New telling of old stories at Footlite

By John Lyle Belden

Footlite Musicals presents the biblical musical “Children of Eden,” which tells stories from the early chapters of Genesis in a loose, storytelling style similar to “Godspell.”

In the Beginning, Father (played by Allen Sledge) commands Creation into being, setting aside a garden he calls Eden for his prize creations, Adam (Mitchell Hammersley) and Eve (Nina Stilabower), where they spend their days in perfect splendor, while Adam names all the animals, and Eve grows increasingly curious about the one tree they are not to eat from.

The familiar story goes from there — but with some variation from the exact wording of scripture. After the Fall, Adam and Eve give birth to Cain and Abel (Katherine Sabens and Amelie Zirnheld as children, later Keane Maddock and Jonathan Krouse). In this telling, Adam believes he can win his way back into the Garden, and forbids his family to wander. But Cain has his sights on the horizon, and in the fight that ensues, tragedy sends him into exile, cursed along with his progeny by Father.

The second act quickly goes through the “begats” and gives a version of the story of The Flood with Hammersley and Stilabower as Noah and his wife, Todd Jackson II as Shem, Krouse as Ham, and Maddock again the nonconformist as Japeth, who chooses servant girl Yonah (Yasmin Schancer), who has the Mark of Cain, as his bride.

The cast also includes about 20 “Storytellers” who help relate the narrative, and portray all manner of animals, as well as wind and water. The Serpent in the Garden takes five of them (Schancer, Shelley Young, Donamarie Kelley, Presley Hewitt and Maggie Lengerich) sharing their sung and spoken lines to mesmerizing effect. The best scene is the “Return of the Animals” to the Ark, with practically everyone getting into the act, miming all sorts of creatures, with the aid of colorful costumes by Chris Grady. Lauren Johnson directs.

This musical by John Caird and Stephen Schwartz is a unique experience, retelling the old stories in a manner that emphasizes our connectedness and yearning for redemption when those connections are broken. It’s a true ensemble effort, but Stilabower and Maddock do stand out, as well as — appropriately — Sledge, as the loving, stern and mysterious paternal figure.

“Children of Eden” runs through May 19 at 1847 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis. Call 317-926-6630 or visit footlite.org.

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Civic: Good News(ies)

By John Lyle Belden

Though based on little-known history and a film that bombed, Disney’s “Newsies” has built a strong following. And now the Tony-winning musical is locally produced in central Indiana by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, running through May 11 at the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel.

The story is based on the New York Newsboys’ Strike of 1899, during which impoverished children revolted at price hikes on the papers they sold for publishing moguls Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst – and won. Disney dramatized it musically for cinemas in 1992, without success (despite starring a young Christian Bale), but the film found fans through its video release. Disney finally put it on the stage (where arguably it always belonged) in 2011 – on Broadway in 2012 – with a fresh book by the legendary Harvey Fierstein while keeping and expanding the music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman.

Although the plot does lean on a mix of fictional and real characters, the overall history rings true, even moreso in the Civic production with the addition of “newsgirls” (boys and girls both hawked papers at the time and participated in the strike).

Our eventual hero, Jack Kelly (Jake Letts) and unfortunately-nicknamed Crutchie (David Cunningham) are among the more respected of the Lower Manhattan Newsies. They are mostly orphans, except for newcomer Davey (Joseph Bermingham) and little sister Les (Emily Chrzanowski), forced to be breadwinners while their father is too injured to work.

Meanwhile, Pulitzer (Steve Cruze) reasons an easy way to make up for flat and declining paper sales is to raise the price of the papers. After all, what can a bunch of poor kids do about it? Faced with possible starvation if they can’t make up their losses, the Newsies give their answer – Strike!

The children have allies: a woman reporter, Katherine (Ani Arzumanian), who wants to stop writing fluff and gets the Newsies on the front page; and Vaudeville diva Medda Larkin (Tiffany Gilliam), who hires Jack (a talented artist, by the way) to paint backdrops and hosts a Newsies rally at her theater. Pulitzer responds, flexing his considerable power, but our underdogs find a way to beat the publishers at their own game.

Other notable roles include Darrin Gowan as Wiesel, who sells the Newsies the papers; Parrish Williams as evil Warden Snyder of The Refuge, an orphanage run like a prison; and Tom Beeler as New York Gov. Theodore Roosevelt (yes, the eventual President).

