Play based on Hank Williams’ final ‘tour’

By John Lyle Belden

Playwright and retired journalist Garret Matthews incorporates aspects of people he has known and interviewed into his plays. In his latest, “Opening Hank,” he includes the story of someone more familiar to most of us.

On New Years Day 1953, country music legend Hank Williams Sr. rode his Cadillac into eternity. In a body weakened by a hard life that included alcohol and painkillers (mainly to deal with chronic back pain), his heart gave out on the way to a Jan. 1 concert in Ohio, discovered dead in the backseat in Oak Hill, West Virginia. This necessitated another ride, in a hearse from there back home to Montgomery, Alabama.

On that route, in Mathews’ play, is the town of Bluefield, where you can get gas, car repairs, and “a free Coky-Cola with a fill-up” at the West Main Esso. Willie T. McClanahan (Taylor Cox), a savant with car engines but largely seen as a kind but simple soul otherwise, barely notices the news on WHIS radio as he challenges himself at checkers, but his second-shift manager Steve Tatum (Zachariah Stonerock) has heard and is not taking it well. Williams’ music and songs inspired him to take up writing for the first time since his horrific experiences in World War II a decade earlier.

A nicely dressed gentleman, Hiram Ledbetter (David Mosedale, who also directs) enters what he declares to be the “gasoline emporium” not seeking fuel but rest, and offering a proposition. He pilots Williams’ transport, and while he finds a meal and a nap elsewhere in town, he says, he would leave the coffin at the service station for safekeeping and in exchange for a fee, Steve could then charge the townspeople to get their last look at the hillbilly music superstar.

Having a dread fear of the trappings of death, Willie is sent away, leaving Steve, who takes up the undertaker’s offer, but for his own reasons.

While fictional, this story contains characters, events and anecdotes based on actual stories Mathews reported, and we get an excellent refresher on Hank Williams’ life, struggles and music, with several songs featured before and during the play. There is much heart and humor, with moments of dire drama. We get a feel for the brotherly relationship between Willie and Steve long before we learn their connection, as well as how they are essential to each other’s wellbeing. Cox and Stonerock have a natural chemistry, borne of talent as well as working together before. Mosedale cuts an interesting character himself, with hints of the Devil-in-a-suit archetype but with Southern charm and a grudging bit of good conscience. Ol’ Hank is a bit stiff in that box, but does sound good on the old radio.

In a post-show talk, Mathews and the cast give hearty thanks to stage manager Aaron Henze for his contributions, so we will as well.

Remaining performances are today and tomorrow (Nov. 19-20) as I post this, at the Cat, 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel. Get info and tickets at thecat.biz.

IndyFringe: Gray Pride

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Norman Lasiter, with musical director Christopher Marlow, teamed up to bring us one of the most enjoyable hours of cabaret theater I believe I have ever seen.

Lasiter’s stories of growing up in a small town south of Indianapolis, pursuing his career in New York and California, and being an out and proud since 1980 (he was literally born in a closet) are punctuated with familiar songs that further enhance the tales.

Even during the darkest memories (living in New York during the worst of the AIDS crisis), he finds hope to keep enduring in memory of those lost.

The whole show is upbeat and cheeky, and Lasiter’s voice is sheer beauty. Marlow even gets a chance to shine on his own during their rendition of “I Love a Piano.” I know I say this a lot, but this show is certainly not to be missed.

However, there are very few tickets left for his next two performances at the IndyFringe Theatre – 7 p.m. tonight (as we post this) and noon Sunday, Sept. 3-4 – so get yours immediately, grab a libation, and settle back for an hour you won’t forget.

IndyFringe: Fret Knot

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

First, I must note that comparisons to the comedy duo Garfunkel and Oates are inevitable. Madeline Wilson and Lizzie Kaneicki do seem to have the same schtick, sharing the stage – Wilson with ukulele, Kaneicki with guitar – and perform hilarious songs about life and relationships, but does that other pair of funny women present their shared love of crochet, and literally get tied to and tangled up in their hobby as the show progresses? Afraid not, so “Fret Knot.”

No copycats here – Wilson (originally from Phoenix, according to Facebook) and Kaneicki (from West Virginia) joined forces in Chicago, and with friends perform comedy with music biweekly as “Hahaha Lalala”,* so they are quite capable of bringing the funny as their own entertaining act.

Taking them on their own terms – funny bits, singly or together, about odd taco runs, upset housecats, and all – includes some poetry and storytelling, engaging a range of both emotion and talent. We get the downside of summer birthdays, the peril of intrusive thoughts, and the comforting power of mathematics.

