Footlite’s offering not your typical ‘holiday’ show

By John Lyle Belden

Some of the most interesting movies and plays are based on real events, especially those with can-you-believe-it novelty. That was especially the case with the legend of the Texas “Chicken Ranch” – a brothel that was an open secret for most of a century, named from its willingness to take poultry in payment during the Great Depression. It inspired the ZZ Top hit, “La Grange,” as well as the Broadway musical and 1982 film, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”

And now, Indy has “Whorehouse” in it! (“Lord have mercy on our souls!”) A home-grown production is playing through Dec. 10 at Footlite Musicals.

This seems an odd choice for the season – though everyone else has all the classics covered, so this does stand out. However, the play is set around Thanksgiving-to-Christmas time, sometime in the 1970s.

The Chicken Ranch has been running smoothly for generations, now under the watchful eye of Miss Mona (Julie Powers), with a friendly relationship with local Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd (Mike Bauerle). The house attracts young women who want something different from life, including Angel (Abby Okerson), who wants stability and away from violent pimps, and appropriately-named Shy (Molly Campbell).

But anti-crime and consumer-watch crusader Melvin P. Thorpe (Todd Hammer) has made exposing and closing the Chicken Ranch his next mission – pursuing fame and high TV ratings as well as a moral cause. Thanks to media exposure on televisions across Texas, the Best Little Whorehouse’s days are numbered.

Powers commands the stage well, along with Eryn Bowser as Mona’s assistant, Jewel. Hammer mentions in his program bio that Thorpe is a bucket-list role, and he certainly has fun with it – making him enjoyable to watch as well. Jim Nelms cuts a sweet “Sidestep” as the Texas Governor.

Needless to say, there is mature content (though no nudity) so this show is only for teens and older. It looks good,with a nicely designed and furnished set with the musical’s band visible playing in the parlor. The costumes appropriately range from sassy to classy.

As for the performance, overall it’s entertaining, and an alternative to all the Scrooges and Nutcrackers elsewhere, but what we saw left us feeling it could have been a lot better. Fortunately, off-key notes and missed dance steps can be fixed between shows, so we don’t want to come off as too critical (and others in the audience did enjoy it), just honest. Considering the high quality of previous productions at Footlite this year, perhaps we had set our expectations a bit high.

Find Footlite at 1847 N. Alabama St., or online at footlite.org.

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Bardfest: And now for something completely different

By John Lyle Belden

Yes, the title here is stolen from Monty Python, which has nothing to do with the third annual BardFest, now in Indianapolis – in the IndyFringe building – after a couple of years in Carmel. However, we are dealing with things that are British and unusual.

Shakespeare’s plays – aside from being public domain – tell such good stories that they lend themselves to numerous times and places. Thus the Bard’s three plays in this year’s festival get reinvented in interesting ways.

Thus BardFest 2017 presents:

* “Cymbeline,” presented by Garfield Shakespeare Company, a play with elements of both the Comedies and the Tragedies. Originally based on the legend of a British king during the Roman Empire, this version is in a parallel world right after the American Civil War – as though West Virginia had declared itself a separate kingdom, and the Republic was cool with it, as long as the taxes are paid. Adapted and directed by Anthony Johnson, it stars John Mortell as the title king, Ashley Chase Elliott as his Queen, Elisabeth Speckman as our heroine, Cymbeline’s daughter Imogen, and Chris Burton as heroic Posthumous (yes, his actual name in the play).

* “MacBeth,” presented by First Folio Productions, the familiar cursed tragedy adapted to a tense 90 minutes by director Carey Shea. Medieval Scotland is transformed into a modern urban wasteland, where King Duncan (Ryan Ruckman) keeps order like a local sheriff or police chief. He awards a title to faithful MacBeth (Adam Tran), who had just had that promotion prophesied to him by a trio of weird women (Nan Macy, Janice Hibbard and Leah Hodson) – didn’t they also say he would become king? Lady MacBeth (Devan Mathias) is just happy her husband is finally in line with her murderous plans to seize the crown. However, Duncan’s lieutenants Macduff (Chelsea Anderson) and Malcolm (Nathan Thomas) quickly become suspicious of the ambitious couple when the king is killed.

