‘Big Day’ for little guy at Phoenix

By John Lyle Belden

Phoenix Theatre’s holiday tradition continues with “Winston’s Big Day: A Very Phoenix Xmas 14.”

(Note the originator of the series, Bryan Fonseca, also has a holiday variety show at the new Fonseca Theatre Company, but think of them not so much as competitors as companion pieces — each with its own nice yet mildly naughty take on the winter holidays.)

The Phoenix production works on a theme developed by director Chelsea Anderson over the course of the year. It’s Christmas Eve, and elf Winston (Dave Pelsue) — who had been planning to leave the North Pole to pursue a music career, with Rudolph (Ramon Hutchins) as his manager — is tapped to be co-pilot of the Sleigh. But Santa is missing! That means it’s up to the reluctant elf and his bright-nosed companion to make the deliveries and save Christmas. 

During the night, Winston looks in on several scenes, performed by the cast of Nathalie Cruz, Andrea Heiden, Jan Lucas, Pearl Scott, John Vessels, and Justin Sears-Watson. Scenes and songs are by a diverse lot including Anderson, Pelsue, Paige Scott, J. Julian Christopher, Jen Blackmer, Riti Sachdeva, Zach Neiditch, and Phoenix playwright-in-residence Tom Horan.

There is an abundance of wonderful performances, including Lucas and Heiden as ghosts of Charles Dickens; Vessels at his manic best; and dancer Sears-Watson’s smooth moves, as well as showing his singing and acting chops. 

Perhaps one of the best scenes, showing off all the talents on hand, is Blackmer’s “The Twelve Theatrical Genres of the Totally Non-Denominational, Absolutely Inclusive Holidays…” This gentle jab at both political correctness and community theatre, when its reach goes way beyond its grasp, results in a hilarious holiday scene so “inclusive” it hardly appeals to anyone: The Misguided Mechanicals present something like, “Stella and the Zombie Cats of Thebes” (that’s my best-guess title for it; you’re welcome, Chelsea). 

And, of course, there’s Pelsue and Hutchens, doing a great job of tying this whole silly and sweet mess together, as they struggle to rush through their duties, hoping to make their stage time at Fa-La-La-La-La-Palooza. 

Also impressive is Zac Hunter’s stage design, including a turntable with pop-up-book effects, and frequent clever use of the trapdoors.

Yet another holiday tradition to add to your schedule, performances run through Dec. 22 at the Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois, downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

Summit: Feel the love of ‘Mary Jane’

By John Lyle Belden

“Mary Jane,” as the name of both central character and the play presented by Summit Performance Indianapolis, refers not to a quasi-legal substance but to an American everywoman – dealing with one of the worst nightmares a mother could face.

In the drama by acclaimed playwright Amy Herzog (staged Off-Broadway in 2017), Mary Jane – played with bold optimism by Bridget Haight – is the primary caretaker for Alex, a nearly three-year-old boy with cerebral palsy and other conditions likely caused by a brain-bleed during premature birth.

Presented on the intimate confines of the Basile Stage at the Phoenix Theatre, the play is presented without intermission (as intended) but its scenes present the narrative in two acts: In the first, we are in Mary Jane’s apartment, which includes various medical equipment (much of it unseen behind Alex’s door) and a visiting nurse (Nathalie Cruz). In the second, we are in a hospital which becomes for Mary Jane a sort of home – her son still being cared for just off-stage.

The “third act” is the audience’s ride home, reflecting on what they have seen, heard and felt. Yes, it’s that kind of play. Expect no easy answers, or an ending that brings triumph or catharsis. This is a reflection of real struggles, how we find the strength to confront them, and the search for understanding among others in a similar situation, as well as through faith.

