Phoenix blesses us with ‘Rosewater’

By John Lyle Belden

The Phoenix Theatre, at its new home at 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indy, is off to a great start with the musical of “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” – by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken (one of their first collaborations) from the novel by Indiana’s own Kurt Vonnegut – playing through June 3.

The title refers to Eliot Rosewater, son of a millionaire U.S. Senator, who manages the family foundation which gives money to practically everyone who asks. But being generous is not enough to soothe his conscience, bothered by his actions in World War II that resulted in the death of German volunteer firemen. So he disappears from his New York office and pops up at volunteer firehouses across America, seeking his purpose until he finds it – at the family home in Rosewater County, Indiana.

Aside from the significance of telling an Indiana story by a Hoosier author, performing a satire about greed in today’s political climate, and having a show with science-fiction elements (the Phoenix’s very first show years ago, “Warp,” was sci-fi themed), it is notable that this musical is playing during May, Mental Health Awareness Month.

Psychological well-being is at the heart of the Rosewater story, from Eliot’s serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder, to the Senator insisting that no son of his would be “nuts,” to the plot hanging on our hero being insane because he actually considers those “beneath” him to be worthy of dignity – even equals. This latter disorder is too much for his wife to bear, driving her mad to the other extreme: only able to function among the very rich. Even Eliot’s well-meaning signs, saying, “DON’T KILL YOURSELF; CALL THE ROSEWATER FOUNDATION,” point to the need to encourage people to seek necessary help.

Patrick Goss wins our heart as Eliot, surrounded by a top-notch cast that includes Emily Ristine as his wife, Sylvia, and Phoenix founding member Charles Goad as Sen. Rosewater. Isaac Wellhauen is nicely conniving as financial advisor Norman Mushari, who finds a way to divert the Rosewater millions to long-ignored members of the family (for a hefty fee, of course). Suzanne Fleenor, another Phoenix founder and “Warp” veteran, plays Eliot’s psychiatrist. Other parts are also taken by familiar faces: Jean Childers Arnold, Scot Greenwell, Rob Johansen, Devan Mathias, Josiah McCruiston, Deb Sargent, Peter Scharbrough, Diane Boehm Tsao, and Mark Goetzinger as McCallister, the family banker.

Little bits of sci-fi poke in from time to time in true Vonnegut fashion, as the show is also a tribute to the greatest SF writer who never lived, Kilgore Trout. Like the best of the misunderstood genre, the otherworldy perspective allows us to get a fresh perspective on our very human behavior (and gives the props and costumes folks something to have fun with).

The songs and script show the spark of the genius that gave us “Little Shop of Horrors” and those Disney classics. The look and performances are well worthy of the beautiful new space, another triumph for director Bryan Fonseca.

The new theatre has plenty of room, and plenty of free parking, so go check it out. Info and tickets at www.phoenixtheatre.org or call 317-635-7529.

Advertisements

Get on board ‘Priscilla’ with Footlite Musicals

By John Lyle Belden

To my gay friends reading this, I have just two words to say about “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical” (based on the film “The Adventures of Priscilla…”), at Footlite Musicals through May 20:

FABULOUS! GO!

Need more details? OK. This spectacle is the journey of three Sydney, Australia, drag queens: Tick a/k/a Mitzi (Michael Howard), who wants to connect with the son he barely knows; Bernadette (John Phillips), a widow and aging diva needing to find her next chapter; and Adam a/k/a Felicia (Chris Jones), an impetuous lass in search of fun and adventure.

Tick’s very understanding wife, Marion (Carolyn Lynch), needs an act for her casino in Alice Springs (located in the center of the Australian continent, far from coastal Sydney) and his traveling there would fulfill Tick’s promise to visit his boy, Benji (Rocco Meo). Bernadette provides the showbiz know-how, and Adam provides the transportation – a fabulous RV that is the Priscilla of the title. While the wildlife ignore our trio, the treacherous part of the journey is the human denizens as they travel through Australia’s equivalent of Kentucky (Broken Hill, Woop Woop) and West Virginia (Coober Pedy). Along the way, they do meet one helpful soul, Bob (Dan Flahive), who ends up along for the ride.

Howard presents Tick with charm, charisma and rugged good looks reminiscent of Hugh Jackman. Phillips exudes authority appropriate to a, at turns, regal and maternal personality. Jones goes from carefree to careless and back with aplomb, like the younger sibling you just want to slap sometimes, but love anyway. And Flahive is sweet in his portrayal of what was my favorite character in the film.

Also notable are Sarah Marone as Bob’s mail-order bride Cynthia, of the infamous “ping pong scene,” and Dennis Jones as Sydney diva Miss Understanding.

