Spinning a story with a bit of Broadway

By John Lyle Belden

These are unusual times, so here is an unusual show.

While advising all who feel unwell or uncomfortable to sit this one out, Fat Turtle Theatre is, last we heard, continuing with its production of “This is Us: An Inspirational Steampunk Broadway Cabaret.”

This is a little out of the comfort zone for Fat Turtle, a company that typically does plays, as well as founder Aaron Cleveland, who as the show’s Narrator is called upon to sing. But it does fit within the mission of presenting Indiana works, as the revue of Broadway songs are hung like ornaments on an original story by local playwright Nicole Amsler.

The setting and aesthetic, as noted in the title, are the alternate-history dystopia of Steampunk, with its corsets and clockworks. This helps give the whole production a familiar, yet otherworldly feel. 

Cleveland recites Amsler’s fable about a grieving father who devises “a machine to take all the pain of the world” and how his children strive to save him from it. Honestly, it sounds like the seed from which a great original musical could be grown.

But for now, we get an interesting selection of songs that loosely fit the theme, taken from a wide variety of Broadway shows. While some are easily recognizable, like a tune from “Wicked,” and include current hits like one from “Dear Evan Hansen,” there are also numbers from shows such as “Newsies,” “The Color Purple,” “Kinky Boots,” “Jekyll & Hyde,” “Mean Girls,” and even a beautifully appropriate song from the underappreciated “Pirate Queen.” 

To deliver these song-and-dance bits, we have area talents Tessa Gibbons, Jessica Hawkins, Kaitlin Holden, Jenn Kaufmann, Richelle Lutz, Jennifer Poytner, Brad Root and Jackson Stollings. Direction and choreography are by Andrea Odle, and there is a small band of musicians, led by Linda Parr. 

The result is an entertaining distraction — for a couple of hours — from current events, and the opportunity to enjoy songs even fans of showtunes don’t hear every day. This gang puts their hearts into their performances — as well as a bit of humor, when Hawkins and Stollings take on a fun old standard. Actually, every individual gets a chance to stand center and shine. 

The costumes, by Shannon Rice, include inventive use of blue LED wires to enhance the retro-sci-fi feel and add necessary emphasis when the circuits resemble the human heart. 

There is one scheduled weekend left, March 20-21 at The Switch, 10029 E. 126th St., Suite D, Fishers (in Ji-Eun Lee Music Academy), and as this cabaret is also a company fundraiser, all who are interested, and feel up to it, are encouraged to attend, or at least consider Fat Turtle in your charitable giving.

Details are at FatTurtleTheatre.com.

Search for understanding takes author back to ‘Fun Home’

By John Lyle Belden

Before Alison Bechdel was a “test” — the means the graphic novelist proposed to check a popular work for how it treats women — she was a girl growing up in Pennsylvania in a home with perfect antiques and a perfectionist father who was a teacher and a funeral director, and she had feelings she didn’t understand. Later, when the girl discovered herself, she lost her father. The woman she has become now wants to understand why.

This is the Tony-winning musical “Fun Home,” based on Bechdel’s graphic novel, adapted by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, on stage at Footlite Musicals, directed by Maria Matters.

We meet the mature Alison (Kristin Cutler) looking back at her child self (Sadie Cohen) and her typical-but-unusual family: father Bruce (Tim Spradlin), mother Helen (Emily Gaddy), and brothers Christian (Lincoln Everitt) and John (Evan Cohen). The kids are so used to the funeral home (the “Fun Home” of the title) that they even compose a silly commercial jingle for it.

Only visible to Alison in hindsight, we find that Bruce was having secret gay affairs and Helen was under constant stress maintaining their perfect facade.

Alison goes to college (played by Elly Burke) where some library research and soul-searching lead her to realize she’s a lesbian. Fellow student Joan (Emma Socey) awakens all that that entails. After coming out to her parents, Alison makes a home visit for what turns out to be her final moments with Bruce. Helen has clued her in on his double-life, and she wants to understand better this thing they now have in common. But days later, he walks into the path of a truck — distracted, suicidal, or both?

Cast and crew do an excellent job with this powerful musical, on a set designed by Matters that places the orchestra, led by Ainsley Paton, visibly at the back of the stage. The three Alisons each acquit themselves well. Gaddy wears Helen’s pain like part of her costume. Spradlin effectively keeps Bruce a cypher, neither entirely good nor bad, while enticing us to look closer; Job Willman and Dustin Branum complete the cast as the young men in his life.

A wonderful and touching theatrical experience that is sure to be mentioned when local awards are given, performances run through March 22 at Footlite, 1847 N. Alabama St., near downtown Indy. Call 317-926-6630 or visit footlite.org.

Set sail for something fun and unusual

By John Lyle Belden

How does one describe “Jollyship the Whiz-Bang”?