Cruz plays a doctor in the latter half; others in the cast take on dual roles as well. Mara Lisabeth Malloy twice plays a mother with a special-needs child – first a new mom receiving an avalanche of advice from Mary Jane on how to cope; later a Jewish mother of seven who, having faith and family for support, takes the mentor role. Kelsey Johnson is a young woman wanting to help but out of her depth, first as a visitor, charmed by the little boy then overwhelmed by the reality of the situation; later as a musical therapist shaken into not becoming yet another part of Mary Jane’s problems. Jan Lucas bookends the story, at first as a helpful apartment Super, and later as a serenely savvy Buddhist nun.

The play is directed by Summit founding artistic director Lauren Briggeman, who – like Herzog – has some understanding of being a caregiver. It’s easy to see the devotion she and all involved had in giving their production genuine heart – including many moments of appropriately uplifting or soothing humor. Haight plays Mary Jane with great strength, even in passing moments when the facade cracks. Castmates all exhibit empathy so convincingly it seems there truly is a sickly toddler residing on the corner of the set.

If you go to theatre for “the feels,” or are open to, I encourage you to visit “Mary Jane,” with performances through Aug. 18 at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.summitperformanceindy.com.

Civic: Sail on with Porter’s songs

By John Lyle Belden

“The world has gone mad today
And good’s bad today,
And black’s white today,
And day’s night today…”

Makes you wonder what year Cole Porter was writing about, doesn’t it?

But that’s what makes it a great idea to escape from today’s madness on a timeless voyage with “Anything Goes,” the classic musical featuring Porter’s songs, presented by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, in partnership with The Great American Songbook Foundation.

The wacky romantic comedy plot is mainly a means to launch several Porter favorites, including “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “It’s De-Lovely,” “Friendship,” “Blow Gabriel Blow,” and, of course, the title song.

As for the story: All aboard the ocean liner S.S. American, where lovesick Billy Crocker (Juddson Updike) has stowed away, hoping to persuade his socialite girlfriend Hope Harcourt (Kari Baker) not to wed Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Matt Bays) in a marriage arranged by her mother (Teresa F. Jordan). Billy has to avoid contact with the ship’s crew, as well as his boss, Elisha Whitney (W. Michael Davidson), who had ordered him to stay in New York. Meanwhile, it’s rumored that America’s Most Wanted criminal is on board – but we know for sure that the Thirteenth Most Wanted, Moonface Martin (Parrish Williams) is on the liner, accompanied by his best moll, Erma (Nathalie Cruz). And at the center of it all is a friend to all, headlining showgirl Reno Sweeney (Susie Harloff), with her band of Angels and a song for every occasion.

Despite some difficulty, and wacky situations, love will triumph in the end as it always does. What’s important is how entertaining this shipload of actors and dancers are on the way. With the help of Michael J. Lasley’s direction, Brent Marty’s musical touch and splendid choreography by Anne Beck, this is a pleasing production.

As for our feature performers, Williams is in top comic form, and Harloff has sass and attitude to match her great voice. Baker’s singing is breathtakingly good, Updike keeps up his everyman charm perfectly, and Cruz handily steals the scenes (along with several sailors’ uniforms). I wasn’t sure at first about Bays’ Lord Oakleigh, but he is something special when he cuts loose in the second act.

We’re having such a good time, we can forgive the almost cringe-worthy Asian stereotypes that end up necessary to the plot. Isaac Becker and especially Karen Woods Hurt make the most of their roles as naughty Chinese Christian converts, adding to the humor rather than being an outdated distraction.

“Anything Goes” runs through Oct. 27 at The Tarkington theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Call 317-843-3800, or visit civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Civic’s puttin’ on a hit

NOTE: As the Word/Eagle is in flux with the renaming and corresponding change in official website, John is putting his reviews here — for now.

By John Lyle Belden

For a more-silly-than-spooky Halloween crowd-pleaser, you can’t go wrong with “Young Frankenstein,” presented by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre through Nov. 5 at The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

In this Mel Brooks musical, based on the Mel Brooks movie (inspired by the Mary Shelley novel), Frederick Frankenstein (played by Steve Kruze), grandson of the infamous mad doctor – who has changed the pronunciation of his surname in a vain attempt to shake its infamy – must go to his grandfather’s castle in the generically central/eastern European town of Transylvania Heights to settle the estate.