The yarn metaphor is literally all over the place – don’t get too caught up in it. But it does help give the show a “something different” Fringe-y vibe, and at one point the audience does help increase their entanglement.

Having blown in from the Windy City for one weekend, you can see and enjoy “Fret Knot” 8:45 p.m. today (as we post this) and 1:45 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 3-4, at the cabaret stage of the District Theatre.

For Chicago performances, they are presently at the Bughouse Theater.

(*Find them on Instagram, Google search has a cacophony of unrelated “ha” and “la”s if you hunt there.)

IndyFringe: Doghouse Moon

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Let me begin by awarding this troupe the Best Program and Cast Bios in the festival this year.

This show is particularly hard to explain. “Doghouse Moon,” by Matt McDonald and the band Camp Culture, is part concert, part sci-fi epic, part skit show, part social commentary, and entirely hilarious.

After an opening song welcoming us to the world, we meet up with Tanner (McDonald) and Doc (Eric Marquis), who literally carries the fate of the world in his hands. We then find Beige (Shelby Myers) hosting “Looking Like Cooking” where today’s dish is chicken sushi wrapped in bacon. After a brief commercial and a plug for her latest invention, we are privy to the story of how she spent her 21st birthday.

We then rejoin Doc searching within himself for answers; however, he is being harassed/distracted by Herman (Luke Lowrance), a devious hat thief. We next join Chet Chuckles (Michael Muldowney) at Chuckleberry Finn’s, where the death of his precious fish, Joel McScale, has left him unable to make anyone laugh.

The exploits and stories of these five souls play out in story and song throughout the show – until we reach the grand moment when they must band together with Jim (Jacob Worrell) to save the earth.

It’s hard to explain how funny this is without giving away some of the best jokes, but my favorite parts were: Big Bob’s Discount Therapy Racket; the song about writing a song; Herman’s costume (straight out of the 1969 Sears catalogue); and as mentioned before, the program.

Remaining performances are 7 p.m. Saturday and 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 3-4, at the Athenaeum.

IndyFringe: Jewel Box Revue 2022

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

Tom Alvarez and Dustin Klein’s Magic Thread Cabaret celebrates the past and showcases today’s talent with Jewel Box Revue 2022 at the District Theatre.

The original Revue toured nationally and internationally from 1936 to 1999, featuring live-singing “female impersonators” and a “male impersonator” – what we now call drag queens and kings. With their widespread appeal and fame, as Alvarez notes, “these pioneers were among the first to crack open the closet door.”

Today’s jewels are Miss Pearl (Keith Potts), Miss Sapphire (Isaiah Moore), Miss Opal (Ervin Gainer) and Miss Ruby (Jim Melton); with emcee Danny Diamond (Kelsey VanVoorst); dancers and co-choreographers Topaz (Xavier Medina) and Jade (Jade Perry); and sparkling on-stage musicians Galen Morris on bass, Matthew Dupree on drums, and music director Klein on piano.

Alvarez wrote and directed the show, featuring songs from Broadway and past greats.

Among the various numbers: Potts is exquisite in delivering the Judy Garland hit “The Man That Got Away” as well as “The Ladies Who Lunch” from the musical “Company.” Moore has us feeling Etta James’ “At Last.” Opal gives proper sass to Pearl Bailey’s “You Can Be Displaced.” Melton is arousing with “Don’t Tell Mama” from “Cabaret” and inviting with Rosemary Clooney’s “C’mon-a My House.” Even VanVoorst gets into the act, challenging Potts with “Anything You Can Do.”

Wendy and I were fortunate to get into a sold-out audience. It’s recommended you act fast to get in to see this marvelous show, 7:15 p.m. Thursday or 9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 1-2.

IndyFringe: 90 Lies an Hour

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

Humorist, musician, and storyteller Paul Strickland brings us to the Big Fib Trailer Park Cul-de-sac, home of Aunt True and Uncle False, for four stories and a song.

We learn how the couple met, at the car that only ran on cuss-words. Also, when Strickland was asked to write a eulogy for a man whom he had never met, and the trailer-park residents didn’t really like.

Then there was when the living-room toilet wasn’t as unusual as what was going on outside.

So, feel free to open up the box of “one-abouts” and enjoy some tall tales that stretch the imagination as well as the funny bone, and put spring pigs in flight. We also hear the sweet tune in which Uncle False tells Aunt True “there’s so much ‘us’ left to do.”