The story is embellished with more than 20 pop and disco hits from the 1970s and ’80s, including “It’s Raining Men,” “Go West,” “I Will Survive,” and “True Colors.” For those who can’t resist singing along, a special matinee this Saturday (May 12 at 2:30 p.m.) will let you do just that, complete with lyric sheets.

Another spectacular feature of this show is the costumes – the genuine Tony and Oscar-winning outfits sent to Indy from Broadway. The headdresses must be seen to be believed, as well as the visual effect of the big “gumby” pants.

All this, for a story with a little pain, a lot of heart, and a sense of fun as big as the Outback. Footlite is at 1847 N. Alabama St. in downtown Indy. Call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.

Help pick the killer du jour at ATI’s ‘Drood’

By John Lyle Belden

Regardless of if you’d consider a murder mystery fun, you are bound to get a kick out of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana through May 13 at The Studio Theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

The biggest mystery of the story is how it ends. Charles Dickens died while writing it, with no definitive clues left as to his intended perpetrator, or even if Drood actually dies.

In this Broadway musical, written by Rupert Holmes, we witness a Victorian-era comic troupe bring the story to life, while letting the audience vote to settle questions such as the identity of the killer. True to English music hall “panto” tradition, the lead male is played by a woman, we are encouraged to “boo-hiss” the villain, and silliness could break out at any time.

ATI co-founder Cynthia Collins takes on the title character, a bright, likable gentleman engaged to the lovely Rosa Bud (Harli Cooper) since they were children. Drood’s uncle, church choirmaster John Jasper (Eric Olson) wants to possess Rosa – or at least one of his personalities does. Meanwhile, the Rev. Crisparkle (Darrin Murrell), has arrived from Ceylon with the Landless twins: Neville (Logan Moore), a hot-tempered young man who also feels desire for Rosa, and Helena (Jaddy Ciucci), who worries about Neville’s temper while otherwise acting exotic and downright mysterious. We also meet Durdles (John Vessels), the good-natured gravedigger; opium-den matron Princess Puffer (Judy Fitzgerald), whose customers include Jasper; Mr. Bazzard (Paul Collier Hansen), played by a man always up for minor parts; and Flo (Karaline Feller), who is, well, pretty. We are guided through this cast and story with the help of The Chairman (T.J. Lancaster), who also has to pitch in for an absent actor.

In scenes laced with cheeky humor and song, clues are dropped and a minor bit of tension raised as the story leads up to Drood’s disappearance. Then more revelations are made as an obviously-disguised person appears as private eye Dick Datchery. But soon, the lights go up as the Chairman notes that this is as far as the Dickens text goes. Who’s who and what’s what? Time to vote! (Note this election is not rigged; any of several suspects could be selected and can be different from one performance to the next.)

Performances are great all around. Lancaster is an excellent guide, while Collins holds the center well. Meanwhile, Olson plays a cruel maniac so well, it just seems too obvious to consider him the killer! The show has a great music hall feel, with the musicians at the back of center stage, and appropriate look thanks to designer P. Bernard Killian, complemented by costumes by Stephen Hollenbeck.

I’ve used “fun” a lot to describe recent plays, but it certainly applies here in a style that feels more intimate and engaging for the audience in the Studio Theater’s black-box style space. As one only has to applaud their choice or turn in a ballot from a pre-printed list, it’s not too involved an “audience participation” situation, yet you do feel like part of the festivities, making for a fully satisfying theatrical experience – even if your candidate for murderer doesn’t get chosen.

Get information and tickets at www.atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Civic has big fun with ‘Hairspray’

By John Lyle Belden

In the hit Broadway musical “Hairspray,” based on the classic John Waters comedy, Wilbur Turnblad – father of Tracy and husband of Edna, our heroines – says, “You gotta go big to be big!”

That was the apparent credo of the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre production of the musical, playing through May 12 at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

As befits this spectacular – with a “wow” factor especially necessary for an audience who likely already saw a stage or film version, or the live television broadcast – everything about Civic’s “Hairspray” is big, big, BIG! – the staging, the light displays, the beautiful flying setpieces, the chorus sets with singers in silhouettes, the dance numbers, Edna’s bra…

And this all-volunteer local cast more than rises to the occasion. Evan Wallace is “divine” as Edna, while Nina Stilabower is perfect in song and steps as Tracy, an eager teen with a heart as big as her dress size and her desire to dance on the Corny Collins TV show – the place to be seen in early-1960s Baltimore.

