Would be a crime to miss ATI’s ‘Scoundrels’

By John Lyle Belden

The criminal culture on the French Riviera of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” is an easy-going atmosphere where there is truly honor among thieves, the setting for the raucous comedy of the 1988 film (starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin) and the more recent Broadway musical, now presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana.

Polished and posh local con man Lawrence Jameson (played by TJ Lancaster) has perfected his act of posing as an exiled prince, extracting funds for his “revolution” from willing rich women, including Muriel (Judy Fitzgerald), an American all too eager to spend her ex-husband’s fortune. Lawrence’s accomplice, Andre (Don Farrell), is also the city Chief of Police, so they pretty much have it made.

But shortly after hearing that a notorious swindler, The Jackal, is in the area, Lawrence meets Freddy (Tony Carter) a crude but effective fast-talker who wants the more mature con artist to teach him his methods. They gain a grudging respect for each other, but get on each others nerves to the point that they make a wager – first to fleece their next mark for $50 thousand gets to stay; the other must leave. Enter the Soap Queen of Cincinnati, Christine Colgate (Deborah Mae Hill). The con is on!

The result is hilarious and thoroughly entertaining. Fortunately, the musical’s book by Jeffrey Lane (songs by David Yazbek) doesn’t force our leads to be copies of the charismatic Caine or unique Martin, but excellently-rendered characters that Lancaster and Carter have obvious fun embodying. They and the supremely charming Hill make the most of the show’s frequent slapstick moments. Fitzgerald fits among the criminals, stealing scenes — especially with fellow ATI founder Farrell. Supporting and chorus parts are ably filled by Michael Corey Hassel, Tim Hunt, Annalee Traeger, Brynn Tyszka and Sabra Michelle, who shines as an Oklahoma oil heiress set on marrying our faux Prince. Direction is by New Yorker Michael Blatt.

ATI opens their 2019-20 season with this show in the intimate confines of The Studio Theater at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, running through Sept. 29. Get info and tickets at atistage.org, or thecenterpresents.org.

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IndyFringe: Phantom of Fountain Square

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Fountain Square, a storied neighborhood by downtown Indianapolis, has always been seen as “up and coming” but not quite the trendy destination it could be. However, this was not always the case. It was once known as the Theater District, with as many as 11 theaters, and the center of fashion and shopping. Those days are behind it now, but there are still people who are doing all they can to bring about a renaissance to the neighborhood.

Enter Samantha, a mother whose dream is to open a restaurant in the Square. She brings along a young daughter and new husband who has embraced her dream as his own. However, they are beset with problems. A valve from her stove goes missing, the place is ransacked, a nearby diner blows up, and her daughter seems to be hallucinating visions of money people.

They are then guided by forces unknown to learn the history of the area and learn of the mysterious legend of the “Phantom of Fountain Square”.

Kerra D Wagener brings a bright spunkiness to her portrayal of Samantha and keeps the story going. Thom Johnson gives her husband Danny the subtle juxtaposition of a man overwhelmed by his thankless efforts yet still lovingly devoted to his wife and doing whatever will make her happy. Jacquiline Rae brings forth the sweet innocence yet sage wisdom that is part of being a child keeping the show light and hopeful. Jeff Maess is great as Frank Wertheimer, but his role is so much lesser than his talent should warrant. Then we have Owen Harp as the titular character, chewing up the scenery like this was a buffet.

I’m not going to say that the show is perfect. I haven’t even noted that it is sort of a musical. I will say that it does show promise. The Fringe is a place where many great artists have presented works that have gone on to greatness. I feel that with some workshopping, this could be fleshed out into a full-length show that could be a perennial tradition.

So take a chance on seeing the first iteration of a show that, like its setting, is loaded with potential. Penned by local speculative fiction writer Matthew Barron, and presented by Submatter Press, “Phantom of Fountain Square” has performances Saturday and Sunday at The Oasis, (Shriners’ entrance of the Murat, on the north side), 502 N. New Jersey St.

IndyFringe: Make Me A Match

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

One of the creators of last year’s “Paper Swords,” Matt Day, wrote this musical with Jordan Brown and Josh Brown, a story of love and empowerment taking place on a TV dating show.

On “Make Me a Match,” a bachelorette — on this occasion, Beth (Emily Sanders), an internet Influencer — gets to pick which of the three male contestants she has to marry. The bachelors are smooth rich boy Steve (Kerrington Shorter), cocky horndog Todd (Ryan Powell) and kindergarten teacher Brad (Josh Brown), who didn’t know he was living in a musical.

Smarmy host Danny Sharp (Ethan Mathias) is treated like a god, while he treats cue-card intern Meredith (Riley Iaria) and makeup girl Lexi (Jordan Brown) like crap. 

