Permit yourself to enjoy ‘Forbidden Broadway’

By John Lyle Belden

That beloved but misnamed (not actually on a “Square”) spot on Mass Ave. has returned to life with a wonderful send-up of the world of Broadway musicals.

Actors Theatre of Indiana presents “Forbidden Broadway’s Greatest Hits” all this month at the District Theatre (former home of Theatre on the Square), its first production under new name and management. ATI regulars Cynthia Collins, Don Farrell, Judy Fitzgerald and Logan Moore, with Brent Marty at the piano, give us the parodies made famous in the off-Broadway show that has been savaging its on-stage neighbors since 1982 – no one is safe, from Bob Fosse to “Les Mis” to Spongebob.

It’s impressive what gets made fun of – lay-offs of the cast of “Beauty and the Beast,” the rotating stage of “Les Miserables,” those massive headpieces in “Lion King.” Wendy loves that one of her pet peeves, actors reliant on visible microphones, gets skewered by a big-singing stage legend.

Speaking of legendary actors, they get parodied as well, including some girl named Carol and this guy named Mandy.

The result is so very funny. The more you know about the source material, the more hilarious it all is, but this show had everyone laughing.

And these five people playing it all are practically legend-level themselves – they should beware, lest someone down the street at IndyFringe makes fun of them!

Performances through June 29 at the District, 627 Massachusetts Ave., downtown Indianapolis. (ATI then returns to its home in Carmel to start its 2018-19 season, which concludes with more Forbidden Broadway next summer.) For info and tickets, see atistage.org.

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Once upon a time, at Footlite…

By John Lyle Belden

Off to the blog
To post a review;
The show was great,
You should see it, too…

Footlite Musicals adds to this summer’s entertainment with its young adult production of Stephen Sondhiem’s “Into the Woods.”

As many know, thanks to the recent film, this musical mashes up several popular fairy tales, which all happen in or near a particularly enchanted forest – The Woods. To this mix of Red Riding Hood, Jack (of Beanstalk fame), Cinderella and Rapunzel are added the fairytale-adjacent Baker and his Wife. A Witch, the Baker’s neighbor, offers to reverse her curse that made them childless, but it will require items possessed by characters in other stories.

So, it’s “off to the Woods” for lots of wacky interactions as each person’s narrative winds toward its well-known conclusion. But then comes the Second Act, when we find that “happily ever after” is the true myth – and you didn’t think that killing a giant would come without consequences, did you?

This is the part
Where John heaps praise
Upon the folks
Who walked the stage…

Given the production values and level of talent in high school and college theater programs across the state, it’s not a detriment to note this is a “student” production, but rather sets the bar higher given the cast’s young energy and dedication. In fact, I’ve seen some of these faces on stage before, and look forward to seeing many on the boards again.

Notables include: Tara Sorg, whose look and delivery as the Baker’s wife reminded me of Broadway’s Joanna Gleason. Kyle Cherry as the Baker was like the movie’s James Cordon, but more talented. I’d note that Paige Brown – our Witch – reminded me of Lady Gaga at her fiercest, but in the future I might compare stars to her. If this play were just the Red Riding Hood story, it would still be worth the ticket as Hannah Bullock as Red has great stage charisma, and, well, we had to kill the Wolf, Christian Condra (recently seen in “Priscilla”), as he was not only eating people but stealing the show. As for Jack, Noah Fields plays that impulsive little brother you want to smack some sense into, but love anyway.

Erin Elliott and Halle Catlow shine as Cinderella and Rapunzel. Zachary Hoover and Joseph Massingale are charmingly haughty as their Princes – providing great comic moments in their “Agony.” Shout-outs for the maternal madness of Ellen Vander Missen as Jack’s Mother, Alyssa Klingstein as Granny, and Olivia Ash as Cinderella’s stepmom. And then there’s Josh Vander Missen as a leaf-covered Mysterious Man, an interesting character to be sure.

The “older kids” involved are director Kathleen Clarke Horrigan, who has a knack for these summer shows, and her assistant Ed Mobley, who filled in as the musical’s Narrator on opening night.

The young crew, which include some cast members, built an excellent stage set, which even gets graced by live horse (a beautiful Arabian, Inshal Amir).

While I suspect there’s a backstage bet on which of the Witch’s finger-sparks misfire, and – sorry Disney happy-ending fans – the show does get a bit dark, this is overall a fun production and perhaps the best staging of “Into the Woods” I’ve seen. Even my partner Wendy – who doesn’t really like Sondheim’s ode to Grimm stories – admits this is a great show.

