IPAI & StageQuest put a new shine on ‘Pippin’

By John Lyle Belden

The Indiana Performing Arts Initiative, a program of Claude McNeal Productions, presents, with StageQuest Theatricals, the Roger Hirson and Stephen Schwartz musical “Pippin.”

StageQuest’s Ty Stover directs this version of a surreal take on a Medieval character — Prince Pippin, son of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne — which differs a bit from other productions, yet keeps the spirit of the Tony-winning show. The stage and costume aesthetic is a sort of urban homeless/punk with dirty faces and mismatched clothes. At least one on-stage clue, and the initial look of our Leading Player (Dave Pelsue), establish a dark cult-like atmosphere with this eclectic company of mostly-young men and women. 

Our leader wishes to tell us a story, the tale of Prince Pippin — not a restless hunchback, as history relates, but a restless healthy educated young man, played by an actor plucked from the audience (Cameron Brown).

Pippin wishes to find his purpose in life, which amuses — and at times irks — his father King Charles (Josiah McCruiston). Meanwhile, his stepmother Fastrada (Laura Lockwood) and dimwit half-brother Luis (Ben Fraley) plot against him. The quest brings on a lot of adventure, but no happiness. Not even a visit to exiled grandmother Berthe (Denise Fort), who basically tells him to just lighten up, brings satisfaction. 

The Leading Player is getting impatient — how will he get the subject of his story to go out appropriately in a blaze of glory? Perhaps an encounter with a lovely widow (Hannah Elizabeth Boswell) and her son (Kate Boice) will do the trick.

Our other players in various roles are Maddie Altom, Isaac Becker, Nik Folley, Seth Jacobsen, Rosemary Meagher, Piper Williams, and Jill Wooster. 

If you’ve seen this show, you know these plot points, but the fun is seeing how they are executed. This troupe does it with great wacky humor and even a sing-along. McCruiston’s big personality makes him a perfect fit for the crown. Brown plays his searching soul a little naive, but without being annoying. Fraley comes across too goofy to be threatening; Lockwood can threaten with a glance. Fort easily keeps up with her younger castmates. Boswell wins us with natural charm. Our tween Boice, already a rising star, shines through the grime on her face. Meanwhile, even in the lightest moments, Pelsue maintains an undercurrent of menace throughout that will lead to a shocking end.

The set includes a small screen at the top of the stage with visual gags and silent commentary (especially during the war scenes). The show features popular show tunes including “Magic to Do,” “No Time at All” and the recurring theme, “Corner of the Sky.” As a whole, the production is both familiar and new — enough of the former to make us comfortable, and enough of the latter to give you plenty to think about after the last curtain call. 

Performances are Friday through Sunday, July 19-21, at Herron High School, 110 E. 16th St. (enter on the west side). Get tickets at ipai.tix.com.

 

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Phoenix hosts stunning tribute to artist’s life, GHDT’s ‘La Casa Azul’

By John Lyle Belden

“La Casa Azul” translates to “The Blue House,” the place where Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s life both began and ended, the place she always called home, no matter where her celebrated and tragic life took her.

“La Casa Azul: The Musical” is a newly-revised production by Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre playing at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indianapolis. It combines dance and sung-through drama, much like a cross between a ballet and an opera with Latin-flavored music. The actors all embody various individuals and chorus parts, with the exceptions of Valerie Nuccio as Kahlo and JL Rey as her husband, muralist Diego Rivera – who vividly resemble their real-life counterparts – and Abigail Lessaris as La Muerte, the beautiful dancing embodiment of Death.

The whole these parts combine to is an exceptional theatrical experience: stunning, sad, humorous, thought-provoking and inspiring.

Nuccio holds our focus throughout, the hero of the story, winning our hearts despite no effort made to make us love her. Kahlo was brash and outspoken, an unapologetic Communist who hated America and its citizens’ condescending attitudes; still, above all she was a proud woman devoted to her homeland. But the stage also belongs to Lessaris, as Death is ever present. Never speaking a word, her movement and constant attendance speak volumes. At times, Kahlo can even sense her dancing near, occasionally even helping her to her feet to live another day – La Muerte is patient.