There is also a security guard (Aaron Williams) for when things get intense.

One thing that was impressive was that even though there was an on-stage band, the actors didn’t use or need mics. Also, to complete the immersive experience, the audience is the show’s studio audience, and we have an important part to play near the end. 

Mathias makes an excellent bad guy. Sanders counters your expectations of shallowness to show Kardashian-types aren’t quite as dumb as they look. And Iaria and Jordan Brown have appropriately righteous fire. Josh Brown, caught in the middle of this, supplies many of the comic moments. 

This #MeToo musical is better than a lot of what’s actually on television, and more fun. 

Performances are 9 p.m. tonight, as well as 7:30 Thursday, 9 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday (Aug. 20-25), at The Oasis (Shriners’ entrance of the Murat, on the north side), 502 N. New Jersey St.

IndyFringe: Schoolhouse Rock LIVE, Fringe Edition

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

Though this is at Fringe, note this is not a parody or deconstruction or any avant garde thing. This is the stage show based on — and performing — the various educational commercial-length shorts you (or your parents) likely grew up with back in the days of Saturday morning cartoons.

This production is by the energetic and highly-talented teens of CYT Indy (the local chapter of Christian Youth Theater). In the stage show, a young teacher is having trouble sleeping because she is worried about her first day at school. So the denizens of School House Rock come to her in a dream, to show how “learning is power” and that it lies within her, too.

This being a Fringe-length show, there are only several select numbers the kids get to do, but they do them well. And we even get a reference to the Pluto controversy when Interplanet Janet comes flying around.  

Support future artists, enjoy the memories, and maybe learn something. Remaining performances are 6 p.m. Friday and 1:30 p.m. Saturday at The Oasis (Shriners’ entrance of the Murat, on the north side), 502 N. New Jersey St.

 

Footlite brings on teen hit

By John Lyle Belden

“Bring it On: The Musical,” based on the popular movie, is about more than cheerleading and the fun of being in a dance crew. Aside from being about friendship, acceptance, honesty, dedication and keeping everything in perspective, it is an immersive look at teenage life.

A Young Artists Production of Footlite Musicals, the entire cast are teens playing high school students. There are no onstage adult roles, placing the audience solidly in the kids’ world, where what they feel, experience and want is all that matters. For Campbell (Sierra Shelton), that means a lifetime of dedication towards one goal: to lead her cheer team to a championship at Nationals. 

But fate — or perhaps something more — has disrupted her plans, and Campbell goes from cheer Captain at posh Truman High to one of the new seniors at Jackson High, a gritty school that had disbanded its cheerleading program. What Jackson does have, though, is a dedicated Dance Crew, led by Danielle (Sophia Araceli Hughes). Could this be Campbell’s ticket back to her “one perfect moment?” 

At this point,  one could predict all the teen-movie plot beats, and likely understanding this, writer Jeff Whitty (“Avenue Q”) and songwriters Tom Kitt, Amanda Green and Lin-Manuel Miranda toy with those expectations. The show is somewhat by-the-numbers to keep it comfortably entertaining, with enough tweaks to keep us engaged and help turn some tropes on their ear. One can recognize Miranda’s driving rap-patter in some numbers, but it works and adds to the contemporary feel with his present fame.

Shelton and Hughes are each solid in their leadership roles, great in voice, step and charisma. However, our hero is Erin Vaughn as Bridget, who goes from cheer-wannabe who has to settle for the mascot costume at Truman to becoming fully accepted into her class and Crew at Jackson — becoming a hottie without a cliche “makeover.” 

Supporting roles are well-played, despite less depth in their scripting. Addison Bartley as Eva is the most complex of these, cheerfully chewing scenery as the girl-next-door who isn’t as nice as she first seems (yes she goes to expremes, but didn’t we all as sophomores?). 

Fellow Truman squad members include Katherine Felli as Skylar, who frankly enjoys playing the blonde stereotype to the hilt; Bailey Harmon as her minion, Kylar; and Maxwell Catlow as he-man with a gooey center Steven.

The Jackson students feel a bit more real, including Nathan Brown as Randall, the school DJ; Devin McDuffy and Devon Cummings as Cameron and his best bud Twig, who has the hots for Bridget; and Jaelynn Keating and Evan Vaughan as Nautica and La Cienega, Danielle’s sassy crewmates. The show broke ground with the first transgender high school character on Broadway, and most refreshingly La Cienega is completely accepted in the Jackson High culture, with only one fleeting reference in the dialogue; Vaughan plays it all with attitude, but naturally.