The show is largely a by-the-numbers musical — complete with reluctant hero, lead characters falling in love, potential betrayal, and “just when you think all is lost…” – but those numbers, the song-and-dance numbers, are something special. Our large youthful ensemble put on several spectacular dancing scenes – directed by Suzanne Fleenor, with musical direction by Brent Marty and choreography by Anne Beck – with memorable tunes including “The World Will Know” and “King of New York.”

For a good-time musical with historical heft, the Civic’s “Newsies” is worth your dime. Call 317-483-3800 or visit civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

ATI ‘Forbidden Broadway’: Here we go again!

By Wendy Carson

Upon entering the lobby for Actors Theatre of Indiana’s newest staging of “Forbidden Broadway,” we were surprised and delighted to see a blown-up copy of our previous review of the show. They also had poster copies of the other reviews — we were just happy to be among them.

So, since this show was just staged by ATI less than a year ago, you are probably thinking that you’ve already seen it and there’s no reason to see it again. That’s where you are dead wrong.

Forbidden Broadway,” created and curated in New York by Gerard Alessandrini, is a living creature that is constantly changing and evolving in new and delightful ways. Yes, some of the skits are the same ones covered in the previous incarnation, however at least half of the offerings here are different. In fact, the tribute to Carol Channing, slyly tipping its hat to her recent passing – as well as her generosity towards her legacy — is making its debut in this show.

There is even an audience sing-a-long during the tribute to Stephen Sondheim’s impending 90th birthday. Also, for those of you who have seen or are seeing The Civic Theatre’s delightful production of “Newsies,” their tribute will leave you howling.

For those who haven’t seen any of this, it is all a loving tribute to Broadway musicals and those who worked on and in them. It’s never mean – one can mock the cumbersome Lion King puppets and Les Mis rotating stage, while still understanding at the core it’s still meaningful art. While the more you know about the shows, the funnier it is, the all-in performances of ATI founders Cynthia Collins, Don Farrell and Judy Fitzgerald with Logan Moore, and Keith Potts on piano, entertain no matter how “in-house” the gags get. Note the content does get very PG-13 (those Avenue Q puppets still can’t keep their felt paws off each other).

So, get out there and prepare to laugh yourself silly at the glorious antics and talent of the latest production of “Forbidden Broadway,” through May 19 at The Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Call 317-84-3800 or visit atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

‘Hosanna’ to the Mud Creek ‘Superstar’

By John Lyle Belden

“Jesus Christ Superstar,” Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera passion play, opened, appropriately, on Good Friday at Mud Creek Players.

The production, directed by Michelle Moore, embraced its setting within the cozy confines of the MCP “barn,” with rough-wood sets and a punk aesthetic, backed by a five-piece rock band. Cast members filled the aisles at times, lending a feeling more immersive than crowded. The costumes appeared to be raided from “Hair” or “American Idiot,” but still worked in the overall look, making our two male leads better stand out — the disciple Judas (Michael Lipphardt) all business in a leather jacket, and Jesus (Onis Dean) dressed casual like a man who, naturally, would fit in anywhere.

For those unfamiliar with this telling of the last week of Christ’s life, these are the main two perspectives — Judas fearing what could happen, and Jesus frustrated that only he can see what must happen — followed by the points of view of Mary Magdalene (Pearl Scott), a woman in love with the man as much as what he stands for; and Caiaphas (Lot Turner), the High Priest who sees a threat not only to his own personal power, but also to the safety of Jews in occupied Roman Palestine.

Dean and Lipphardt sing their hearts out — and I worry for their throats. Scott is pure sweetness. Turner just oozes corruption, ably accompanied by Kata Ewigleben as Annas. We also get good vocals from Eli Robinson as Simon the Zealot and Austin Stodghill as the Apostle Peter. Jeremy Crouch is regal as Pilate, and Rick Barber absolutely fabulous as King Herod.

“Don’t get me wrong, now,” I won’t say this production is flawless, but taken as a whole, in the spirit of this time of year, it is an incredible experience and celebration of a foundational event of Christianity.

Performances run through May 4. Mud Creek Players is at 9740 E. 86th St. in northeast Indianapolis, near Geist. Call 317-290-5343 or visit mudcreekplayers.com.

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.

‘What a glorious feeling…’ at Footlite

By John Lyle Belden

“Singin’ in the Rain” is one of the greatest films of all time. And being a fun singing-and-dancing musical, it only takes a little adapting to bring the Betty Comden and Adolph Green script to the live stage. So now you can come in out of the winter weather to see it rain on the boards of Footlite Musicals.