The ensemble includes Alyssa Lopez as Kahlo’s sister Christina; Johnathon Contreras as the boyfriend who was with her in a near-fatal accident; Bill Book as her father, who encouraged her to paint during her recovery; Onis Dean as various doctors who rarely give good news; and Dick Davis as Henry Ford (who Kahlo despised) and exiled Leon Trotsky (with whom she had an affair). Jessica Crum Hawkins, who played Kahlo in the 2015 premiere of “La Casa Azul,” portrays Trotsky’s wife.

Gregory Glade Hancock not only provided the choreography, but also the costume design, music and lyrics – with Kate Ayers. The songs flow as easily as the dancing, easing us through the plot. For clarity, a full synopsis is printed in the program. Stage direction is by Mexican artist Georgina Escobar.

The costumes are a vibrant tribute to Mexico and its culture, as well as the dapper decadence of New York in one scene. The set is adorned with a fractured portrait of Kahlo, a reminder of her many facets which only come together when we see her life completed.

For anyone with an interest in Frida Kahlo and her art, seeing this is almost a duty. Performances run through July 28 on the Russell main stage of the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St. See LaCasaAzulTheMusical.com for information and tickets.

‘Hunchback’ musical at Footlite

By John Lyle Belden

Footlite Musicals had chosen for its young adults (high school/college student) production Disney Theatricals’ “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” long before the historic cathedral suffered from a recent fire. But with that reminder of the building’s central place in French culture in mind, this performance takes on even more resonance.

Like the Disney animated film, the musical is based loosely on the Victor Hugo novel, but retains much of the original story’s air of tragedy. Its grounding in a sacred place is reinforced by a well-voiced choir that adds atmosphere and exposition throughout the show. Stained-glass windows are projected on the theatre walls and actors frequently work the aisles, giving the production an immersive, intimate feel.

The Archdeacon Frollo (Markell Pipkins) is not a two-dimensional villain; his backstory is shown to give him motivations, but not justification, as he is not entirely the righteous figure he believes he is. Kyle Cherry shows great talent and charisma in embodying Quasimodo, our titular Hunchback, providing the man within the disfigured face (under heavy makeup) and body.

Director Kathleen Clarke Horrigan had so much talent to choose from that any of the dancing Gypsies could have flying-kicked their way into the lead role, but Adrian Daeger was wisely chosen for lovely Esmeralda. Though highly regarded among Gypsies, the character is not a part of the Parisian band led by Clopin (Jim Melton), so she doesn’t notice their cruelty to Quasimodo until it is nearly too late. Her kindness then distinguishes her from the other characters, all cruel and selfish except perhaps for the soldier Phoebus (Jacob Hardin), who has become Captain of the Notre Dame cathedral guard.

Melton is superb in what turns out to be more than just a supporting character, as Clopin provides much of the narration. Fortunately, Hardin acts and sings as good as he looks. Pipkins was aptly cast in a central role, as he is fascinating to watch and listen to.

Supporting characters are also excellent, particularly the statues that are our hunchback’s only friends: Gargoyles (Olivia Ash, William Cisneros and Noah Fields) and statues of The Madonna (Tayler Seymour) and a female warrior Saint (Megan Delucanay), possibly Joan of Arc (though a French Catholic hero, not officially a saint at the time). Not wasted as comic relief, these five are Quasimodo’s advisors in the moments he is alone, each from their carved-in-stone perspective.

While the ending is not happy-shiny (potentially a relief or a shock to you, depending on if you preferred the book or the animation), it is quite appropriate and heroic in its own way. I found it satisfying, as it adheres to the musical’s central question, “What makes a monster, and what makes a man?”

