Footlite: New take on ‘New World’

By John Lyle Belden

“Songs For a New World,” the first show by Jason Robert Brown (“Parade,” “The Last Five Years,” “13,” “Bridges of Madison County,” “Mr. Saturday Night”) is hard to describe, existing in an undefined middle ground between musical, song-cycle, and cabaret. Critics haven’t been kind, but many adore it, including local performer Jerry Beasley, who directs the current production of “Songs” at Footlite Musicals.

“It’s a concert,” he said, desiring it to be something more. “I wanted to tell 14 little stories.”

Perhaps bringing it closer to Brown’s original concept of various narratives all linked by a common theme – a person’s profound moment of decision – Beasley enriches the musical without altering its content. The cast is expanded from four to eight main singers plus two soloists, and he adds little touches to bring more context. The classic “Stars and the Moon” becomes a lesson shared among more than one singer, and thus us watching. “Christmas Lullaby” shows how an expecting mother truly feels she is giving hope to others. The youth in “The Steam Train” returns to a later song, giving it a today’s-news edge. There is humor in “The River Won’t Flow” and heartache in “The Flagmaker, 1775” – there is something for everyone throughout.

Wonderful performances by Ryan Bridges, Cameron Callan, Erin Emtiaz, Dylan Kelly, Maggie Meier, Abigail Miller, Keziah Muthama, and Kendrell Stiff, with Kayvon Emtiaz as “King of the World” and the incomparable Kevin Bell in “Surabaya-Santa.” Kelsey McDaniel stands by as swing; the on-stage orchestra is led by Jeremy Kaylor.

Appropriately, this is Footlite’s January “cabaret” production, with the audience seated on the stage in close proximity to the actors. While the chairs are in rows rather than at tables, there are still only so many of them, so act quick for tickets to remaining performances, Thursday through Sunday, Jan. 19-22. Contact Footlite.org or call 317-926-6630.

Time tick, tick, ticking forward

By John Lyle Belden

As I post this, 2022 has recently come to a close. And you might wonder, what were our favorite shows of this last year? Well, I just did a rough count of more than 150 reviews we posted, so – yeah, hard question.

Like an actor who never forgets that line he stumbled on at opening night, I can’t help but think about the reviews we didn’t do. Aside from scheduling and illness having us miss shows outright, there were a couple of performances that we caught at the ends of their run and didn’t get around to the writeup.

And like Jon in “Tick, Tick… Boom!” I feel the march of time.

There were actually two productions of that Jonathan Larson musical in central Indiana this last year – running practically simultaneously. We managed to get a review in of the well-done Phoenix Theatre production, but circumstances had us nearly miss the Carmel Community Players edition, which had its differences and was excellent in its own way.

Wendy and I would like to go on the record as saying we also enjoyed the CCP “TTB,” directed by Kathleen Horrigan, performed at the Switch Theatre in Fishers.

As is easier to do in volunteer community theatre, there was, in addition to Dominic Piedmonte as Jon, Ervin Gainer as his roommate Michael, and Margaret Smith as his girlfriend Susan, an ensemble of B.K. Bady-Kaye, Onis Dean, Abby Morris, and Ryley Trottier to portray other roles. This also helped distinguish the production from the stripped-down Phoenix show.

Piedmonte was great as Larson’s stand-in character, and Gainer is frankly one of those actors I can’t get enough of. Smith also did well as a character that is tricky as you don’t want to find yourself disliking Susan or Jon too much as their relationship falters. Having the full cast helped in letting Trottier play “Superbia” star (and potential “other woman”) Karessa, leading to a brilliant moment with both women singing “Come to Your Senses.”

Wendy found this version of the show really gave the feel of Larson’s dilemma of the world changing around him – not all for the better – as he turned 30 years old. And as he somehow feared and we have come to know, his life would end a few short years later.

A big thanks again to Carmel Community Players (hat tip to Lori Raffel), and all the local stages who let us come in and see what they have to show us. We look forward to another big year of theatre in 2023.

