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.

Footlite’s sweet ‘Dream’

By John Lyle Belden

Simply put, the Footlite Musicals’ production of “Dreamgirls” is a triumph.

The whole show gives off energy, channeled through the performances of our Dreamettes/Dreams – Deena (Kat Council), Lorrell (Tiffany Gilliam) and especially Effie (Rayanna Bibbs) – along with Effie’s songwriting brother C.C. (Tyler Futrell), ambitious manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (Ollice Nickson), faithful Marty (Jalil Stephens) and the electric James “Thunder” Early (Brenton Anderson).

In a story inspired by the struggles of African-American singers, especially girl groups, to make it big in the mainstream music scene in the 1960s, a hopeful trio from Chicago enters the famous Apollo Amateur Night in New York. They don’t win, but get their break as Taylor, then a car salesman, exploits opportunities and arranges for the Dreamettes to back Early under Marty’s management. From there, their arc goes upward, even if it takes cash payola to get their songs on the charts over white imitators. Taylor’s manipulations become more and more brazen, until Marty quits and Effie finds herself replaced (by Michelle [Vanessa Web]) and left crying backstage. Act II finds our characters in the 1970s and the transition from R&B to disco. How has success, or lack thereof, treated our Dreamgirls?

If you know how that turns out – see it for the beauty and power of it in your presence again. If you haven’t, see it, it’s one heck of a show. If you have only seen the movie (excellent in its own way), see the difference with its inventively single set and churning pace. Feel the heat from Early’s performances. Get blasted by Effie’s pipes.

Hats off to director Damon Clevenger, something this good couldn’t happen by accident.

And I am telling you, you should be going – to the Hedback Theatre, 1847 N. Alabama St., weekends through May 21. Call 317-926-6630 or see www.footlite.org.

Can you see the children sing?

By John Lyle Belden

For sheer ambition alone, the children and teens of Agape Performing Arts Company should be commended for their production of the musical “Les Miserables.” And as is often the case with student theatre around Indy, you’ll enjoy this show even if you don’t know the kids involved.

The dozens of youths in cast, crew and orchestra give tremendous energy to the sweeping Victor Hugo saga of redemption, love and revolution in 19th-century France. The production acquired a rotating stage, and made an easily-assembled but stageworthy Barricade that was swiftly put together and disassembled. One death scene utilizes a Hollywood-style stunt fall. Costuming and makeup are excellent.

And while one can forgive the limitations of youth and experience as the actors bravely take on the near-operatic almost non-stop singing, there were some genuine stand-outs, including Samantha Koval as Fantine, Olivia Ortmann as Eponine, Eli Robinson as Javert, Connor Cleary as Marius and Alex Bast as Enjolras. Luan Arnold holds the center of the show as Jean Valjean. Young charismatic Aaron Sickmeier is a Broadway-quality Gavroche. Thomas Tutsie and Hannah Phipps do a gritty good job as the Threnardiers. And as a mild comedy relief character, the drunken member of the student revolutionaries, Christopher Golab is the best Grantaire I’ve seen in any “Les Mis” production.

Agape, a youth arts ministry of Our Lady of the Greenwood Catholic Church, performs the School Edition of the musical, so some language is softened – often cleverly – but not too jarring for those familiar with the original lyrics. Still, the story deals with topics including prostitution, death and war, so it is still “PG” in content. As adult director Kathy Phipps points out in her program Note, the play suits a Christian company as it tells the story of redemption and reaching for goodness, contrasted with a character who thinks he’s serving God by his inflexible adherence to the law.

This production has just one weekend of performances, through Sunday, April 9, at the Knights of Columbus McGowan Hall, 1305 N. Delaware St. in downtown Indianapolis. Tickets are just $10 each, less for students, at www.thelittleboxoffice.com/agape.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

At TOTS: A story of street-lights people who don’t stop believin’

By John Lyle Belden

The rock hits of the 1980s form the tapestry of “Rock of Ages,” the Broadway musical in its first local production at Theatre on the Square.