This fun show was packed with cheer and dance fans on Sunday, and the momentum could carry over to its second (and final) weekend, Thursday through Sunday, Aug. 15-18, at 1847 N. Alabama St. Get info and tickets at www.footlite.org.

Kids play the darndest things

By John Lyle Belden

The Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre presented its Young Artist Program production of the popular musical “A Chorus Line” over the weekend (July 25-28). Considering the actors are all teenagers, one familiar with the show might ask, “Really?!” “Did they even do THAT song?”

Yes, and yes.

Putting aside that kids are usually quite familiar with the language and concepts expressed by the play’s young adult characters, director Emily Rogge Tzucker answers the concerns in her program note, stating that this story of Broadway “gypsies” giving their all for a possible chorus role is instructive to young aspiring performers. Not every singer or dancer will become a star; in fact, most don’t. In “Chorus Line,” nearly 30 are vying for eight spots – “four boys, four girls.” The musical, with book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, and songs by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban, humanizes those random faces we see in the background of every show, as each of the main contenders tells what brought them to this point in their lives.

Given the various school and youth programs (including YAP) around central Indiana, the Civic cast are all incredibly talented, a stage loaded with singing/dancing/acting “triple-threats.” And they gave excellent performances in this one-weekend run.

Outstanding performers included: Emily Chrzanowski, who as Diana nearly brought the house down twice, with “Nothing” and “What I Did for Love;” Katelyn Soards as sassy Sheila; Laney McNamar as stage veteran Cassie, stunning in “The Music and the Mirror;” Elie Anania as Val of the infamous “Dance Ten; Looks Three” number; Hayden Elefante as brash Bobby; and Jacob Schilling as troubled Paul. Luke Vreeman played Zach, the director of the show within the show – at first a godlike presence, eventually a man who has to make some hard decisions.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see these names (or any other listed in the program) again on stage here – or elsewhere.

Keep up with future Civic productions at civictheatre.org.

Fonseca Theatre’s journey through America with ‘Miss You Like Hell’

By Wendy Carson

In the style of an organization willing to challenge conventions, Fonseca Theatre Company stages it’s latest offering, “Miss You Like Hell,” in a garage-warehouse. The sets surround the audience and a trail divides it into four sections, which are mostly filled with rolling and swiveling chairs to help viewers follow the action.

This musical by Quiara Alegria Hudes, with music and lyrics by Erin McKeown, is the spiritual and physical journey of a mother and daughter as they travel across the United States. While on the surface this sounds like a cliche plot, there are a lot of story elements twisting and turning so that you are never quite sure exactly how you feel about the main characters at any time.

Beatriz (Sarah Zimmerman) says she has come to reconnect with her teenage daughter, Olivia (Sharmaine Ruth), who she has not seen in years. She seems genuinely worried about Olivia’s mental state after finding a blog post threatening suicide, but Beatriz has her own needs and agenda as well. Zimmerman does a skillful job meting out her character’s motivations in a way that makes you understand that no matter how many mistakes she has made, she is still a parent and ultimately loves her child, even if her actions don’t always seem that way.

Very reluctant at first, Olivia eventually embraces this adventure with her mom and discovers more about her family history, including the background of major events in her life. Ruth deftly swerves from belligerent brat to scared child to young adult seamlessly. Her performance shows the truth of what growing up means to a person as well as what it takes out of a child.

The rest of the cast compose a Greek chorus as well as their individual roles.

Paul Collier Hansen and Patrick Goss delightfully provide some much needed comic relief as Mo and Higgins, two best friends from Arkansas on a meaningful journey of their own. Ian Cruz is in rare form as Manuel, a possible love interest and convenient rescuer. Bridgette Ludlow charms us as Olivia’s most active blog respondent, as well as the strong dose of reality that she needs to grow. Paige Scott plays up her fierce side playing the various officers of the law that are encountered throughout the trip. Yolanda Valdivia is solid as Beatriz’s attorney, taking on her difficult immigration case. Dan Scharbrough gives his curmudgeonly best as a South Dakota bureaucrat and a Wyoming hotel manager. Some scenes are punctuated with a dancing ancestor, portrayed with bold grace by Camile Ferrera. Company founder Bryan Fonseca directs. Tim Brickley leads an excellent on-stage band.

The story begins in Philadelphia, our cradle of freedom, and ends in southern California, where part of the “wall” we hear so much about now stands. This examination of the American dream dwells on questions of heritage, culture, justice and rights. But above all, it is about family, the one we are born to, and the fellow travelers who become just as important to us.

This road trip is worth the journey, playing through July 28 at Kinney Group, 2425 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis (just a block from Fonseca Theatre’s new home, now under construction). Enter at the back doors. The venue gets rather warm in the summer weather, so dress light. Find info and tickets at FonsecaTheatre.org.