Strickland was a hit at past IndyFringes, and will no doubt fill the Indy Eleven room of the IndyFringe Theatre as everyone learns he’s back with some wonderful wonder-full stories to tell, for all ages.  Performances are 5:15 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 28 (today as we post this), as well as 5:30 p.m. Friday and 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 2-3.

IndyFringe: The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

Essentially, if you see a Fringe performance listed as being by Carmel High School theatre department, just go see it. I’ve now seen four of their professional-quality IndyFringe offerings, and I am still in awe of their 2018 show.

This production, “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane” is a fairly new play (likely an Indiana premiere) by Dwayne Hartford based on the 2006 award-winning children’s book by Kate DiCamillo.

On Egypt Street of an American city in the 1930s, little Abilene (Kate Sullivan) is given a fine china rabbit by her grandmother Pelligrina (Madison Alig). Abilene names him Edward Tulane, and adores him – as she should, the self-centered rabbit thinks. The spoiled, well-dressed rabbit silently makes demands that apparently only Pelligrina can hear, so she tells Abilene a bedtime story for Edward to also hear, a dark tale that puzzles the china toy.

Then, during a sea cruise, Edward falls overboard and his long journey begins. He becomes “Susanna,” the proxy child of a fisherman (Micah Phillips) and his wife (Sullivan); “Malone,” the companion and keeper of secrets for hobo Bull (Phillips) and his dog Lucy (Eden Hammond); “Clyde,” the scarecrow on the farm of an Old Lady (Alig); and “Jangles,” the treasured dancing doll of doomed Sarah Ruth (Juliet Malherbe, also our Narrator) and her loving brother Bryce (Sam Tiek), who makes him kick to his harmonica playing for nickels on the streets of Memphis, Tenn. However, an angry diner owner (Aaron Young) brings the journey to an abrupt end.

At last, Edward sits in a doll-shop window, older and repaired – but wiser? As the novel says, “If you have no intention of loving or being loved, then the whole journey is pointless.”

The play features a recurring song, “North Star,” by student director Ella Asher with Sarah Warf and Micah Phillips. Eden Hammond choreographed bits of movement. And an on-stage musician, Seth Jacobsen, strums the guitar and expresses Edward’s thoughts.

This Hans Christian Anderson-esque story with rich thematic layers and childlike wonder is excellently rendered by the teen cast and crew. Adapted to under an hour from a full-length 80-minute play, this production does not feel rushed or missing any pieces – like with Edward, the cracks don’t show. This is essential viewing for all children and kids-at-heart.

One performance remains, 1:45 p.m. today (as we post this), Saturday, Aug. 27, at the District Theatre.

IndyFringe: The Barn Identity

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

“The Barn Identity,” by Erika MacDonald, is about falling-down barns.

It might seem like it’s about children’s games, the leaf-circle dance, the Fourth of July feeling, bringing the outside in, her mystery illness, or that night she stood on the sidewalk with 5 percent of her brain – How many times has she told this story? – but she insists, it’s about falling-down barns.

MacDonald gently brings a kaleidoscope of storytelling fragments into focus as we dive into her world of seven-year-old Old Ladies in snowy beds and bent old structures that you wonder how they still stand. Her view out the window, and looking within, take us on a fascinating journey that is both deeply personal, and the essence of a great Fringe performance.

And why she doesn’t go to movies. And how she’s obsessed with falling-down barns.

Wonderful to the last “theatre sigh,” with recorded music by fellow Fringe performer Paul Strickland, “The Barn Identity” has performances 5:15 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 27, and Thursday and Sunday evenings, Sept. 1 and 4, in the Athenaeum.

IndyFringe: I Think We Are Supposed to Be ‘Coming of Age’ by Now…

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Lily Conforti brings both her LCcreations Collective dance troupe and the band Oister Boy with her from Minneapolis to literally rock our world.

With the band playing energetic original music that we should be hearing on the charts any day now, the dancers perform for us stories of the joys, sorrows, and struggles of various social interactions representative of the journey of young adulthood, in “I Think We Are Supposed to be ‘Coming of Age’ by Now…”

This show is an amazing experience and deserves your time.

While the various songs and dances portray various coming-of-age stories, the dance style is such that they are each open to your own personal interpretation. The whole thing felt to me as if I were watching the filming of a long-form music video.