Sarah Hoffman plays Sherrie, a small-town girl, livin’ in a lonely world; Davey Pelsue is Drew (a/k/a aspiring rocker Wolfgang von Cult), a city boy, born and raised in South Detroit – you know how the song goes.

They work at the Bourbon Room, an LA bar and club owned by Dennis Dupree (Dave Ruark) with Lonny (John Kern), our Narrator – they want nothing but a good time, and it don’t get better than this.

But foreign developer Hertz Kleinaman (Bryan D. Padgett) and son Franz (Zach Ramsey) have plans to tear down the Sunset Strip. When City Planner Regina Kuntz (Andrea Heiden) objects, the Mayor (Josiah McCruiston) fires her, so she leads the resistance, reminding all that they built this city on rock and roll.

Facing the final countdown, the Bourbon Room has one last show, headlined with newly-solo rock god Stacee Jaxx (Thomas Cardwell) and featuring Wolfgang’s debut. In all that’s happening, Drew loses Sherrie, and it will take more than words to win her back. And yes, “Oh, Sherrie” is also in the show (but not the title song, as they couldn’t get rights to Def Leppard’s hits).

This exceptional, energetic cast includes Paige Scott as “Mama” Justice, owner of the nearby Venus Gentleman’s Club; Jonathan Krouse as Joey Primo, Jaxx’s replacement in Anvil; a dancing chorus including Jessica Hawkins, Jordan Fox, Tessa Gibbons, Katherine Jones, Janice Hibbard and Jessica Hughes; and Hannah Boswell as the wonderfully anonymous Waitress No. 1. Director Ty Stover let Boswell expand her role to help smooth scene changes, she said, and she has become an audience favorite.

Not everyone is radio-perfect in reproducing the old FM-band tunes, but this isn’t meant to be a revue. Some lyrics and verses are altered by context, and some songs nicely mashed-up, to serve the musical’s story. The performers front-and-center, however, are stellar – especially Hoffman, as well as Pelsue, who delivers as though this musical was written for him.

The show is incredibly fun, whether you remember the decade of big hair and big attitudes, or only know the 30-year-old songs (yes, that old) from the Classic Rock station. The onstage bar actually offers retro sodas and beer before each act, and cast members occasionally cross the fourth wall to sit with you.

Got too much time on your hands? You have no excuse not to see this. Here they go again at TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave., through April 1. Call 317-685-8687 or visit www.tots.org.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Footlite show on a ‘Cole’-fired ship

By John Lyle Belden

With so much drama around us, sometimes it’s nice to indulge in a light musical: All aboard, then, for a “De-Lovely” voyage aboard the SS American in Footlite Musicals’ production of “Anything Goes.”

The comic plot involves love, gangsters on the lam, and a lot of silly disguises and misunderstandings. Billy Crocker (Trenton Baker) wants to stop his girl Hope Harcourt’s (Sydney Norwalk) ill-advised marriage to English “gentleman” Sir Evelyn Oakleigh (Ryan Straut), and gets aid from “America’s Thirteenth-Most-Wanted” Moonface Martin (Tom Bartley) and song-and-dance sensation Reno Sweeney (Susie Harloff).

While that’s good for some laughs, the show’s main purpose is as a delivery vehicle for the hits of Cole Porter (“You’re the Top,” “De-Lovely,” “Friendship,” “I Get a Kick out of You,” “Blow Gabriel Blow” and more, including the title tune) and at that, this production delivers.

Norwalk makes a shining Footlite debut; Baker provides his triple-threat credentials; and Harloff, with the help of Reno’s Angels (Kristen Tschiniak, Becca DeTar, Tara Roberds and Nicole Bridgens) takes charge of the ship with dynamite song and dance numbers (with much credit due to Trish Roberds’ choreography). Straut’s frantic fop is a hoot, and Bartley’s comic chops are spot on, aided by another brilliant performance by Emily Schaab as Martin’s accomplice, Bonnie. Craig Kemp adds to the laughs with his hard-luck businessman, Elisha Whitney (Crocker’s boss). Also impressive are dancing sailors Kyle Cherry and Noah Fields.

