Footlite gets truly ‘Wild’

By John Lyle Belden

In 1928, Joseph Moncure March published his narrative poem, “The Wild Party,” a tale of Prohibition Era excess that was shocking at the time, and still quite racy. Taking the notion of living well as the best revenge to its debauched extreme, the story has been made into a film and at least two stage shows. The musical with book, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa premiered in New York in 2000.

Now, “Andrew Lippa’s Wild Party” has taken over the stage of Footlite Musicals, directed by Bradley Allan Lowe. 

Queenie (Nina Stilabower) “was a blonde” with extreme sexual appettes. She would find them sated by fellow vaudeville performer Burrs (Joseph David Massingale). But she gets jaded, and he takes things too far. Thus, hoping for both excitement and a chance to embarrass her lover, Queenie proposes they throw a party. And with a guest list familiar with a wide range of sin, things are bound to get very, very wild.

Among those who show up for a long night of loud phonograph jazz, cocaine, and bathtub gin are Madeline (Miranda Nehrig) the lesbian, Eddie (Daniel Draves) the pugilist, Mae (Karen Hurt) Eddie’s gal, Jackie (Cameron Hicks) the dancer, Brothers D’Armano (Connor Chamberlin and Isaac Becker) the lovers and musical producers, Dolores (Aprille Goodman) the hooker, and Nadine (Lauren Frank) the minor. Fashionably late comes vivacious Kate (Logan Hill) with her date, Mr. Black (Allen Sledge).

Also occupying the stage for much of the show are Ervin Gainer, Logan Laflin, Claire Slaven, DeSean McLucas, Grant Craig, Jacoba White, Job Victor Willman, Anna Lee, Reno Moore and Tessa Gibbons. True to the title, the cast create a visual cacophony throughout most of the scenes, with some appropriate freezes when the action focuses on a solo or duo. Prior to the party, many stand by (and sing and dance) as a chorus mostly unseen by Queenie and Burrs. When the party gets going, there is a lot happening.

Lippa putting his own spin on the text, creating a mostly sung-through musical, didn’t seem to do the original verse any favors. Since March gave various characters the spotlight in the poem, it translated to Queenie and Burrs’ songs mostly advancing the plot, while the most memorable numbers are asides with supporting characters. Nehrig puts in the best performance with Madeline’s comic sapphic lament “An Old-Fashioned Love Story.” Draves and Hurt charm with Eddie and Mae’s “Two of a Kind.” The D’Armanos give us a fun digression, with Queenie and Burrs, presenting part of their saucy Biblical musical.

Stilabower and Massingale do very well as the leads, while Sledge adds surprising depth as Black develops feelings for Queenie, who surprises herself by reciprocating. Hill is dynamite, channeling the greatest redheaded comics in her portrayal of Kate. 

A note must be made of the show’s content. It goes beyond the swear words and the drunken fight (At this party? Who would have guessed?). This is the most mature content I’ve seen in a Footlite show – two words: choreographed rape. In movie terms, consider this a hard “R”. 

If you are familiar with the source material, or feel you are up for this kind of entertainment, check out the Wild Party through March 20 at 1847 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis. Info and tickets at footlite.org.

Holiday favorite ‘Elf’ returns to Civic

By John Lyle Belden

Just two years ago (what seems a lifetime now), the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre had one of their biggest-ever hits with the musical “Elf,” based on the 2003 Wil Farrell film that is already a beloved Christmas classic.

And as live theatre has returned around central Indiana, so, too, has Buddy and his friends. And – a holiday miracle? – this production is just as wonderful as it was before.

This presents the reviewer with a problem. How do I say practically the same thing I wrote in 2019?

Like this — To save you the click and page-load of a link to the previous review, the following is the same text that still applies, with updated cast and info as needed:

The book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, with songs by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, allows Buddy the Elf to escape the shadow of Ferrell’s unique talent to make him his own wonderful character — portrayed happily here by Matt Bays. 

As in the original story, Buddy is a human who, as a baby, crawled into Santa’s sack, unseen until the end of the journey. Finding that the boy’s single mother had died, Santa Claus (Parrish Williams) lets him be raised by the elves, allowing Buddy to think he was one of them. 

