Paige Scott and EclecticPond boldly bringing Bronte to today’s audience

By John Lyle Belden

EclecticPond Theatre Company brushes off a dusty classic with “J. Eyre,” bringing new life to Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel “Jane Eyre” as a contemporary musical.

The style is modern, but the English countryside setting of this gothic romance remains. The actors’ clothes evoke the period rather than copy it. In fact, the style of this production – through July 30 at Grove Haus near Indy’s Fountain Square – focuses primarily on the story of relationships and the people swept up in them.

The seven actors never leave the stage, with all providing narration, singularly or in harmony, throughout. Two of them each portray a single role, Devan Mathias as Jane and Tim Hunt as Edward Rochester, while the others – Miranda Nehrig, Mary Margaret Montgomery, Abby Gilster, Chelsea Leis and Carrie Neal – chameleon from one supporting character to another.

Written and directed by Paige Scott, the musical’s story largely follows the book: Orphan Jane endures a wretched childhood, including abuse at the hands of her aunt and cousin, and the death of her only school friend (Montgomery) in a typhus outbreak. She then takes a job as governess for a girl in the care of crude, spoiled playboy Rochester. But Jane falls in love with him – realizing her feelings as he prepares to marry gold-digger Blanche (Nehrig) – and when it looks like she will finally find happiness, she finds out his terrible secret. (In case you didn’t read or don’t remember the novel from your literature classes, I’ll leave it there.)

The sung narrative interludes between scenes aid the flow of the story without interrupting it, and relieves one of the need to have read it beforehand to understand its events. Scott’s songs feel like they’ve always been a part of this classic, rather than freshly written. Her captivating adaptation of the novel suggests the script for an autumn Oscar-bait movie. Add in excellent performances by the cast and keyboard accompanist Jacob Stensberg, and this is the kind of show that, if presented Off-Broadway, would soon find itself under the big lights.

You can find “J. Eyre” at 1001 Hosbrook Street; and tickets and info at eclecticpond.org.

CrazyLake’s ‘Chaperone’ shines

By John Lyle Belden

CrazyLake Acting Company in Greenfield has tackled musicals and comedies, so naturally, it now stages “The Drowsy Chaperone: A Musical Within a Comedy.” And it is worth the drive out to the heart of Hancock County.

(Full disclosure: John & Wendy are long-time friends and supporters of CrazyLake director Christine Schaefer [who also directs KidsPlay Inc. children’s theatre], and John used to work with one of this show’s stars, Noelle Steele, editor of the Greenfield Daily Reporter. Still – this is a good show!)

A “Man in Chair” (Trever Brown) speaks to us enthusiastically about his love of musical theater, and especially his recording of the mythical 1928 classic, “The Drowsy Chaperone.” As he plays the record, the musical comes to life in his apartment. He picks up the needle from time to time to explain to us the context and what became of the original actors.

The plot of the show within the show deals with a wedding to be hosted at the lavish home of Mrs. Tottendale (Carie McMichael), who is attended by faithful Underling (Ross McMichael). The groom is handsome oil heir Robert Martin (Austin Fisher), accompanied by Best Man, George (Matt Little); the bride is popular “Follies” star Janet Van De Graaff (Elisabeth Orr), whose Chaperone (Steele) gets “drowsy” from the contents of her flask. Show producer Feldzeig (Jake Hobbs) – shadowed by ditzy chorine Kitty (Alexandra Kern) – has to get Janet out of the wedding and back on the stage or gangster enforcers (Corey Yeaman and Jim Vetters), disguised as chefs, will pound him into their next pastry. Also in attendance is famous Latin lover, Adolpho (Luke Agee), to advance the plot. Deus ex machina duty goes to Trix the Aviatrix (Jamie McDowell).

From the start and throughout there is an atmosphere of silly fun, making the story within enjoyable. Brown easily fits the Man’s sweater; he helps us feel his devotion to and obsession with this stage gem, giving even the most odd moments and trite old lyrics weight as we see the musical through one who has studied it intensely.

For their part, the musical’s cast pull off the show excellently. While I note that this is an all-volunteer community theatre, Shaefer’s work sets a high standard – and, with the help of musical director and choreographer Amy Studabaker, they achieve it.

Steele, Orr, Fisher, Little, the McMichaels and Hobbs aquit themselves like pros. Agee goes big without being over-the-top, and if there were awards CrazyLake could qualify for, I’d nominate Kern for Best Supporting in making Kitty’s moments stand out.