‘Carol’ gets musical comedy treatment

By John Lyle Belden

Marley was dead to begin with…” truly is a downer opening, but things can only go up from there, especially when Charles Dickens gets the once-over by local theatrical genius Ben Asaykwee, who wrote and directed the musical “A Christmas Carol Comedy,” playing through this weekend at the District Theatre.

Asaykwee has another show (“ProZack” at the Phoenix) so entrusts a cast of young and old, veterans and newcomers, led by the versatile Matt Anderson as Ebenezer Scrooge (and the assistant director).

To set the irreverent tone, we have a batch of young urchins (Quincy Carman, Ellie Cooper, Zara Heck, Ethan Lee, Sam Lee, Judah Livingston, Esmond Livingston, and Calvin Meschi) providing narration and appearing as needed. Others play various roles, notably Jared Lee at Bob Cratchit, Emerson Black as Jacob Marley, Amanda Hummer as Christmas Past, Tiff Bridges as Christmas Present, Shelbi Barry as Christmas Future, and Maria Meschi as ol’ Fezziwig. In addition, we have the talents of Lisa Anderson, Jenni Carman, Reilly Crouse, Jessica Dickson, Austin Helm, Emily Jorgenson, Anna Lee, Noah Lee, Adriana Menefee, Kallen Ruston, Michelle Wafford, and Charlotte Wagner.

Drop all expectations of a faithful rendition of the holiday classic (we all know it already) and revel in the silliness as this gang has a ball bringing more joy to the season. The revelation of Tiny Tim must be seen to be believed. There are also song-and-dance numbers, as Dickens no doubt never intended – watch out for flying cast members.

Our evening’s viewing at the District (627 Massachusetts Ave., Indianapolis) was a sell-out; it will likely happen again. See indydistricttheatre.org.

The Elf may not enjoy this, but you will

By John Lyle Belden

For an Elf, labor at the Toy Workshop is like a factory job anywhere in the world, with lunch hour your one respite from the constant grind. Being in the desolate dark zone above the Arctic Circle, when one of your workers – who has issues, to say the least – requests to entertain the crew with a “celebration of truth and pure being” during the break, it’s a good idea to let him ramble his weird poetry or whatever.

But as we see reenacted at the Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center, when “ProZack the Sad Elf” gets an unused storage room to put on his show, things get weirder than usual. Apparently, this year we get “The ProZack Holiday Musical (No, it’s not!)” starring Ben Asaykwee, Ben Asaykwee, Ben Asaykwee, Ben Asaykwee, Ben Asaykwee, Ben Asaykwee, and a demented Tree.

ProZack provides profound spoken verse with titles like “Nothingness,” and “Untitled.” Tinsel plays and sings holiday songs, even after he’s killed. Videographer Snowflake is up to some visual trickery. Tinkle tries to bring “levity” but has problems with his puppet, Mr. Tree, whose anger is growing, and growing. Meanwhile Glister, the industrial death metal Elf, has caught a worrying case of sentimentality.

With so much going wrong, ProZack has to frequently go backstage, where Snowflake also set up cameras. We see the elves interact and try to find their way through this madness that includes odd holiday movie references and the secret of what’s stored away in that “empty” room.

Not to mention the literal “Star” of the show…

With the help of multimedia and other effects, Asaykwee delivers a fun and surprisingly action-packed one-person show, masterfully juggling the various personae throughout the two-act “lunch hour.” There was much laughter, some finger-snapping (how you applaud poetry), and a bit of innuendo – so this is for humans of double-digit age (or relative equivalent for elves or other mythical beings).

“ProZack The Sad Elf,” also created, written, and directed by Asaykwee, runs through Dec. 23 on the Basile Theatre stage at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at phoenixtheatre.org.

Executive dysfunction in holiday parody

By John Lyle Belden

As we settled in for a long winter’s viewing of “The North Wing,” an original Christmas musical presented by Defiance Comedy at the IndyFringe theatre, Molly North, assistant to the show’s writer and director, Matt Kramer, said this is like if “The West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin had (presumably under the influence of something) decided to write about the Santa Claus Workshop at the North Pole, and add music.