The show was good,
This post is done,
Now get a ticket
And join the fun…

Two weekends remain, July 5-8 and July 12-15, at Footlite, 1847 N. Alabama St. near downtown Indy; call 317-926-6630 or visit www.Footlite.org.

Civic kids are ‘Peach’y

By John Lyle Belden

The weird world of Roald Dahl’s “James and the Giant Peach” comes to life at the Tarkington theater for a Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre Jr. Civic production – by kids, for kids – through Wednesday.

In this musical version of the darkly whimsical children’s novel (by Benji Pasek, Justin Paul and Timothy Allen McDonald, authorized by Dahl’s widow), young James, orphaned in a freak incident, finds himself “property” of a pair of unscrupulous aunts. But a mysterious wizard, Ladahlord, appears, offering him relief in a magic potion that James accidentally spills near a doomed peach tree. The next day, an enormous peach grows on the tree, and James comes to find it grew and transformed the insect-like creatures inside. Just as the boy is getting to know these new friends, the peach’s huge stem snaps, and things really get rolling…

As a stage musical, this isn’t the greatest thing you’ll see, but it is a fun and entertaining introduction to the magic of the stage both for the young cast and the children who come to see (and grown-ups can appreciate it, too). The cast acquit themselves very well – including Ben Boyce as James, Maddux Morrison as Grasshopper, Colin McCabe as Centipede, Brayden Porterfield as Earthworm, Ava Roan as Spider and May Kate Tanselle as Ladybug. Jilayne Kistner as Ladahlord has a stage presence and vocal talent that had me wondering if she is truly as young as she looks – watch for her in the future.

Director Brent E. Marty and fellow (alleged) adult Holly Stults gleefully play awful Aunts Spiker and Sponge, frequently threatening to steal the show from their young costars.

The remaining performances are matinees, 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at the Tarkington in the Centre for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. For a nice diversion for kids home from school, get info and tickets at civictheatre.org or thecentrepresents.org.

BCP musical ‘Dogfight’ a beautiful story about ugly intentions

By John Lyle Belden

Don’t let the title fool you: “Dogfight,” the musical at Buck Creek Players though June 17, has nothing to do with dogs, or cruelty to animals – just cruelty to humans.

An early collaboration by the composers of “Dear Evan Hansen” that played off-Broadway in 2012, this musical is based on the 1991 film, “Dogfight,” starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor.

In the early 1960s, young Marines in San Francisco – one day before shipping out to be “advisors” in Vietnam – engage in the Corps tradition of a “dogfight.” Each of the men pays into a pot awarded to the one who brings the ugliest girl to a dance party. Eddie Birdlace (Nathan Wilusz) and his fellow “B’s,” Boland (Levi Hoffman) and Bernstein (Scott Fleshood) search the streets for “dates,” but Eddie has no luck, until he stops at a coffeeshop and hears a girl singing as she plays guitar. Rose (Addison R. Koehler) appears plain and a little plump, so Eddie asks her to the party. Happily naive, she looks forward to her first real date, while Eddie starts to feel his conscience give him second thoughts. Suddenly the other B’s meet up with them, and the “fight” is on – “Sempre Fi, do or die.”

Though I risk ruining the premise of the play, or giving away its subtext, I must note that Koehler is beautiful in every way – her voice, her stage presence, her brave portrayal, the way she shines through even the plainer outfits she wears. More amazing, she’s still in high school (making her close to the age of the character she plays), so her potential is just beginning to show.

Wilusz makes a fine Marine, struggling with being a young gentleman in the hours before reverting to the ways of the warrior. Hoffman and Fleshood are also excellent, in their own rough ways. It must be noted that these men all swear like, well, Marines – BCP advises the show should be considered “R” rated. Also notable is Shelbi Berry in roles including Marcy, a girl who sees the event as a way to cash in; Emily Tritle as stoic Ruth Two Bears; and Onis Dean in various roles throughout.

The story goes deeper than the titular contest, of course, though the theme of cruel judgement based on appearance still resonates today. One clue to how much the world is about to change is in the date this takes place, and with little known about what’s happening in Southeast Asia, the men going there are in their own way as naive as the women they had set out to fool. This is also a sweet love story, as Eddie makes a valiant effort to salvage his budding relationship with Rose. The songs are well-written and well-placed, even if they aren’t hit showtunes.

Another great show directed by D. Scott Robinson, “Dogfight” is worth making your way out to the playhouse at 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74 southeast of Indy). Call 317-862-2270 or visit www.buckcreekplayers.com.

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.

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.