If it were on TV, it would be on Adult Swim, or maybe on Comedy Central or IFC late-night, between films. It’s a silly puppet show, but aimed more at college students than kids. Or for those who consider “Avenue Q” too mainstream.

Intrigued? Then come aboard, mateys. Nearly everyone in the cast handles or voices the puppets of the crew. Dave Pelsue is animated enough to just be Skeevy (that’s his name, not just an adjective) himself. Same with Paige Scott as gunner Von Heiselstein, though she slips in a couple of voices for others’ puppets. They are led by Captain Gregory Clamp, who rides the arm and takes the voice of Ryan Ruckman. Molly North and Frankie Bolda also help hold up the felted cast, while Aaron Stillerman adds voices. North also voices the pesky Seagull, while Bolda gives personality to a Crab, a/k/a Jumping Jack McGallahad, the Deckhand Man.

And the cast are literally a band of pirates: Pelsue and Stillerman on guitars, Scott on keys, Jason Adams on bass, and Don T. on drums (“We have a drummer?”). Everyone sings.

There is a plot, of sorts, as the crew goes on its years-long voyage to find Party Island. Captain Clamp is convinced it exists, but the others are getting less sure. Clamp drinks to forget losing Tom, the cabin boy, and we soon find out why. As the Captain goes through his personal voyage of self-discovery – complete with an attempt at reformation – we see Jumping Jack’s attempt to be a real “man” and his own tragic story arc.

But this is also silly and funny and full of raucous songs – with sex-talk and dirty language, so, again, no kids! Seriously, one of the Captain’s punchlines is, “F##k ye!”

This odd theatrical offering, written by Nick Jones, was a Fringe Festival hit, and now, with direction and puppets supplied by Callie Burk-Hartz, it is playing Thursday nights in March at the Storefront Theatre, 717 Broad Ripple Ave. Not restricted by Fringe rules, it plays out the full script, with two acts and intermission.

This show is a lot of fun, not just for us in the audience but all involved. I could tell the cast were enjoying themselves, as they let their own personalities flavor their roles. The Captain felt like a very Ruckman kind of blustery slacker-authority character. Skeevy is Pelsue the friendly rock star. Von Heiselstein is so Scott, with attitude that’s little bitter, but that’s just to set you up for the punchline. And leave it to Bolda and her mastery of comic oddness to make a crustacean a sympathetic character. Kudos also to North for handling so many characters and Stillerman for juggling the voices while playing the music.

At the performance we attended, especially with some actor friends in the audience, it felt like some creative pals just having a good time. (Wait. Was Party Island in us the whole time?)

Set sail for the Ripple and see for yourself. Get info and tickets at storefrontindy.com.

One note regarding the venue: Storefront Theatre is actually in the basement level. The storefront entrance has a stairwell leading down. Those with access issues need to alert the staff (there is an elevator, at the former location of Crackers Comedy Club).

ATI and CSO combine for one killer production

By John Lyle Belden

Today’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” at the Palladium of the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel – a first-time collaboration of Actors Theatre of Indiana and the Carmel Symphony Orchestra – explores the full potential of its dramatic and musical experience.

This popular musical is an inspired choice, with its blending of the macabre, dark humor, and tragic and romantic love, backed by an operatic aural tapestry.

The ATI company — including members of its 2016 “Sweeney” production including director Richard J. Roberts — and the CSO, under the baton of Janna Hymes, are joined by the Indianapolis Arts Chorale with area singers including members of the Indianapolis Children’s Choir. Their powerful vocal presence is like another section of orchestra, on par with the strings or wind instruments. Taken together they provide a properly dense dramatic atmosphere for the actors upon the stage to flourish.

The ATI co-founders reprise their roles. Don Farrell totally disappears into the wig, makeup, and scowl, so that all you see is Sweeney, the barber unjustly exiled so that a corrupt judge could take his wife. Now Todd has returned for vengeance; his plan includes giving the best shave in London – if you survive it. Judy Fitzgerald likewise transforms into Mrs. Lovett, baker of the “worst pies in London,” but the problem isn’t her talents, but her lack of good flesh for the meat pies. Mr. Todd’s impulsive nature with his silver razors presents her with a ghoulish opportunity. Cynthia Collins returns as the mad Beggar Woman, ever present and revealed to be more than just the one to babble “Mischief! Mischief!” outside Lovett’s shop.

Joining the cast for this spectacular: Matthew Conwell is the charming and aptly-named Anthony Hope, who repays his off-stage rescue by wooing and rescuing Sweeney’s long-lost daughter Johanna (bold beauty Elizabeth Hutson). Conwell’s voice is superb, filling the song “Johanna” with harmonious longing. David Cunningham is wonderful as the tragically naive Tobias Ragg. Mario Almonte III is sharp as rival barber Adolfo Pirelli.