Well… there is a “walk-and-talk” scene, so we’ll go with that.

Since Burl Ives is dead and Josh Gad costs too much, we have the lovely Paige Scott as our narrator, Jeff the Snowman, ironically with a warmer heart than her other role, Mrs. Claus. The former is charming, literally disarming, and proud to be “a waste of resources.” The latter seems to take pleasure in being naughty – which could be a problem in this setting.

Clay Mabbitt is Thomas the Human (not the one shipped off to New York, that’s another musical), the leading assistant to retiring Head Elf, Mr. Hinkle-Twinkle (Ben Rockey, one of a number of Elfin roles) who apparently learned to speak English by watching “It’s a Wonderful Life.” After another Christmas Eve in which holiday spirit is down, the old man steps down and, before Thomas can be promoted, Mrs. Claus announces an outside hire: Janet (Meg McLane) the human former executive of a Toy Corporation, who has lots of ideas for improving things at The North Wing.

Imminent changes with only 364 Days Until Christmas have elf executive assistant Beatrice (Shelby Myers), Phil the Elf (Austin Hookfin), and random Elves (Rockey and Robin Kildall) very worried. It doesn’t help that Judy Sparkles of North Pole News (Kelsey VanVoorst) reports that disaster is inevitable. It’s enough to drive one to drink – with libations served by Blumpkin the reindeer bartender (VanVoorst in antlers and red nose).

As befits a story inspired by real-world political intrigue, this all gets really silly, really fast. And there are songs. And dancing (choreography by Emily Bohannon). And romance. And, of course, the traditional plots to destroy/save Christmas.

To rescue the holiday, there is a quest for the next must-have toy, which brings – at 164 days to Christmas – the arrival of Binky the Toy Tester (Kildall). Will the thingamajig pass muster? Will it matter?

This cast works together smoothly, and I was particularly impressed with Myers’ performance. The more dramatically inclined Mabbitt makes a great straight man to set up fellow goofballs. Scott’s ability to switch between clown and villain is fun to watch.

As we’ve come to expect from Defiance, this show is full of gut-splitting hilarity and features a number of improv veterans, so expect anything. Also as usual, there’s a bit of ribald innuendo, but aside from the “Naughty” edition 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, there is a “Nice” more all-ages version at 3 p.m. Sunday (Dec. 9-11).

See their style of wacky comedy that sells out Fringe festival shows, now in two full acts, at IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair St., Indianapolis. Get tickets at indyfringe.org.

Guys and Dolls and Footlite

By John Lyle Belden

At last, Footlite Musicals said “can do” to their latest show, with “Luck being a Lady” after some “persons developed a cough” but these people all say “sit down” and enjoy for one more week.

If you are familiar with those references then you know that, after its initial delay, the popular classic musical “Guys & Dolls” is on stage a the Hedback through Dec. 4. Written by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows with songs by Frank Loesser, this 1950 Broadway hit is based on short stories by Damon Runyon about various characters on the streets of Depression-era New York City.

Some gamblers seek a high-stakes dice game and look to popular cohort Nathan Detroit (Thom Brown) to set it up, in spite of the NYPD’s Lt. Brannigan (David Johnson) keeping close tabs on the most likely locations. Local high-roller Harry the Horse (Jack London) has even brought in Big Jule (Lot Turner) out of Chicago. Nathan’s companions Nicely-Nicely (Scott McFadden) and Benny (Jeffry J. Weber) assure all that craps will occur, but Detroit must first come up with some quick cash to pay off Joey Biltmore (Leo Goffinet).

Seeing a sure-fire bet, Nathan Detroit wagers smooth-talking gambler Sky Masterson (Christopher Vojtko), who just returned from Las Vegas loaded with cash, that he can’t persuade Save-A-Soul Mission “Sergeant” Sarah Brown (Natalie Marchal) to travel to Havana with him. Sky takes that action, and odds are this will lead to one wild, funny, and romantic adventure.