For the fun, the laughs, the old-time stage nostalgia, fly on down to Greenfield – at the Ricks Centre for the Arts, 122 W. Main St. – and see “The Drowsy Chaperone” in one of its remaining performances, Friday and Saturday (July 21-22). Tickets are $10 each at crazylake.com.

Catch ‘Big Fish’ at Footlite

By John Lyle Belden

Nothing is as entertaining as a good story, and in “Big Fish,” on stage through July 23 at Footlite Musicals, we meet a man whose life is full of them.

This recent Broadway musical, based on the 2003 Tim Burton film (and 1998 Daniel Wallace novel), is Footlite’s Young Adult production (with a couple of older actors), directed by Kathleen Clarke Horrigan.

Edward Bloom (Kyle Cherry) believes one should be the hero of his story, and tells his young son, Will (Rocco Meo), one fantastical tale after another. But by the time he grows up, adult Will (Drew Bryson) sees his father as a mystery shrouded in self-made myths. Then, as Edward’s health starts to fail, Will quests for the truth – and finds a new understanding of the man who met a witch, befriended a giant, joined the circus and saved a town.

Edward’s stories come to life through the magic of the stage. We see him encounter a mermaid (Tessa Gibbons), and later the witch (Tayler Seymour) who tells him how he will die. Rather than despair, the news gives him confidence to face any dangerous situation knowing “that’s not how it ends.” So he bravely confronts Karl the Giant (Zachary Hoover) and has himself shot out of a cannon so he can meet and propose to beautiful redheaded Sandra (Regan Desautels).

The show features some memorable songs (“Be the Hero,” “Fight the Dragons,” “Stranger,” “Start Over”) and dance breaks – the Alabama Stomp is guaranteed to bring fish to the surface – as well as solid performances. Aside from actors listed so far, notable cast members include Samantha Russell as Jenny Hill, Edward’s high school sweetheart; Noah Nordman as Don Price, the classmate who returned to Ashton, Ala., after college; and Jeff Reeves, showing the youngsters how it’s done as circus boss Amos Calloway.

Footlite’s production is a beautiful tribute to the bond between fathers and sons, strong even when frayed, as well as the importance of stories and the power of love. Just don’t be surprised if your heart hesitates whenever you see daffodils.

During the run of the show, there is a fundraiser in the lobby benefiting cancer charities.

Find Footlite at 1847 N. Alabama St., just north of downtown Indy; call 317-926-6630 or visit footlite.org.

Bobdirex’s ‘Notre Dame’ rings true

By John Lyle Belden

Upon hearing that Bob Harbin and his Bobdirex productions are staging “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” a musical featuring the Alan Menken/Stephen Schwartz songs of the 1996 Disney animated film, you might wonder (as I did): Bob likes to go big and take chances, but didn’t the movie “Disney-fy” the Victor Hugo novel, making it too saccharine with an entirely-too-happy ending?

Take heart, purists. While there are a number of similarities to the animated version (and nearly all performed versions through the years have taken some liberties with Hugo’s text), this musical – originally produced in Germany by Disney Theatricals in 1999 – embraces the darker aspects of the story and doesn’t shy from its tragic elements.

This show effectively uses multiple members of the cast as narrators through the story, but most of that job falls to Clopin (Keith Potts), king of the Gypsies. We begin with how Frollo (Bill Book), the Archdeacon of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, came to adopt and raise Quasimodo (Jacob Butler), a severely deformed young man who lives sheltered among the church bells, tasked with ringing them. With no living human friends, he talks to the bells, the Saints’ statues and his fellow grotesques, the Gargoyles (Curtis Peters, Matt Rohrer and April Armstrong-Thomas).

The annual Festival of Fools draws Quasimodo out into the church courtyard, where, after meeting beautiful dancer Esmeralda (Shelbi Berry), he is crowned by Clopin as “King of the Fools.” But this king is mocked rather than honored, and Quasimodo returns to his bell tower.

The gypsy girl’s beauty draws the notice of not only the Hunchback, but also the Captain of the Guard Phoebus (Logan Moore) and Frollo. The Archdeacon struggles to convert his carnal longings into a desire to save her soul, and decides that if he can’t make her pure in his hands, he’ll have it done by fire.