For the villians, Tim Fullerton plays judge Turpin as one whose growing madness makes him increasingly dangerous, a true rival to Todd. ATI veteran Michael Elliott presents Beadle Bamford with easy slimy charm.

Rory Shivers-Brimm reprises his earlier turn as characters including madhouse keeper Jonas Fogg, truly triumphant considering his recent recovery from health issues. Karaline Feller completes the cast in roles including the Bird Seller. Thanks to Roberts’s direction and effective use of costumes by Katie Cowan Sickmeier, various players easily morph into supporting roles, such as the pie shop customers, giving the illusion of a larger cast.

Scenic designer Paul Bernard Killian and prop master Amanda Pecora make creative use of this unique setting, with simple set pieces, only the infamous baking oven being instantly recognizable. As for what could be the true “star” of the show, the Barber Chair is deceptively simple. Painted blood red, it takes its proper place on the stage, but doesn’t pull focus from the brilliant work of its human costars. Roberts makes great use of the space as well, further including the orchestra as part of the production by having characters encircle it and making use of the Palladium’s rear balconies.

Did I say “today” at the beginning of this? Yes, for those looking online on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, you have the opportunity to make the second of two performances tonight at 8 p.m. (Tickets at thecenterpresents.org or Palladium Box Office). Friday celebrated a triumphant “opening night” (with jokes that they were “halfway through the run”).

For those who can’t make it or read this later, note this as a shining example of what future collaborations can be. Hymes noted after Friday’s show that they had only two weeks of rehearsal to put the various components together – a testament to the level of talent and dedication local theatre performers and musicians put into their work for you, the Central Indiana audience.

ATI: Duo hits all the right notes in musical mystery

By John Lyle Belden

Do you like great comedy? How about an interesting whodunit? A pair of actors taking on numerous roles throughout? A clever musical? Even skillful four-hand piano playing? Well, has Actors Theatre of Indiana got a show for you!

In the Indiana premiere of Off-Broadway hit “Murder for Two,” by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair, Adam LaSalle primarily plays Officer (on the verge of being Detective) Marcus Moscowitz, and David Corlew plays nearly everyone else — AKA “the Suspects” — in the home of famed mystery author Arthur Whitney — AKA the victim. Both actors also play the piano that sits in the middle of the room — sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes switching off or together, always with a high degree of skill.

A surprise party for Whitney takes a shocking turn when, as he enters the front door, he is shot in the forehead!  His wife is naturally distraught, as someone has stolen the ice cream, and all the other guests, including a talkative psychiatrist, a beautiful prima ballerina, a bickering old couple, Whitney’s highly inquisitive niece, and a three-member Twelve-Member Boys Choir, are all acting suspicious as each one has a motive to off the author. Enter “Detective” Marcus and his unseen partner, Lou (two actors can only do so much). The officers were instructed to secure the scene until the actual Detective arrives, in an hour, but Marcus seizes the opportunity to crack the case and win his promotion.

This show is loaded with laughs, wacky character switching (sometimes seeming to catch the actors off-guard), piano work that’s a cross between Victor Borge and the Marx Brothers, and well-timed fourth-wall moments that work wonderfully in the intimate confines of the Studio Theater. Corlew’s skills as a circus performer (a “quadruple-threat”?) aid the physical comedy, and he and LaSalle have excellent chemistry, despite the fact they first met at rehearsals.

Corlew is based in Chicago, and LaSalle in New York; director Tony Clements said after a triumphant opening night, “I was so glad they got along so well from the beginning.” Clements also noted that despite many free-wheeling moments, the script only allowed for a few points of possible improvisation. Still, one would be hard-pressed to find where in all the controlled chaos they actually winged it. 

And kudos to Lou; we didn’t see a single flaw in his performance. 

ATI serves up “Murder for Two” through Feb. 16 on its stage at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. For info and tickets, call 317-843-3800 or visit atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

*

P.S. ATI will also present a two-night special event, a special production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” with a full cast joined by the Carmel Symphony Orchestra, Feb. 21-22 at the Palladium in the Center for the Performing Arts (north side of the ice rink). Performers include ATI founders Don Farrell as Sweeney, Judy Fitzgerald as Mrs. Lovett, and Cynthia Collins as the Beggar Woman, as well as Elizabeth Hutson (Joanna), Rory Shivers-Brimm (Jonas Fogg), Karaline Feller (Bird Seller), Mario Almonte III (Pirelli), Tim Fullerton (Judge Turpin), Matthew Conwell (Anthony), David Cunningham (Tobias), Michael Elliott (Beadle), and an 80-member chorus from the Indianapolis Arts Chorale. See the above contact information for tickets.