For those unfamiliar, this is a show about Hollywood in the late 1920s, when silent pictures suddenly gave way to the “talkies” as studios found ways to add sound to movies. Don Lockwood (played by Grant Russel) and Lina Lamont (Sarah Marone) are the biggest stars of the silent screen, but after the popularity of “The Jazz Singer,” Monumental Pictures mogul R.F. Simpson (Bryan Padgett) is forced to make the next Lockwood & Lamont film with sound. Don speaks and sings beautifully — Lina, not so much. Fortunately, Don has found (and fallen in love with) young chorine Kathy Seldon (Sydney Norwalk), whose angelic voice could save the day. Just don’t tell Lina!

The cast also includes Juddson Updike as Don’s best pal, Cosmo Brown. The two sparkle on their feet through the many dance numbers. Norwalk is sweet and sings superbly. And Marone is so fun to watch, even when you “cyaaant staand” her character’s selfish antics.

Directed by Kathleen Clarke Horrigan, the Footlite production “makes ‘em laugh” with all the hilarious moments of the story, including pre-filmed footage such as the ill-fated first cut of “The Dueling Cavalier.” There is even a silent-movie curtain speech, starring Josh Vander Missen, who also has a fun scene as Lockwood’s diction teacher (“Moses supposes…”).

And, yes, it does rain on stage.

If you are a fan of the film, you’ll enjoy this. There’s something special in seeing something so good in three dimensions (sans gimmicky glasses), and when the cast work the aisles, it gives new meaning to “surround sound.”

Performances run through March 17 at Footlite, 1847 N. Alabama, Indianapolis. Call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.

‘Yank!’ — A different kind of bravery

By John Lyle Belden

Emotions run high during war — excitement, anger, patriotic fervor, devotion, and love. For some soldiers thrown into the crucible that was World War II, the ones they wanted to embrace with all their might weren’t the pin-up girls.

This is the world of “Yank!” the musical making its Indianapolis premiere at the District Theatre.

Stuart (Jonathan Krouse) answered the call to join the fight against Hitler and Tojo, but first he has to fit in with Charlie Company. He can barely hold a rifle, and he’s not sure about his feelings towards his fellow soldiers, especially Mitch (Tanner Brunson), the only one to treat him with kindness. The others suspect he’s different, and even call him “Light-Loafers,” but they come to accept him, because “your squad is your squad.”

On the way to the front, two things happen: Stuart and Mitch start to explore their feelings for each other, and Stuart meets Artie (D. Scott Robinson), a photographer for Yank! magazine, wise to and willing part of the gay underground just outside the U.S. Army’s notice. While Charlie Company goes to combat, Stuart — an aspiring writer, keeping a detailed journal — joins Artie as reporters behind the lines.

Stu is doing well out of harm’s way, but he still has feelings for Mitch. Then he gets the assignment to write about his old unit, and how war has changed them. More changes are coming for Stu, and he will discover how war is especially hell for a gay soldier — facing danger from his own people as well as the enemy.

The cast includes Isaac Becker, Dominic Piedmonte, Scott Fleshood, Joshua Cox and Bryant Mehay as fellow soldiers. Jerry Beasley, Lance Gray and Kevin Bell play hardened officers and NCOs, as well as somewhat softer characters. Jessica Hawkins wonderfully portrays “every woman,” from radio entertainers to a lesbian WAC working for Gen. MacArthur.  

Krouse and Brunson turn in wonderful performances, one constantly feeling deeply, the other deeply conflicted. The supporting cast is solid; Beasley earns his stripes. And with us usually seeing Robinson these days behind the scenes as producer or director, it’s good to see him show his excellence as an actor.

This is a different kind of love story, but still touching — love is love, after all — and an eye-opening look at a hidden part of our history. While the characters are fictional, there was a Yank! Magazine, and playwright David Zellnik thoroughly researched the secret lives of gay soldiers and sailors of the era.

The songs, by David and his brother Joseph Zellnik, are snappy and sentimental in a style befitting the 1940s setting, including some interesting harmony.

Had this been a boy-meets-girl rather than boy-meets-boy, “Yank!” would look like the cinema hit of 1945. But it’s 2019, and LGBTQ GIs are only now living out of the closet. Thus, this show is equal parts entertaining and important. Director Tim Spradlin deserves praise for bringing this gem to downtown Indy, as well as IndyFringe for hosting it at the District (former site of Theatre on the Square), 627 Massachusetts Ave.

This production runs through March 24; get info and tickets at indyfringe.org.