The result is a stirring story of struggle between the sacred and profane, and how the line blurs between them. An ever-present choir punctuates scenes with chants like Kyrie Eleison, completing the atmosphere of the well-built Gothic set. The show’s Disney influences give it energy and welcome touches of humor, but isn’t overdone.

Harbin has not let us down, as we get excellent performances from all, especially Book and Potts, each charismatic in their own way. Berry is stunning. And Butler gives an award-worthy performance as our unlikely hero.

Once again, Bobdirex has delivered a must-see show, with performances Thursday through Sunday (June 29-July 2) and July 7-9 at the Marian University Theatre, 3200 Cold Spring Road, Indianapolis. Thursday, June 29, all military members get in free, with discounts for their companions. For more information, call 317-280-0805 or visit bobdirex.com.

Girl seeks protection from the forces of history in ‘Golem of Havana’ at Phoenix Theatre

By John Lyle Belden

Just the title of the new musical playing at the Phoenix Theatre, “The Golem of Havana,” suggests the complex nature of its story, but the various threads weave together into a fascinating historical tapestry, set in Cuba during its 1950s Revolution.

The title entity is dreamed up by a Jewish girl in Havana, inspired by the legends her family brought with them from eastern Europe (having survived the Nazis and gotten away from Soviet occupiers). Rebecca (Lydia Burke) creates a homemade comic book about the Golem – a giant clay guardian crafted and enchanted by a Rabbi to protect the people – that followed the Jews across the ocean to continue its service.

Her father, Pinchas (Eric J. Olson), is a struggling tailor living on dreams, while her mother, Yutka (Lori Ecker), tries to keep his ambitions grounded. Meanwhile, family friend and government policeman Arturo (Carlos Medina Maldonado) promises to help them through his connections.

Rebecca befriends the family’s black Cuban maid, Maria (Teneh B.C. Karimu), who worries about the fate of her son, Teo (Ray Hutchins), who has joined the Revolutionaries. While praying for her son’s safe return, Maria introduces Rebecca to her faith in the goddess Yemaya, and at a time when the Hebrew god seems so distant, this local deity feels more responsive when it seems, at first, that things are changing for the better.

But the faith and humanity of all are tested when Teo arrives at the family home, injured, and hunted by authorities seeking to execute him. Yutka confronts conflicting urges to protect the man or to turn him away and protect her family, while remembering what happened to her and her sister (Betsy Norton) when they were betrayed to the Nazis in Hungary.

The cast also features Wheeler Castaneda, Rob Johansen, and Paul Nicely as Cuban President Fulgencio Batista.

The songs and music (under the musical direction of Karimu) flow nicely with the story. Under the steady hand of director Bryan Fonseca, the gripping drama of people caught in the changing tides of history keeps the focus on the heroic and tragic stories of individuals rather than the background events – a good thing, since neither the doomed Batista regime nor the imminent Castro victory are celebrated by history.

Burke gives us an appealing and endearing character. Hutchins reveals the pain that informs Teo’s choices. Olson’s happy optimist and Ecker’s pragmatic pessimist show how opposites do attract and make a family we can root for. Maldonado also does well in his layered portrayal of a man of mixed loyalties. Nicely shows his skill in revealing just enough humanity in a cold-hearted character to make him truly frightening.

As Rebecca says, stories matter, and “The Golem of Havana” matters not just as a Jewish story or a Cuban story, but also as a human story. It runs through July 16 on the Phoenix mainstage at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) in downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

BCP’s ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ here to steal your heart

By John Lyle Belden

Is it a “spoiler” if you already know the ending?

The musical “Bonnie & Clyde” – through June 25 at Buck Creek Players – opens with our titular characters dying from a rain of bullets on a Louisiana road in 1934. But this historical fact is not what is important in this show by Ivan Menchell and Don Black with music by Frank Wildhorn of “Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical.” We aren’t given the gore of their story; this play is an exploration of what made a young man and woman from Texas into the Romeo and Juliet of Depression-era crime.

Bonnie and Clyde musical publicity shot
Joseph Massingale and Annie Miller as Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker in the musical “Bonnie & Clyde” presented by Buck Creek Players.

After the opening tableau, we turn back to see a boy – young Clyde Barrow (Jordan Anness), a child of the West Dallas slums, become a career criminal at 12 and aspire to outshine the Roaring Twenties’ outlaws. We also meet a girl – young Bonnie Parker (Lauren Sciaudone), whose family’s hard times landed her and her mother in West Dallas, but she still plans to make it big one day in Hollywood.