While show producer, strict stage-mom and former Miss Baltimore Crabs, Velma Von Tussle (Mikayla Koharchik), wants nothing to do with the girl, Corny (Justin Klein) lets Tracy join the cast “student council,” where she starts to steal the attentions of lead heartthrob Link Larkin (Zachary Hoover) away from Velma’s spoiled daughter, Amber (Emily Hollowel). This, plus Tracy’s unapologetic love of “race music” and desire that “every day be Negro Day,” can only spell trouble.

Yes, there’s even a big social-conscious message, delivered with power and a sense of fun with the help of R&B deejay Motormouth Maybelle (Joyce Licorish) and her smooth-dancing son Seaweed (Michael Hassel).

Also notable are J. Stuart Mill as Wilbur, the coolest dad ever, and Jenny Reber as Tracy’s best friend, Penny.

And it’s all done bigger than life, as big as Broadway – including the infamous giant can of Ultra Clutch. Under the direction of Executive Artistic Director Michal J. Lasley, Civic concludes its 2017-18 season with a joyous triumph. “You just can’t stop the beat” – and who’d want to?

For tickets and info visit www.civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org, or call 317-843-3800.

The beat goes on for CCP with ‘Ragtime’

By John Lyle Belden

RAGTIME: A modification of the march with additional polyrhythms coming from African music, usually written in 2/4 or 4/4 time with a predominant left-hand pattern of bass notes on strong beats and chords on weak beats accompanying a syncopated (“ragged”) melody in the right hand. Ragtime is not a “time” in the same sense that march time is 2/4 meter and waltz time is 3/4 meter; it is rather a musical style that uses an effect that can be applied to any meter. – from Wikipedia

How appropriate that “Ragtime” is the title of the first show for Carmel Community Players after losing its previous home: The beat of the theatrical season goes on, as events turn ragged with a stage search resulting in a nicer venue – though outside Carmel and further from Indy. A large and immensely talented cast and crew adapt quickly, making props and actor movement serve a larger space, singing their hearts out as seasonal health issues threaten.

Yet it all works.

It is worth the drive up to Noblesville to see this compelling glimpse of an America that, a century later, still casts its shadows on the events and issues of today.

This Broadway musical is largely the story of three families – Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Ronald Spriggs) and Sarah (Angela Manlove), the woman who fell in love with him; Jewish Eastern European immigrant Tateh (Thom Brown) and his daughter (Ali Boice), seeking any possible opportunity in America; and the wealthy white suburban family finding themselves in the middle of upsetting but inevitable social, historic and cultural changes. Being what would now be called the faces of “white privilege,” in this latter group we don’t even bother with names: Father (Rich Phipps), Mother (Heather Hansen), her Younger Brother (Benjamin Elliott), Grandfather (Duane Leatherman) and Little Boy (Lincoln Everitt).

We also see some people who one might actually meet in early 1900s New York, including anarchist Emma Goldman and Civil Rights icon Booker T. Washington, powerfully portrayed by Clarissa Bowers and Bradley Lowe, respectively. Celebrities include Harry Houdini (Jonathan Krouse), popular magician and escapist; and Evelyn Nesbitt (Molly Campbell), the Kardashian of her era.

Appropriately, the most critical roles give the strongest performances – Manlove and Spriggs bringing us to tears, Brown confronting crushing problems with wry humor, and Hansen struggling to reconcile her “perfect” life into a more just worldview.

Also notable are Guy Grubbs as unrepentant bigot Willie Conklin, and – at the opposite end of character appeal – little Gavin Hollowell steals our hearts in the final scene.

In addition, I must give kudos to Everitt for, as frequent narrator and our future-generations point of view, ably carrying such a big role on his small shoulders.

This musical has seen some controversy, particularly in its period-appropriate use of the N-word, but the horrors of racism should disturb us, and in the end this is not just a story about groups, but individual men and women, like us, dealing with the still-continuing evolution of this thing we call America.

Performances are this Friday through Sunday (April 27-29) at Ivy Tech Community College auditorium, 300 N.17 th St., Noblesville. Information and tickets at carmelplayers.org.

‘It is, it is a glorious thing!’ Agape kids plunder another classic

By John Lyle Belden

A year after their triumphant production of “Les Miserables,” the children and teens of Agape Performing Arts Company take on something much lighter, the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operetta, “The Pirates of Penzance.”

In this classic piece of British silliness – with its biting satire of Victorian devotion to class, honor and duty – our hero Frederic concludes his indenture as a Pirate (he was to become a sea “pilot,” but there was a misunderstanding). His duty done, he leaves the ship to do what any good English citizen would do: Fight piracy. When he sees the dozen daughters of the local Major General, Frederic dumps his middle-aged nurse, Ruth, and seeks to woo the girls. Naturally, they refuse, except for nightingale-voiced Mabel, who takes pity on him. But as romance blooms, we find we aren’t yet done with the Pirate King and his crew, especially when Ruth reveals a technicality that could bring Frederic back into their ranks for the rest of his life.