The cast also includes Marie Beason as the Mission’s Gen. Cartwright, who arrives for a surprise inspection; Steve Demuth as Mission drummer Arvide Abernathy, Sarah’s uncle and father figure; and most wonderfully, Jonna Kauffman as Miss Adelaide, showgirl and Nathan’s long-long-long-time fiancé.

Indeed, while the Guys hold their own, it is the “Dolls” who truly shine in this production, with Marchal giving an exceptional performance in her Footlite debut, while Kauffman charms as the girl who’s a bit more smart and savvy than she lets on. And you can tell Beason is having fun as the evangelist just pleased to see sinners come in the door, whatever the pretext.

Unlike the floating craps game, this action will be easy to find: 1847 N. Alabama in downtown Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at footlite.org.

Journey with ‘Violet’ at ATI

By Wendy Carson

 One quick note before I dive into the review: This is the third production of the musical “Violet” we have seen over the years, the first time based on the 1997 Off-Broadway production, before it was taken to Broadway in 2014. Each local performance has not only been different, but also better than the one before. Therefore, if you have seen the show prior to this, I still strongly suggest you see it, the latest edition, at Actors Theatre of Indiana. It’s a superb production, and I adored it (and not just because my hometown is part of the show).

Written by acclaimed composer Jeanine Tesori with Brian Crawley, based on a Doris Betts short story, the plot has remained consistent: At the age of thirteen, Violet was hit in the face by a flying axe head, leaving her horribly scarred. Years later, in the 1960s, she is on her own and has finally saved up enough money for the bus fare to take her from North Carolina to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the TV Preacher whom she knows will be able to restore her beauty. Along the way, she befriends a couple of soldiers. The three of them quickly become close, with the men reluctant to let her take the final leg of her journey as they are sure she will be sorrowfully disappointed in her Preacher’s abilities. They are both waiting for her when she returns, healed, but not as she had expected.

Sydney Howard expertly brings out the adult Violet’s hopefulness and sorrow over her predicament while Quincy Carmen as young Vi (in frequent flashbacks) shows the innocence and fortitude that made her the woman she became.

Luke Weber as Monty, the Army Private First Class fresh from Special Forces school, shows the naivete of a soldier looking forward to going to war. Maurice-Aime Green as Flick, the more seasoned Sergeant, reflects the harsh reality of the differences the mere color of his skin brings to his military career and everyday life.

Matt Branic, as Violet’s father, brings out the devotion, stoicism and love of a single parent trying to do the best for his little girl, despite that one horrific moment.

Eric Olson is sheer perfection as the Preacher who may or may not actually have the power to heal, but certainly has the ability to motivate.

While it is easy to present both the Father and the Preacher in a negative light, Branic and Olson each maintain their characters’ humanity as they play their parts in Violet’s life. This is not a story of “good” or “bad” people, but of a journey, and the life lessons learned along the way.

As the rest of the cast play many interchangeable characters throughout the show, one pair does stand out with their true diva roles: Tiffany Gilliam brings down the house as the Music Hall Singer the trio goes out to see while overnighting in Memphis. It is obvious that were she around during that era, she would indeed have been a star on that stage.

Tiffanie Bridges seems to channel the voice of the angels as her turn as Lula, the lead singer in our Preacher’s choir. While her character reminds him that she is singing not for the “show,” but for the Lord, her talent shows this to be true.

ATI co-founder Judy Fitzgerald’s roles include a friendly fellow passenger; other characters, including bus drivers, are provided by Richard Campea and Cody Stiglich.

Director Richard J. Roberts has taken eleven talented singers and actors, a phenomenal script, and a band that can bring such vivid emotion to their music, and given us a beautifully moving show. Pianist Nathan Perry is music director, with musicians Greg Gegogeine, Charles Platz, Kathy Schilling and Greg Wolf. The versatile stage by P. Bernard Killian features a map of the bus route painted across the floor, which includes Fort Smith, Arkansas (where I was born).