 

‘First Date’ jitters take form of advice-giving friends in Footlite musical

By Wendy Carson

Dating — the stress, vulnerability, tension, sheer terror, and coping with it all. Is all of this worth it, to possibly find “the One”? This is the subject the Broadway musical, appropriately titled “First Date,” playing at Footlite Musicals.

The show focuses on Aaron (Zach Hoover) and Casey (Halle Catlow) as they undergo a blind date, and we experience it with them, while seeing their inner thoughts portrayed by others in the cast.

Starting with drinks at the bar, it is obvious that these two have nothing in common except shared geography and a couple of friends who feel they might be a good fit for each other. Still, they are curious enough to overlook their first impressions — and Casey ignores the “bailout calls” of Reggie (Austin Stodgill), her gay bestie — to get to know each other more.

Religious differences, past relationship horrors, and even the embarrassment of their internet history are broached, yet they keep feeling out the possibility of their compatibility. Each constantly teeters on the verge of leaving, yet in their minds, Casey’s sister Lauren (Hannah Janowicz) and Aaron’s best friend Gabe (Ben Fraley) keep showing up to convince them to stick it out.

So, will these two make it to dinner — or maybe breakfast? Will Casey actually let Reggie’s calls give her an out? Will Aaron overcome his feelings for ex-fiance Allison (DonaMarie Kelley)? Can the head Waiter (Darrin Gowan) inspire them to actually fall in love? Honestly, is any of this actually worth it?

Margaret Smith and Adam Gardner complete the cast as waitstaff and part of the mental chorus.

This being Footlite’s annual “cabaret” production, audience seating is on the stage at tables of Darrin’s Restaurant, adding an appropriate intimate feel. The show — book by Austin Winsberg, music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner — is laugh-out-loud funny, with memorable tunes including “First Impression,” “The Girl For You,” and “I’d Order Love.” (We’ve heard them occasionally on SiriusXM’s “On Broadway” channel.) Direction is by Kathleen Clarke Horrigan, with choreography by Trish Roberts and music directed by Linda Parr.

So good, you might want to take a date of your own, “First Date” runs through Jan. 19 at 1847 N. Alabama St., near downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-926-6630 or visit http://www.footlite.org.

Magical ‘Elf’ at Civic

By John Lyle Belden

A new Christmas classic was created in 2003 with the film “Elf,” starring Will Ferrell, which has since become an even bigger spectacle as a Broadway musical, now presented by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre.

The book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, with songs by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, allows Buddy the Elf to escape the shadow of Ferrell’s unique talent to make him his own wonderful character — portrayed happily here by Matt Bays. 

As in the original story, Buddy is a human who, as a baby, crawled into Santa’s sleigh, unseen until the end of the journey. Finding that the boy’s single mother had died, Santa Claus (Parrish Williams) let him be raised by the elves, They let Buddy think he was one of them, even when he grew much taller than his adopted family. 

The truth is inevitably revealed, and Buddy travels to his father — who doesn’t know he exists — in New York City. The dad, Walter (J. Stuart Mill), is a workaholic executive at a publisher of children’s books who is rough on coworkers like good-natured Deb (Mary Margaret Montgomery) and neglectful of wife Emily (Carrie Neal) and son Michael (Ben Boyce). Naturally, Walter doesn’t believe this strange man in elvish tights is his son, so has him sent away. Since Buddy claims to be from the North Pole, he is dropped off at the next-best thing — Macy’s. There he ends up among the store’s Santa’s helpers, where he falls in love with fellow “elf” Jovie (Emily Schaab). 

From there, the story is Buddy’s struggle for acceptance and belonging, along with a chance to save Christmas for his father’s family — and the whole world, when Santa is stranded in Central Park, his sleigh too low on the Christmas Spirit that fuels it. Other notable roles include Jonathan Studdard as the stressed-out Macy’s Manager, and Jeff Angel as Mr. Greenway, owner of the publishing company, who wants a new hit Christmas story from Walter — or else!

The feel of the show throughout is best described by one of its song titles: “Sparklejollytwinklejingley.” The mood is perpetually sweet, even when characters aren’t “Happy All The Time.” And even when they feel that “Nobody Cares,” there’s a fun dance break. 

Directed by Michael J. Lasley with perfect choreography by Anne Beck and musical direction by Brent Marty, this is a magical ensemble effort. And seeing it on a matinee with the audience mostly children, I noticed they were all entranced and swept up in the spirit of it all. 

Just as sweet and special as spaghetti with syrup, “Elf” is yet another holiday must-see in central Indiana, playing through Dec. 28 at the Tarkington theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, right next to the Christkindlmarkt. (Arrive early for hope of parking.) See www.civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org for info and tickets.