* “The Taming of the Shrew,” presented by Catalyst Repertory, freely adapted by Catalyst founder Casey Ross. The famous Shakespeare comedy finds its misogyny mutated into a sassy, outrageous sort of musical, using modern pop songs to help tell the story – this is not “Kiss Me Kate.” At a late-20th-century tropical resort, bawdy innuendoes fly as lusty lounge singer Petruchio (Davey Pelsue) seeks to tame curvy, catty Katherina (Hannah Elizabeth Boswell). Meanwhile, noble Lucentio (Bradford Reilly) slyly wins the heart of Kate’s younger sister Bianca (Abby Gilster). Will boss Baptista (Tony Armstrong) see his daughters married off in birth order? Did you ever think a rockin’ anthem by The Darkness could be made into a heartfelt ballad?

* And for purists… well, as close as you could get was a manic production of the comedy, “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged,” presented by the Improbable Fiction Theatre Company during the festival’s first weekend. The Reduced Shakespeare hit by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield was taken on by local thespians Ron Richards, Ryan T. Shelton and Adam Workman, under the direction of Christy Clinton with occasional necessary assistance from stage manager Tamara Rulon.

Remaining performances are on both IndyFringe stages at 719 E. St. Clair, Thursday through Sunday (Oct. 26-29). “Cymbeline” is the more family-friendly (though its length could test the patience of younger patrons), while “MacBeth” is very violent and “Shrew” is very not-for-kids. For information and tickets, visit www.indyfringe.org/bard-fest.

Wendy and I will try to get more in-depth reviews of the individual shows up tomorrow, and will link back to here.

‘Cabaret Poe’ returns with new site, fresh look and familiar chills

By John L. Belden and Wendy Carson

Quoth Wendy:

You always know that Halloween is approaching when Q Artistry launches its annual production of “Cabaret Poe.” This is not to disparage the show in any way – even after almost 10 years of shows, the audiences are still enthralled by it. In fact, a patron behind me was proudly seeing the show for the sixth time and still loved it just as much as the first.

This year’s show does mark another change of venue, this time in a small alcove on the fourth floor of Circle Centre Mall (in the heart of downtown Indy). Upon first entering the space, it seems very cramped and awkward. However, the company has turned this on its ear with inventive staging.

No longer do cast members leave the stage when not actively performing; instead they seat themselves throughout the crowd and become part of the audience, observering of the spectacle themselves. By utilizing the whole space as their stage, and with the addition of projection screens, they assure that there is not a bad seat in the house.

I was also quite impressed by the unique lighting effects utilized by designer Brent Wunderlich. From innovatively turning their black and grey hues to purples, to bathing the audience in a rainbow of colors during “Masque of the Red Death.”

Quoth John:

Oops, sorry Ben!  — Show creator Ben Asaykwee likes keeping it a surprise which of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and poems he has adapted for the evening’s Cabaret, and in which order. But it won’t give too much away to say that some pieces can be expected to appear, like the one about a heart that tells tales, or the quest for a rare cask of Spanish wine, or a certain obnoxious black bird…

Asaykwee presents it all with his catchy inventive songs, infused with dark humor, such as “Buried Alive,” “Dark (The Pit and the Pendulum),” and the recurring title theme. He also stars as one of three performer/narrators, the smugly sour Zoilus. His accomplices are two women, Morella and Berenice. On opening night, they were played by Julie Lyn Barber, a Cabaret Poe player since its first year, and Gerogeanna Smith Wade, a first-timer in this revue, but no stranger to the strange as a major player in the NoExit troupe. Some performances feature Q Artistry veterans Renae Stone and Jaddy Ciucci in the ladies’ roles. In addition, a ghostly dancing shadow is perfectly silently executed by Rebekah Taylor – she even gets a solo scene.

The lighting effects, projections, and shadow puppetry are new for this year, fitting seamlessly into the narratives and reducing the need for physical props. But then, the players do have us, the audience, to play with.

Quoth Wendy:

With the changes made, this was my favorite version of the show. “Cabaret” implies an intimacy different from other kinds of productions, and this presented it more effectively that in past shows.