Performances of “Violet” run through Nov. 13 in The Studio Theatre at The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. For tickets and information, visit atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Cat ‘CAT’ show is so very ‘Addams’

By John Lyle Belden

The Cat, a nice little stage in downtown Carmel, includes in its programs the Carmel Apprentice Theatre, in which local stage veterans work with new and less-experienced performers to bring forth a wonderful experience for actors and audiences alike. Appropriately opening on Halloween weekend, CAT presents “The Addams Family: A New Musical,” by Andrew Lippa with Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice.

Based on the famous Charles Addams characters, which went from New Yorker cartoons in the 1940s and ‘50s to television and movies (and even a Hanna-Barbera “Scooby-Doo”-style cartoon in the 1970s, as we see during the pre-show entertainment), the 2010 Broadway musical showcases the family’s unconventional and gently macabre lifestyle while engaging with a wacky comedy premise: Now-adult daughter Wednesday wants to marry a young man from a “normal” Ohio family.  

First-time director Elaine Miller managed to get the best out of this cast of varied experience, including former apprentice turned stage regular JB Scoble as Gomez Addams, writer and dancer (who gets to show off her tango) Audrey Larkin as Morticia, Carmel High senior Jayda Glynn as a picture-perfect Wednesday, Ball State grad Elaine Endris as mischievous masochist brother Pugsley, crew-turned-cast member Jake Williams as charming Uncle Fester, Jeff Hamilton as feisty Grandmama, and classically-trained Evan Wang as the butler, Lurch. (Thing was played by “R.C.”, and Cousin Itt was absent, likely at a hair appointment.) The more conventional Beinecke family are played by Tim West as lovestruck Lucas, Chelsie Christian as his mom and compulsive poet Alice, and Greg Gibbs as buttoned-down dad Mal.

When one is an Addams, you’re in the family forever, so the ghostly Ancestors are on hand as well. They are portrayed by Erin Coffman, Ashley Mash, Diana Pratt, Vivian Schnelker, Mark Gasper, and the stage debut of Sarah Gasper, a natural charmer who after attending dozens of performances of “Addams Family” finally gets to live her dream.

What this show might lack in professional polish is more than made up for in the fun everyone has in bringing this story to life. Given the gusto with which the titular family treat any endeavor, any rough edges actually add to the overall experience. Scoble’s performance stands toe-to-toe (sword-to-sword?) with the likes of John Astin or Raul Julia, and Larkin is dead(ly) sexy. Everyone has standout moments, especially Christian in her “full disclosure” outburst.

While oddness is the rule in this world, one aspect of the musical that, to me, seemed distracting was Fester’s wooing of the Moon (yes, that big rock in the sky). Williams manages to pull off the illogical longing, further aided by Mash portraying the heavenly body, dancing in shimmering gray with matching mask. Miller’s choice in this, rather than using a light or glowing ball, sweetens the scene and makes it more relatable – we see the lover that Fester sees.

Performances of this spooky, “ooky,” fun and funny show run Thursdays through Sundays through Nov. 13 at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way, next to Carmel’s Main Street arts and cultural district. For information and tickets, go to thecat.biz.

Civic opens season with ‘Rent’

By John Lyle Belden

“Rent” is very much of its own time – the struggles of Generation X to make their mark as the AIDS epidemic wreaks havoc on creative and marginalized communities – yet our recent encounter with an incurable plague makes the lyric, “one song before the virus takes hold,” feel all too familiar.

In this context, the Jonathan Larson masterpiece musical takes the stage of the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, directed by Michael J. Lasley. We meet filmmaker Mark (Austin Stodghill) and songwriter Roger (Joseph Massingale), living what they thought was rent-free in a building now managed by ex-roommate Benny (Kerrington Shorter). There are also friends Tom Collins (Austin Hookfin) and Angel (Kendrell Stiff), free-spirit Mimi (Jaelynn Keating), and activist Maureen (Olivia Broadwater) who left Mark for attorney Joanne (Miata McMichel), as well as a full cast representing the hoi polloi of New York City, including Julia Ammons, who is a stunning soloist in the signature song, “Seasons of Love.”