These kids grow to be adults (Joseph Massingale and Annie Miller) in a world of dust and hard times – at one point our couple robs a bankrupt bank. Clyde is the only one who takes Bonnie’s dreams seriously, so they fall in love so deeply that even his stays in jail can’t keep them apart. As she joins him on his “jobs,” Bonnie gives up on the movies and aspires to fame in the pages of true-crime magazines and having her poetry published.

Meanwhile, Clyde’s brother, Buck (Levi Hoffman), gets in on the action with even his upstanding wife Blanche (Miranda Nehrig) drawn into the Barrow Gang. On the other side of the law, Deputy Ted Hinton (Jonathan Krouse), who had long been in love with Bonnie, joins in pursuit of the outlaws with Sheriff Smoot Schmid (James Hildreth) under the lead of Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Kurt F. Clemenz).

The story presented neither demonizes nor glorifies the people involved, or their actions, but puts them in the context of their times and the contradictions that surrounded them – including the murderous thieves staying true to their families, going to meet them at the risk of their own safety. Some license is taken with the story, but it does stay surprisingly true to recorded events. A small video screen above the stage shows photos from the era, including mugshots, to underscore the truth of these scenes.

While rakishly handsome Massingale and charming beauty Miller excellently hold the center of the show in both voice and acting (and some resemblance to their real-life counterparts), supporting roles also shine. Nehrig’s Blanche telling Buck “You’re Going Back to Jail” is a wonderful highlight and an excellent example of the musical’s use of humor to balance the drama. Krouse gives us a heartbreaking glimpse of what Bonnie could have had in steadfast Ted. Molly Kraus is also noteworthy as Bonnie’s mother, Emma.

Director D. Scott Robinson’s passion for the show (which had a brief run on Broadway) is evident in the finished product.

Being a volunteer non-profit, BCP could “afford” to have the large enthusiastic cast and crew necessary to this musical, all “pros” in their own way. The effective yet elegantly simple stage set includes an exceptional replica of the front end of Clyde’s V-8 Ford, hand-built by set designer Aaron B. Bailey.

But the car’s fenders are clean and free of bullet holes. This is the story before that moment; a story of love and hard decisions in difficult times, the slow and steady progress of justice, and of running from the inevitable when the best you can hope for is to reach the end of the road together.

Find Buck Creek Playhouse at 11150 Southeast Ave. (Acton Road Exit off I-74); call 317-862-2270 or see www.buckcreekplayers.com.

OnyxFest: New voices bring truth, drama and song

OnyxFest takes the stages of the IndyFringe Theatre this weekend and May 19-20. The festival is devoted to the stories of African-American playwrights.

According to the festival press release: A recent survey reveals the number of productions written by African Americans in a single year is as low as five percent. IndyFringe recognizes this lack of diversity and seeks to change the landscape of local theatre by bringing together storytellers, actors and audiences in its two theatres. OnyxFest is determined to be the vehicle to expose theatre-goers to the voices and talent of new and emerging black playwrights.

The four plays selected for this year’s OnyxFest are:

“The Quilting” by Mijiza Holiday of Indianapolis, an autobiographical play that depicts the abuse the playwright’s mother endured and how her strength had the ability to heal.

“Black Lives Matter (Too)” by Angela Jackson-Brown and Ashya Thomas of Muncie, one part play and one part story poem that explores the struggles and triumphs of black people from slavery to the present.

“Truth – The One Man Show” by Ryan Bennett of Indianapolis, the culmination of 152 years of truth coming from the souls of four individuals: Silas Christian, a runaway slave; Harley Wallace, a Ku Klux Klan member; Malik Muhammad, a civil rights activist and Jackson Thomas, a misguided young man, all of whom are fighting for their families.

“The Wedding Bells: A Musical about Tying the Knot” with book and lyrics by Nicole Kearney of Indianapolis, music by Warren Lankford. Bride-to-be Etta receives an unexpected visit from her ex-husband as she prepares for her wedding. As she and her bridesmaids try to deal with him without telling the groom, chaos ensues. Will her past ruin her future?

IndyFringe is located 719 E. St. Clair St. (just east of St. Clair/College/Mass Ave. intersection) and online at www.indyfringe.org.