Concludeth John:

So, it’s both old and new, familiar and surprising – like a 21st-century musical based on a nineteenth century writer. Performances run through Oct. 29. Get info and tickets at qartistry.org.

Footlite presents a class ‘Act’

By John Lyle Belden

I only have a vague memory of seeing the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg film, “Sister Act.” But you don’t have to have seen it at all to appreciate the Broadway musical version, presented by local talent at Footlite Musicals. Goldberg’s only connection to the stage edition was as producer, otherwise the show was stripped down to the general plot and rebuilt with original songs (by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater) and its own sense of fun.

Set in 1970s Philadelphia, aspiring singer Deloris Van Cartier (Morgan Webster) witnesses her manager and boyfriend, Curtis (Ollice Aurelius Nickson), commit murder. With the help of Eddie (Donald Marter), a cop with a crush on Deloris, she is hidden with a cloister of nuns at a church with its own problems. Attendance at services has been falling, and the choir is horrible – apparently each sister sings in a different key. Mother Superior (Karen Frye Knotts) prays fervently for help, but can this spoiled foul-mouthed lounge entertainer be the answer?

Webster seems a bit over the top at first, but that’s just Deloris being herself. As she, in disguise as a fellow nun, wins over the sisters, she grows on us as well. Knotts is maternally likable as the one old-fashioned resister to the choir’s new soulful style. The rest are mostly reminiscent of the quietly hip sisters of “Nunsense,” especially Sister Mary Patrick (Nina Stilabower) and shy postulant Sister Mary Robert (Bailey Jane Williams), who it’s fun to watch come out of her shell. Nickson is equal parts charming and menacing as he hunts for the woman whose testimony could put him away, accompanied by a goofy trio of henchmen, played by Daniel Draves, Josh Vander Missen and Jonathan Studdard. Marter makes the unlikely romantic hero “Sweaty” Eddie a character to root for. And W. Michael Davidson is a blessing as the church pastor, Monsignor O’Hara.

It’s all good music and good times, with a little drama, as this “Sister Act” makes a joyful noise and “Spreads the Love Around.” Performances are weekends through Oct. 8 at 1847 N. Alabama St., near downtown Indy. Call 317-926-6630 or visit Footlite.org.

Phoenix premiere: Search for understanding takes musical’s author ‘Home’

By John Lyle Belden

Nothing is what it appears in the Fun Home. Even the name disguises its purpose, being short for Funeral Home – but that doesn’t stop the kids who live there from writing it an upbeat commercial jingle. The house is immaculate, orderly and almost museum-like – an elaborate facade for the psychological chaos in its residents.

One of those kids, Alison Bechdel, grows up to be a popular queer cartoonist. As she reflects back on her unusual childhood and coming of age, she wants to write and draw it all as it really happened – not as she wants to remember it. That struggle plays out in the Tony-winning musical, “Fun Home” (based on her autobiographical graphic novel), making its Indiana premiere at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indy.

We meet today’s Alison (Cynthia Collins), young Alison (Amelia Wray) and, later, Alison in college (Ivy Moody).

The girl longs for attention from, and the teen connection to, her father, Bruce (Eric J. Olson), while helping mother, Helen (Emily Ristine), and brothers, John and Christian (Jacob McVay and Aiden Shurr), keep their home orderly. She finds herself having feelings she’s not sure others understand – she hates wearing dresses, she sees beauty in a muscular woman in short hair and a plaid shirt – unaware that in his own way, Dad understands.

How well he knew, and his true thoughts and feelings, Alison will never know.

In college, the young woman realizes what now seems obvious; she is a lesbian. She researches in books about sexuality, then learns hands-on from Joan (Teneh B.C. Karimu). After coming out to her parents, she gets their truth in return. And within weeks, her father is dead.

Our trio of Alisons excellently bring the story to life, especially charming Wray. Olson has a knack for making every role seem like it was written for him – this is no exception. Ristine perfectly portrays the longsuffering wife and mother, able to show so much in just an expression; her song, when Helen feels free to let her true feelings show, is the kind of moment that awards are given for.