The truth is inevitably revealed, and Buddy travels to find his biological father — who doesn’t know he exists — in New York City. The dad, Walter (Jack Tanselle), is a workaholic executive at a publishing house of children’s books who is rough on coworkers like good-natured Deb (Nina Stilabower) and neglectful of wife Emily (Carrie Neal) as well as son Michael (Dylan Aquaviva). Naturally, Walter doesn’t believe this strange man in elvish tights is his son, so has him sent away. Since Buddy claims to be from the North Pole, he is dropped off at the next-best thing — Macy’s. There he ends up among the store’s Santa’s helpers, where he falls in love with fellow “elf” Jovie (Emily Bohannon). 

From there, the story is Buddy’s struggle for acceptance and belonging, along with a chance to save Christmas for his father’s family, and the whole world — when Santa is stranded in Central Park, his sleigh too low on the Christmas Spirit that fuels it (PETA nixed his reindeer a while ago). Other notable roles include Jonathan Studdard as the stressed-out Macy’s Manager, Dick Davis and Kelsey VanVoorst as hapless children’s book writers, and Jeff Angel as Mr. Greenway, the curmudgeonly owner of the publishing company, who wants a new hit Christmas story from Walter — or else!

The feel of the show throughout is best described by one of its song titles: “Sparklejollytwinklejingley.” The mood is perpetually sweet, even when characters aren’t “Happy All The Time.” And even when they feel that “Nobody Cares,” there’s a fun dance break. 

Directed by Michael J. Lasley and Anne Beck with choreography by Beck and musical direction by Brent Marty, this is a magical ensemble effort. Seeing it on a matinee with an audience of mostly children, I noticed they were all entranced and swept up in the spirit of it all. 

Just as sweet and special as spaghetti with syrup, “Elf” is yet another holiday must-see in central Indiana, playing through Dec. 24 at the Tarkington theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, right next to the Christkindlmarkt. (Arrive early for hope of parking.) See www.civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org for info and tickets.

CCP returns with ‘Last Five Years’

By John Lyle Belden

“The Last Five Years” sounds like the experience of the last five months, but it is the title of the musical bringing live theatre back to Carmel.

Presented by Carmel Community Players at The Cat downtown, the Off-Broadway hit by Jason Robert Brown is an examination of a relationship, a doomed marriage, blending the individual perspectives of the husband and wife – one experiencing it from beginning to end, the other reflecting from the end to the beginning. At mid-performance (it is presented as a 90-minute single act) the two “cross paths” at the wedding. It is an interesting dramatic device overall, and it works.

Bradley Allan Lowe, who fell in love with the songs when gifted a CD of the cast recording in his youth, directs Nina Stilabower and Daniel Draves as Cathy and Jamie, an ill-fated couple who started with joyous promise. He, an ordinary-looking guy, is an up-and-coming novelist. She, a beautiful woman, is a struggling actress. They encourage each others’ careers at first, but especially as his keeps him with literary socialites in New York, while hers has her in obscurity in Ohio, the cracks in their relationship widen until the break becomes unavoidable.

Stilabower is excellent in character and voice, showing what a loss it is for Broadway not to notice Cathy. Draves, presenting a likable mensch, carries himself well while showing Jamie’s full range of feeling. The two occupy a nicely designed stage, by Lowe and Kassie Woodworth, with the juxtaposition of simple furnishings with the visual metaphor of a whirlwind of papers that could be his novel drafts, or pages of musicals she tries out for.

There are also interesting costume choices – credited to Lowe, Draves, Stilabower, and Cathie Morgan. Note that the must-be-seen-to-be-believed Hanukkah pajamas were real, found online. (Ask Lowe where to order them.)

While very entertaining, the show presents with safety in mind. CCP takes the ongoing health crisis seriously: Seating is spaced and limited to 50 percent capacity; temperatures are taken at the door; all patrons must wear masks, and are asked to buy tickets in advance.

“The Last Five Years” runs through Aug. 2 at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way (just south of the Main Street Arts & Design district). Get details and tickets at CarmelPlayers.org.

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.

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 Michael 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.

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.