And as is typical of “student” productions on central Indiana stages, these actors are no mere kids, having walked – and danced – the boards for maybe a decade in various youth productions. They provide another quality show at Footlite, and a good excuse to go inside from the summer heat. Performances are July 4-7 and 11-14 at 1847 N. Alabama St., near downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.

BCP succeeds at ‘Disaster’

By John Lyle Belden

Before we give the world to the Millennials, let’s have one more fun show for the memories of Boomers and Generation X, a silly tribute to 1970s pop music and death-defying films in “Disaster! The Musical,” on stage through June 16 at Buck Creek Players.

This show by Seth Rudetsky (an “ah-mah-zing” personality on Sirius/XM’s Broadway channel) and Jack Plotnick takes on thrillers such as “Earthquake” and “The Poseidon Adventure,” and adds fire, rats, sharks, piranhas and disco.

It’s 1979 New York, and the casino ship Barracuda is holding its grand opening. It only has to float to be legit, so it stays moored to the pier. Owner Tony Delvecchio (Corey Yeaman) sank a lot of money into this venture, so what’s a few cut corners going to hurt? That shaking is just construction on the West End Highway, right?

Chad (Scott A. Fleshood) needs to get back into action with the ladies, so gets friend Scott (Jamison Hemmert) to bring him on the boat as a fellow waiter. But just as he’s getting his “what’s your sign?” working, he runs into Marianne (Allie Buchanan), who left him at the altar, choosing her career as a Times reporter over him.

Others on this journey include disaster expert Professor Ted Scheider (Joe Wagner), who wants everyone off the boat immediately; Sister Mary Downey (Emily Gaddy), out to save souls, but worries for her own when faced with an old temptation; Maury and Shirley Summers (Michael Davis and Laura Duvall-Whitson), a couple in a long, happy marriage on what could be their last voyage; disco diva Levora Verona (Joi Blalock), whose career is on the skids; and ship’s entertainer Jackie Noelle (Jessica Crum Hawkins) and her twins Ben and Lisa (both played by Ava Lusby).

The cast also includes Joshua Cox, Christine King, Paige Land, Carrie Powell, Jason Ryan, and Ben Rockey in dual roles as the dutiful security guard and a rich passenger.

The show manages to balance an absurd, fun atmosphere with a touch of genuine suspense. It unapologetically embraces cheesy elements including puppet killer fish, obviously fake body doubles, and a “CASINO” sign that flips over to signal when the boat has capsized, somehow making it all work. And then there’s the music, as pop hit lyrics are warped to fit the plot, and vice versa. For instance, during the opening number every possible meaning for the words “Hot Stuff” is explored to help set up the various elements of the oncoming calamity.

Fleshood makes ‘70s suave look cool; Yeaman is just sleazy enough for us to enjoy every misfortune he encounters; Wagner makes a likable egghead; Hemmert is charming in a hard-luck way; Duval-Whitson and Davis are sweet enough to induce sugar-shock; Rockey can’t help but steal scenes; and the ladies are top-notch — Buchanan providing a humorous yet respectful reflection of the era’s feminist struggles; Hawkins giving dimension to what could have been just a damsel-in-distress role; Blalock being a sassy force of nature in her own right; and Gaddy making a supporting role look like a star turn.  

Lusby is very impressive in her community theatre debut. The seventh-grader shows a lot of talent and a knack for comedy as she smoothly switches between siblings throughout the show.

Director D. Scott Robinson can be reassured that ironically, in this “Disaster” everything went right. Find the Buck Creek Playhouse at 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74). Find info and tickets at 317-862-2270 or buckcreekplayers.com.

Discover the beauty of ‘Violet’

By John Lyle Belden

The musical “Violet” touches on many themes: blind faith, being blinded by faith, the importance of our appearance to ourselves and others, and the necessity to forgive — both others and ourselves. Eclipse productions, a program of Summer Stock Stage, brings all these aspects beautifully into focus in its production of “Violet” at the Phoenix Theatre, through June 15.