The book is admittedly a little dated – and director Kathleen Clarke Horrigan admits as much in her opening curtain speech – but this old gem still entertains. Performances are weekends through March 19 at 1847 N. Alabama St., near downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

ATI hosts one wild wedding

By John Lyle Belden

“It Shoulda Been You” is a freewheeling comedy musical in a single movie-length act, presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana through Feb. 12 at The Studio Theater in The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

The setting is a wedding held at a hotel, with all its comic potential – especially when the bride and groom come from different backgrounds. Rebecca Steinberg (Laura Sportiello) is from a middle-class Jewish family, while her fiancé Brian Howard (Michael Ferraro) is from well-to-do WASPs. Tasked with not letting this blessed occasion become a disaster is Rebecca’s unmarried older sister Jenny (Karaline Feller), who fortunately has the help of magically fabulous wedding planner Albert (John Vessels).

Bring on the inevitable clash of personalities between Rebecca’s parents, Murray (Matthew Reeder) and Judy (Judy Fitzgerald), and Brian’s parents George and Georgette (Bill Book and Cynthia Collins); and mix in Maid of Honor Annie (Teneh B.C. Karimu) and Best Man Greg (Jeff Pierpoint) – who are more a part of the upcoming marriage than anyone suspects – Rebecca’s ex-boyfriend Marty (Nic Eastlund), and the assorted roles played by Paul Hansen and Holly Stults, and you have a volatile combination that results in hilarity with a welcome happy ending for all.

The songs are snappy, adding to the punchlines and helping the story along. The cast is excellent in voice and comic form. Vessels puts his scene-stealing skills to excellent use, and you can’t help but feel for Sportiello’s Jenny from the moment she opens the show through to when she utters its last line.

Having this play in the intimate confines of the Studio Theater adds to the close familial atmosphere, and even facilitates one actor’s entrance. To get everyone in the mood, there is a Guestbook as you enter the theater, and ushers let you know as you are seated whether you are on the bride or groom’s side. A necessary salute, then, to director Bill Jenkins and the crew for a fun production, including an elegantly simple, yet simply elegant set by P. Bernard Killian.

And by the way, I’m leaving out a surprising plot twist – see it for yourself!

For information and tickets, call 317-843-3800 or visit atistage.org.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Big fun at ‘Little Shop’

By John Lyle Belden

The horror movie-turned-musical “Little Shop of Horrors” has set up at Indy’s Footlite Musicals through the end of the month. And for its many fans, that’s all I need to say.

For the unfamiliar, it is the story of nerdy flower-shop worker Seymour, who discovers an unusual plant that makes the shop prosper and him famous. The one downside: the plant feeds on human blood. Then there’s sweet Audrey, who Seymour is sweet on and even names the plant after, but she has an abusive sadistic boyfriend – as the song goes, “He sure looks like plant food to me!”

Phil Criswell handles the many shades of Seymour, from coward to reluctant hero. Michael Davis is good as well, as shopkeeper Mr. Mushnik. John Kern more than earns his keep by not only playing the sadistic dentist boyfriend, but practically every other supporting character.

Emily Schaab is an excellent Audrey – while she doesn’t have the voice of Ellen Greene (who sang the role on Broadway and in the film) she doesn’t make the mistake of trying to sound like her, making this role her own.

Audrey II is ably handled by puppeteer Theo Vanore with the unmistakable voice of Tristan Ross.

And it’s all backed by a wonderful chorus – both in the doo-wop and Greek sense – of Rayanna Bibbs, Rachel Bibbs, Iloni Cospy, Adrienne Dixon and Bianca Cureton. Hopefully at least one of these women will reappear in Footlite’s production of “Dreamgirls” in May.

While it may be cliché to say this is a fun show, it’s hard to think of a better adjective. The pacing is smooth and the songs dare you to sing along (actually, there is one moment of audience participation). Note that if you have only seen the 1986 Frank Oz film, there are some different songs and a different ending.

Find Footlite at 1847 N. Alabama St.; call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.