Once there, Frederick meets family servant Igor (Damon Clevenger), who has rounded up a lovely lab assistant, Inga (Devan Mathias). At the castle, they are welcomed by Frau Blucher (Vickie Cornelius Phipps), who was more than a housekeeper to the elder Frankenstein – a case in which a single line from the film became a whole song in the musical.

The temptation to follow in the family business becomes too great, and Frederick makes a Monster (B.J. Bovin) despite the village having passed a law against such practices, inviting the ire of local police Inspector Kemp (Parrish Williams). Add a surprise visit by Frederick’s fiancé Elizabeth (Nathalie Cruz) and a lot of mayhem – and song-and-dance numbers – ensue.

This production goes all-out on the famous “Puttin’ on the Ritz” singing Monster scene, a great credit to the cast and choreographer Anne Nicole Beck. And Williams doubles as the blind Hermit in another famously funny scene.

No one can match the manic genius of Gene Wilder, but Kruze manages to make the title role his own. Cruz and Phipps are natural scene-stealers, and Mathias is a treat. Bovin makes the most of the limited motions of the Monster, and his often-confused expressions add to the comedic effect. But the show doesn’t work without a great Igor (pronounced “Eye-gor”), and Clevenger is pitch-perfect in the role. It’s a credit to the others that he doesn’t steal the whole show.

Brooks’ gags still zing and his Tony-nominated monster of a musical still entertains. Get info and tickets at civictheatre.org.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor at The Eagle (formerly The Word), the central-Indiana based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Avenue Q: A great place to visit again

By John Lyle Belden

It’s always amazing, while attending a performance of “Avenue Q,” to see the reactions of those who haven’t seen it before when a Muppet-style puppet drops the F-bomb in one of the first songs (“It Sucks to Be Me”). When I see the, “Did I just hear that?” I’m thinking, “You ain’t heard nothing yet.”

After all, this is the musical that brought us, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “The Internet is for Porn.”

Yes, when Fabric-Americans and other diverse people have outgrown Sesame Street, they move uptown, all the way up the alphabet to Avenue Q. This show captures the style of Childrens Television Workshop shows, but is definitely NOT for children. Still, it’s worth it to plug the ears of your Inner Child and go. The show is full of laughs and heart, even with the mature edges, as you get to know and love people just trying to make something of their lives, like all of us.

But what if you have been to this street before? For those who enjoy singing along with “Porn! Porn! Porn!” and look forward to the sight-gag in the hospital scene, you will have a lot of fun with the Footlite Musicals production, running through Sunday at the Hedback Theatre, 1847 N. Alabama St. in downtown Indy.

It’s hard to pick a stand-out performance in this cast, as all are at the top of their game, including Phil Criswell as puppet-seeking-purpose Princeton, Emily Schaab as beautiful Kate Monster, Graham Brinklow and Damon Clevenger as odd couple Nicky and Rod, Chris Meek as struggling comic Brian, Nathalie Cruz as tell-it-like-it-is therapist Christmas Eve, and Ryan England as pervy Trekkie Monster. The biggest pleasant surprise is building super Gary Coleman played by Ervin Gainer, who actually looks like the late child actor. In addition, throw in excellent support from Leigh Alexovich and Dejuan Jackson as boxes, Bears and left hands, as well as Zarah Miller as the legendary Lucy T. Slut.

Another note to newcomers: There is a song about giving to charity, during which the “hat” is passed around the audience – though actors could usually use the money (and cast and crew at Footlite are volunteers), all funds will go towards a genuine charity announced at that point in the show.

Go to www.footlite.org or call 317-926-6630 for ticket reservations.

(This review also posted on The Word.)