Karimu presents the steadying influence of a good friend. And Brandon Alstott completes the cast as different characters, including Roy – a man who’s like an uncle to the kids, and much more to Bruce.

It’s easy to ride along on this emotional journey, because Alison isn’t the hero of her story (and neither can her father be, no matter how much she wishes it), she just wants to understand what makes her feel so different from the rest of the world. She’s still the girl who wants her Dad to lift her up, and through her search lifts him to examine the facets she can’t see clearly, no matter how hard she tries. She sees in her parents so many opportunities lost and abandoned, wondering what that bodes for her.

For all who feel different – maybe “queer” in either the traditional or LGBTQ sense – this show (presented in a single movie-length act) is highly recommended. Is it “fun”? Hard to say, but it can certainly feel like home.

This musical opens the final season at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) before the Phoenix moves to its new downtown location. It runs Thursdays through Sundays through Oct. 22. Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.PhoenixTheatre.org.

ATI’s truly beautiful ‘Bird’

By John Lyle Belden

La Cage - Michael Humphrey, Greg Grimes, Tim Hunt, Kenny Shepard and Don Farrell - photo credit - Zach Rosing
From left, Michael Humphrey, Greg Grimes, Don Farrell (as ZaZa), Kenny Shepherd and Tim Hunt on the stage of “La Cage aux Folles,” presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana at Carmel’s Center for the Performing Arts through Oct. 1. (Zach Rosing photo)

Hours after seeing the musical “La Cage aux Folles” (literally “The Birdcage,” its original film was also popularly mistranslated “Birds of a Feather”) presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana through Oct. 1, Wendy and I discussed whether this was truly a perfect performance.

Of course, anything can and does happen in live theatre, but without going into pointless nitpicking (issues only we noticed or that evaporate between weekends), this production can only be described as flawless – like the faux female stars of the nightclub of the show’s title, a hotspot on the French Riviera in the late 1970s.

Bill Book and Don Farrell are wonderful as the couple who own, run and live above La Cage, its emcee Georges and star diva (the Great ZaZa) Albin, respectively. Book is in top form, and Farrell is definitely the leading lady. Good thing, too – as the role of saucy butler/maid Jacob has “scene-stealer” written all over it, and Daniel Klingler plays it to the limit, with uproarious results.

Our happy couple is thrown into turmoil when their son, Jean-Michel (Sean Haynes) comes home engaged to – a woman! – Anne (Devan Mathias), the daughter of anti-gay government minister Mr. Dindon (Ken Klingenmeier). To make matters worse, Dindon and his wife (Mary Jane Waddell) would be arriving with Anne for dinner at their house the next day. The young man’s plan is for Georges to “straighten” up and for Albin to stay out of sight – but, of course, nothing ever goes as planned.

Again, great performances by handsome Haynes (Wendy said she could get lost in his eyes) and bubbly Mathias. Klingenmeier is appropriately stiff, and Waddell so nice as the wife who secretly yearns to cut loose; the couple also smoothly play the proprietors of a local cafe.

Speaking of supporting roles, the versatile John Vessels has fun here, especially as stage manager Francis. And then there are the beautiful Les Cagelles: singing, dancing “illusions” played by Greg Grimes, Michael Humphrey, Tim Hunt and Kenny Shepard. Chez magnifique!

Judy Fitzgerald completes the cast, shining as fun-loving restaurateur and welcome friend Jacqueline.

La Cage aux Folles” was first a French play in 1973, then a film in 1978, and brought to Broadway (adapted by Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman) in the early ’80s. You’d think that after 40 years, a story like this would feel quaint and dated; alas, it’s as relevant as ever. This production, directed by Larry Raben with choreography by Carol Worcel, lets the weight of its subtext float on an atmosphere of fun. Scene changes are swirling dance routines, a laugh is never far from the tear, and the arch-conservative does get his well-deserved comeuppance. The songs include timeless anthems “I Am What I Am” and “The Best of Times (is Now),” each as defiant in their own way as they are memorable – and wonderfully executed here.

It’s a good time to go “bird” watching: Performances are at the Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get tickets at thecenterpresents.org. Find info on this and other ATI shows at atistage.org or facebook.com/ActorsTheatreOfIndiana.

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.