Oister Boy is certainly a band to keep a watch on. Their songs are reminiscent of bands from early Who to current radio stars. Save for their cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Rhiannon, the numbers are all original compositions, and they really rock. Also like a rock concert, this show is LOUD (earplugs are provided and I suggest you use them). Even with the earplugs in, the music was rather loud but so enjoyable. They also partake in in some of the dances, making them even more impressive.

Now for the dancing. From the opening number, it is clear that these kids have classical training in ballet, jazz, and modern dance. However, they incorporate these skills into a more hip-hop, street version of the disciplines. Their sheer physical abilities are breathtaking and I found myself in awe of them all.

I generally take copious notes at performances to help me remember what I’ve seen so I can better communicate the show’s intent. I found myself unable to write almost anything about the show because I was so awestruck with every second of it.

I honestly don’t know the words to express my adoration of this show (they only have two more performances, and I would see both of them again if I could). While the cast of the whole show totaled around a dozen, they outnumbered the opening night crowd three to one. These kids are amazing and deserve a much larger audience.

NOTE: while the show does have and “Adult Language” warning, it consists of two “F Bombs” in the song lyrics and I think it’s appropriate for teens and up.

Please, please, please see this show and support these artists. I really want to see them return and will be personally devastated if they do not due to lack of audience support. Performing 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 20 (today, as we post this), and noon Sunday, Aug. 21, at the Athenaeum Basile Auditorium.

Visual storyteller Gregory Hancock sets new season

By John Lyle Belden

First, a bit of unfinished business. After seeing the opening of Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre’s “Antony & Cleopatra” in June, I posted a quick review on the PWJW Facebook page but have yet to officially add a write-up here. Since, like many companies, GHDT can shine up an old gem and give it another whirl in a future season, this may be some useful commentary:

Like most of his work, this production has choreography and costumes by Gregory Glade Hancock. In addition, he insisted on music and songs by award-winning composer Cory Gabel, who also worked with him on 2018’s “The Casket Girls.”

Aside from being a dance showcase without spoken lines, this “Antony and Cleopatra” is quite different from the Shakespeare play in the story it tells. The narrative is pared down and freely adapted, with adventurous casting. It is set not in Roman-era Egypt, but a more modern time – the nightlife world of Club Isis. Gabel’s songs include (prerecorded) vocals, combining with power-pop and dance music for a feel reminiscent of “Movin’ Out,” with the song lyrics and movement weaving the plot to good effect.

The two men in the company, Adrian Dominguez and Thomas Mason, are the title characters respectively. Not just supporting characters (in both the role and lifting-the-women sense), this is quite a showcase for their talents, especially in a beautifully sensuous pas de deux.

Also incredible are Abigail Lessaris as Antony’s spurned wife Octavia, and Zoe Maish as Lamprius the Soothsayer, agent of Fate. As usual, there are first-rate performances from the whole company, including “G2”.

Even (especially?) with its toying with setting and gender, Hancock’s production is still a compelling fascinating story of forbidden desire and love, rash actions and tragic consequences. It may not be what actually took place in Roman Alexandria, but note the Bard wasn’t a historian, either.

The next performance of “Antony and Cleopatra”… is when Mr. Hancock and company feel like doing it.

To open the 2022-23 season, GHDT celebrates a quarter century of dance with the “25th Season Celebration,” Aug. 26-27 at The Tarkington in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. According to the press release, Hancock “link(s) together theatrical tales from throughout GHDT’s rich 25-year history and will tell the collective story through moving, poignant and memorable theater, thrilling movement, and beautiful music.” Sounds like fun.

This year’s remaining performances also have an air of the familiar. October 28-29, Hancock’s “There’s No Place Like Home” returns. This wonderful production, inspired by “The Wizard of Oz,” is based on young Hancock’s journey of discovery as the Boy from Kansas in a strange land, with dance drenched in the magic and culture of India. Performances will again be at the Tarkington; see our prior review for more info.

This is followed on December 2-3 with the holiday classic, “The Nutcracker.” Everyone has their Christmas traditions; if this is yours, get your seats at the Pike Performing Arts Center (6701 Zionsville Road, Indianapolis).

Celebrating the new this season is “New World Dances” on weekends of February 11-26, 2023, featuring work that Hancock created during the recent pandemic, presented at The Florence, GHDT’s new black box performance space, 329 Gradle Drive, Carmel.

This anniversary “season of reflection” also includes “Illumination,” April 7-8, with a spiritual theme, and “Director’s Choice,” June 9-10, which Hancock (naturally) picks, both at The Tarkington in Carmel.

For the information and tickets, see gregoryhancockdancetheatre.org.