In 1964, Violet, a young woman from rural Spruce Pine, North Carolina., travels by bus to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to find a television preacher who conducts televised faith healings. She hopes to finally be rid of a disfiguring facial scar she got from an accident with a wayward ax blade. On the way, she rides with two soldiers on their way to Ft. Smith, Arkansas (nearby Fort Chaffee, to be accurate, but this isn’t mentioned), the last stop before Tulsa.

Along the way, Violet (Elizabeth Hutson) gets to know Flick (Mark Maxwell), a black Sargeant, and Monty (John Collins), a white Corporal, as they get a measure of her and appreciate the woman behind the face. She also meets characters such as a well-meaning old lady (Amanda Boldt) and the driver (Carlos Medina Maldonado), as well Almeta (Chase Infiniti), who runs a boarding house in Memphis, and isn’t comfortable with white folks in her rooms. During this journey, we can see in her memory a younger Violet (Leah Broderick) and her father (Eric J. Olson), who as a widower tries to do as well as he can for his daughter, while enduring a river of deep regrets.

The cast also includes Terrence Lambert, Lily Wessel, and Gabriel Herzog in various roles. At the Tulsa church studio, we meet Maldonado as the preacher with a choir led by Infiniti as featured singer, Lula.

Most of the ensemble are Summer Stock Stage alumni, young adults given an opportunity to show the skills they attained through years in the youth program as well as high school and university; thus we have fresh faces performing like old pros alongside veteran actors Olson and Maldonado.

Hutson is exceptional, her star shining through the plain hair and clothes, helping us to see the scar burned into her psyche even though (as is commonly done in this production) it is not visible on her face. Maxwell and Collins flesh out their characters solidly, and Infiniti gets to show off her powerful voice.

The simple set suggesting an old country church, by designer Geoffrey Ehrendreich, is adorned with mirrors hanging high above it, the shadow of the center one looming in the background as a metaphorical tombstone. Music direction and costumes are by Jeanne Bowling, with a backstage band conducted by pianist Nathan Perry. Eclipse Artistic Director and show producer Emily Ristine Holloway directs.

This beautiful work is playing on the Russell main stage at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St., downtown Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at www.SummerStockStage.com or PhoenixTheatre.org.

Musical of Dahl novel ‘Matilda’ gets brief Indy premiere

By John Lyle Belden and Wendy Carson

If you want to see the hit musical “Matilda” before the Civic Theatre stages it next year, you have just three chances this weekend.

McDuffee Music Studio bursts onto the theatrical scene with its ambitious all-youth production. Note this London and Broadway hit is by two of the most devious minds to write material safe for children: the late author Roald Dahl and comic songwriter Tim Minchin. While the story is dark at times, the sheer absurdity of all the characters and situations keeps it light.

In this musical, with book by Dennis Kelly, the Wormwoods – a Latin dance-obsessed wife and proudly unethical used-car dealer husband – prefer their children to be like their son, Michael, comically ignorant and male. Surprise-baby Mathilda is definitely neither. She insists on reading books, visiting the library and telling stories. And when she’s had enough mistreatment, she tends to be “a little bit naughty.” Perhaps some abuse at the local school, led by wicked Mrs. Trunchbull, will cure her of that.

Having an all-student cast is easy for this show, as most of the roles are children, but some local teens ably step up to fill the “adult” shoes.

William Baartz as the viciously imposing Trunchbull manages to fully embrace the extreme silliness of the role. The teen-boy musculature stuffed into an Olympic women’s hammer-thrower form only adds to the look – equal parts threatening and cartoonish.

On the other end of the scale, Kamdyn Knotts is so very charming as teacher Miss Honey, a mousey woman struggling to find her voice to help Mathilda. Her willingness to show weakness and work to overcome it ironically makes her the most (if not only) mature character in the show. Krissy Brzycki as librarian Mrs. Phelps is another ray of sunshine in Mathilda’s life, practically starving for the girl’s story that may or may not be fiction.