Act One centers on a particular Christmas Eve in the 1990s, giving us the lives of our characters in that pivotal day; Act Two carries through the next year, with its changes and loss.

If you are familiar with the show, picture the perfect Maureen: Broadwater solidly fits the bill. Stodghill portrays Mark well, and Massingale – master of unconventional manly roles (like in “Bonnie and Clyde”) – is well within his element here. We feel the chemistry between the couples: Roger and Mimi, Maureen and Joanne, and especially Tom and Angel. Civic newcomer Stiff has big high-heels to fill in their iconic role, and does not disappoint.

Circumstances had Wendy elsewhere, so I brought my friend, Mary, as my plus-one. Her impressions: “’Rent’ was fantastic. Thought Roger and Mimi had great chemistry. Angel was absolutely gorgeous. And even though I have watched [the 2005 film] countless times on DVD, I didn’t expect to get emotional during [the] death scene. Watching it live just hit me differently.”

This is why you should experience this musical, and bring a friend, as well as Kleenex (you’ll need it for the curtain call).

Performances run through Oct. 22 at the Tarkington in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get info and tickets at civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Larson’s sense of time running out drives musical

By Wendy Carson

Welcome to 1990 and Jonathan Larson’s semi-autobiographical tale of his struggles to become a successful Broadway composer, “Tick, Tick… Boom!” While it was only a budding one-man show during his lifetime, playwright David Auburn (“Proof”) reworked the script into this beautiful Off-Broadway smash, finding its local premiere at the Phoenix Theatre.

It is the story of three friends Jon (Patrick Dinnsen), his best friend/roommate Michael (Eddie Dean) and his girlfriend Susan (Gabriela Gomez). While each has sought their future on the stage, only Jon is still true to his vision.

Michael has foregone his acting aspirations to pursue a more lucrative career as a marketing executive and is moving out to a luxurious yuppie abode. Susan still dances on occasion, but mostly earns her income trying to teach rich, untalented children ballet. While she and Jon are still in love, she can’t help but want to leave the dreariness of New York.

Meanwhile, Jon approaches his 30th birthday while mounting a workshop of “Superbia,” the musical that he is sure will be the ticket to his dreams. While he could use the support of his friends, they seem to be more focused on their own issues and he seeks solace in the arms of his lead actress.

Things then go from bad to worse, but a spark of hope still glows at the end.

Throughout the show you can see glints of impending plotlines that will end up in Larson’s masterpiece, “Rent.” It is chilling to know that his own demise was on the horizon and though he didn’t actually see it coming, he realized it was a strong possibility.

Gomez gives Susan a loving and sympathetic touch, yet never stops her from being true to herself. She also portrays numerous other characters, including Jon’s agent and the aspiring actress. Each one is endearing, highlighting her range of skills.

Dean shows Michael’s loyalty, with a distance that builds to a poignant resolution. He also fills in the numerous other roles required throughout, giving him more chances to spotlight his humorous side.

Dinnsen is superb as Jonathan, the only static character in the show. He also brings the hopefulness as well as the hopelessness of a man chasing a dream that seems insurmountable.

Under Emily Ristine Holloway’s direction, we get a lively, upbeat look at another side of Larson and what made him actually tick (before the “boom”). The show benefits from a versatile stage design by Zac Hunter that foreshadows the “Rent” set, as well as on-stage band of Ginger Stoltz, Ainsley Paton, Eddie McLaughlin, and Kristin Cutler. Having musicians visible is a nod to the way Larson originally performed this piece, and it should be noted that “Superbia” was an actual musical he worked on – one of its songs is featured in this production.

Performances run through Oct. 30 at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St., Indianapolis. Get information and tickets at phoenixtheatre.org.