Jonathan Stombaugh, Phebe Taylor, and Dorian Wilson, with the help of Tim Brickley (music director) and Mariel Greenlee (choreographer), bring us 12 scenes of music, comedy and dance. The works of five local playwrights are featured: Eric Pfeffinger and Mark Harvey-Levine’s modern takes on the Nativity; John P. Gallo’s hilariously macabre holiday tradition; Kenyon Brown’s tale of new Grinch mischief; and Cassandra Rose’s bittersweet scene of family dysfunction. Music includes songs by Tish Hinojosa, Pete Townshend, and Tim Minchin, as well as a mix by DJ QueVee.

For those who remember, Fonseca brings back the ultimate Jewish Mother with Harvey Levine’s “Oye Vey Maria,” but most of the bits are new, such as Brown’s “Mistletopriation,” which acts out the show’s title statement, with Hansen as the Christmas-hating terrorist. And Taylor shows her knack for playing practically any age, especially in her sweet performance of Hinojosa’s “Arbolito.” 

Throughout, this show is a little irreverent and a lot of fun. Performances run through Dec. 22 at the new Basile Theatre, 2508 W. Michigan. Get info and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.