Josh Hoover impressively shows range in dual roles as a vapid dance partner and an “escapologist” in love.

Ayden Cress and Kennedi Bruner are both a hoot as Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, despite their neglectful and somewhat abusive nature. Wesley Olin as Michael shows that rare natural talent at playing an imbecile so entertainingly he can’t help but steal the scene, even just shouting one word.

As for Kate Honaker as Mathilda, to us she looks and sounds straight off the Cast Album. Honaker holds focus and makes us believe in this girl with so many brains (yet they “just fit”) and a little bit “extra” that her stressful journey brings out.

The other children are more than just chorus to Mathilda’s story, as they learn to deal with a cruel yet silly world. Colton Woods as Bruce Bogtrotter gets to revel in being an unlikely hero. Brilynn Knauss as Nicole gets a quick lesson on improvising one’s way out of trouble. And Izzy Napier’s hyper Lavender declares herself Mathilda’s “best friend,” then takes on one of the more notorious pranks on the Headmistress.

We would like to assure you that no newts were harmed in the making of this show, but you can buy (a rubber) one at the concession stand, as well as chocolate cake.

While the production does have its technical flaws, it is energetic and earnest. Remember that one of the main tenets of the story (like most of Dahl’s work) is that not all stories have a happy ending. But it does manage to keep a positive outlook even at the grimmest point.

If you have any children in your care this weekend, especially those of grade-school age, they will be practically falling out of their seat with laughter and delight at the show. Performances of “Mathilda: The Musical” are 2 and 7 p.m. Today, 2 p.m. Sunday (May 25-26) at Lutheran High School, 5555 S. Arlington, Indianapolis. Tickets are $10, $12 for premium seats. Visit www.mcduffeemusic.com.

New telling of old stories at Footlite

By John Lyle Belden

Footlite Musicals presents the biblical musical “Children of Eden,” which tells stories from the early chapters of Genesis in a loose, storytelling style similar to “Godspell.”

In the Beginning, Father (played by Allen Sledge) commands Creation into being, setting aside a garden he calls Eden for his prize creations, Adam (Mitchell Hammersley) and Eve (Nina Stilabower), where they spend their days in perfect splendor, while Adam names all the animals, and Eve grows increasingly curious about the one tree they are not to eat from.

The familiar story goes from there — but with some variation from the exact wording of scripture. After the Fall, Adam and Eve give birth to Cain and Abel (Katherine Sabens and Amelie Zirnheld as children, later Keane Maddock and Jonathan Krouse). In this telling, Adam believes he can win his way back into the Garden, and forbids his family to wander. But Cain has his sights on the horizon, and in the fight that ensues, tragedy sends him into exile, cursed along with his progeny by Father.

The second act quickly goes through the “begats” and gives a version of the story of The Flood with Hammersley and Stilabower as Noah and his wife, Todd Jackson II as Shem, Krouse as Ham, and Maddock again the nonconformist as Japeth, who chooses servant girl Yonah (Yasmin Schancer), who has the Mark of Cain, as his bride.

The cast also includes about 20 “Storytellers” who help relate the narrative, and portray all manner of animals, as well as wind and water. The Serpent in the Garden takes five of them (Schancer, Shelley Young, Donamarie Kelley, Presley Hewitt and Maggie Lengerich) sharing their sung and spoken lines to mesmerizing effect. The best scene is the “Return of the Animals” to the Ark, with practically everyone getting into the act, miming all sorts of creatures, with the aid of colorful costumes by Chris Grady. Lauren Johnson directs.

This musical by John Caird and Stephen Schwartz is a unique experience, retelling the old stories in a manner that emphasizes our connectedness and yearning for redemption when those connections are broken. It’s a true ensemble effort, but Stilabower and Maddock do stand out, as well as — appropriately — Sledge, as the loving, stern and mysterious paternal figure.

“Children of Eden” runs through May 19 at 1847 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis. Call 317-926-6630 or visit footlite.org.