As this large production features so much young talent over its two-week run (ending Sunday), many of the roles were double-cast. The leads I saw, in the “Gilbert Cast,” included Alex Bast as Frederic and Carlynn Berners as Mabel. Maura Phipps was impressive as Ruth, and Tekoa Rea-Hedrick nimbly recited the popular patter of the “Modern Major General.” In the “Sullivan Cast,” these roles are played by Aidan Morris, Christina Canaday, Sabrina Duprey and Luke Proctor. Working with both casts are Eli Robinson as the charming and energetic Pirate King, and spry Carter Dills, showing his dancing skill as Sergeant of the reluctant Constables dispatched to confront the pirates.

While the youths and their adult mentors take their stagecraft seriously, evident by the choreography, excellent costuming, and commitment to the comic bits, no matter how slapstick, there was a definite air of fun throughout. Thus, you won’t find this reviewer nitpicking – no doubt flaws and technical issues are being addressed as I write this, readying this crew to sail afresh on Friday. Speaking of which, it is notable that during the curtain call after each performance, all backstage crew members are called on stage to take a bow as well. Everyone’s hard work is appreciated.

Direction is by Kathy Phipps, with student assistant Mikaela Smith; musical director April Barnes, with Alex Bast. Choreography is by Faith Anthony and Arabella Rollison.

Performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday (Sullivan), 3:30 p.m. Saturday (Sullivan), 7:30 p.m. Saturday (Gilbert) and 3:30 p.m. Sunday (Sullivan) at McGowan Hall (Knights of Columbus #437), 1305 N. Delaware in downtown Indianapolis. Info and tickets at www.agapeshows.org.

Agape Performing Arts is a program of Our Lady of the Greenwood Catholic Church, Greenwood, Ind.

Footlite brings simple complexity of ‘Bridges’

By John Lyle Belden

“The Bridges of Madison County” is an unusual love story, its surprising depth reaching beyond the plot of a lonely housewife having an affair with a traveling photographer. That made it successful as a novel, movie, and finally as “The Bridges of Madison County: The Broadway Musical,” presented by Footlite Musicals through March 18.

It`s 1965, and Francesca (Lori Ecker), an Italian war bride, is alone at her husband`s Iowa farm while he and their children are two states away for a national 4-H livestock show, when a strange but handsome and charming man arrives in the driveway. He is Robert Kinkaid (Rick Barber), a photographer for National Geographic Magazine, sent to get shots of the famous local covered bridges. As the rural roads aren`t clearly marked, he has gotten lost looking for the last bridge on his list.

With Francesca`s help, Robert finds the bridge, but they start to lose their way in a manner that will affect them both for the rest of their lives.

What comes to pass seems as inevitable as it is wrong, so we see this couple in how they help each other more than how they are likely to hurt the others they love. But actions have consequences, and force hard choices.

Ecker is outstanding, and Barber has a voice as strong as his muscular body. Though they are committing the sin, you can`t help but feel for them – maybe even root for them.

Darrin Gowan is rock-steady as Francesca`s husband Bud. He could have been played as a victim, a sucker, or one whose behavior pushed his wife into another man`s arms, but we get no such cliché. Just as Francesca acts of her own free will, Bud is constantly true to his obligations and those he loves, even if there`s something about them he frustratingly can’t control. Their son, Michael (Joseph Massingale), and daughter, Carolyn (Elly Burne), are also interesting three-dimensional characters. In each we see both the practical nature of their father and the free spirit of their mother.

Jeanne Chandler as neighbor Marge is a wonderful surprise, her character a bit nosy but out of honest concern for the family next door she has come to love. And Chandler’s solo song allows her to steal the scene in style. Kudos to Bob Chandler for taking the role of Marge’s husband Charlie on short notice after the injury of original cast member Daniel Scharbrough in a fall (according to Dan’s Facebook posts, he is recovering).

The set, designed by Jerry Beasley, is beautiful in its simplicity – especially the covered bridge – giving just enough pieces to let your imagination complete the scene, while the actors (including a large but well coordinated chorus) are free to move and help the setpieces flow in and out as needed.

If you have any liking for a romantic musical – particularly if you enjoyed the James Waller novel or Clint Eastwood/Meryl Streep film of “Bridges” – this nicely put together community production, under the direction of Tim Spradlin, is well worth your time.

Find this charming little piece of Madison County, Iowa, at the Hedback Theatre, 1847 N. Alabama, Indianapolis; call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.