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.

‘Hosanna’ to the Mud Creek ‘Superstar’

By John Lyle Belden

“Jesus Christ Superstar,” Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera passion play, opened, appropriately, on Good Friday at Mud Creek Players.

The production, directed by Michelle Moore, embraced its setting within the cozy confines of the MCP “barn,” with rough-wood sets and a punk aesthetic, backed by a five-piece rock band. Cast members filled the aisles at times, lending a feeling more immersive than crowded. The costumes appeared to be raided from “Hair” or “American Idiot,” but still worked in the overall look, making our two male leads better stand out — the disciple Judas (Michael Lipphardt) all business in a leather jacket, and Jesus (Onis Dean) dressed casual like a man who, naturally, would fit in anywhere.

For those unfamiliar with this telling of the last week of Christ’s life, these are the main two perspectives — Judas fearing what could happen, and Jesus frustrated that only he can see what must happen — followed by the points of view of Mary Magdalene (Pearl Scott), a woman in love with the man as much as what he stands for; and Caiaphas (Lot Turner), the High Priest who sees a threat not only to his own personal power, but also to the safety of Jews in occupied Roman Palestine.

Dean and Lipphardt sing their hearts out — and I worry for their throats. Scott is pure sweetness. Turner just oozes corruption, ably accompanied by Kata Ewigleben as Annas. We also get good vocals from Eli Robinson as Simon the Zealot and Austin Stodghill as the Apostle Peter. Jeremy Crouch is regal as Pilate, and Rick Barber absolutely fabulous as King Herod.

“Don’t get me wrong, now,” I won’t say this production is flawless, but taken as a whole, in the spirit of this time of year, it is an incredible experience and celebration of a foundational event of Christianity.

Performances run through May 4. Mud Creek Players is at 9740 E. 86th St. in northeast Indianapolis, near Geist. Call 317-290-5343 or visit mudcreekplayers.com.

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.

Review: An entertaining and enlightening Sondheim salute

By John Lyle Belden

Did you know that it took three tries before “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” had an opening song that worked?

You get lots of behind-the-scenes glimpses like this in “Sondheim on Sondheim,” Thursday through Sunday at Footlite Musicals. This hybrid of documentary and revue has Stephen Sondheim himself projected on a big screen, talking about his life and career, while live performers – Lauren Bowers, Graham Brinklow, Onis Dean, Laura Duvall-Whitson, Karen Frye, Jeff Fuller, Sarah Marone and Larry Sommers – sing songs from his stage shows. The numbers range from choruses and medleys to full performances of songs like “Gun Song,” “Finishing the Hat” and “Send in the Clowns.”

If you don’t like Sondheim – then, really, why are you reading this? – but if you do like the man or his musicals at all, you’ll find this show charming and insightful. The singers are well up to the task, with some, like director Bill Hale, having worked on the Footlite production of “Follies” a couple of years back. However, the orchestra on stage does threaten to sonically overwhelm them. Fortunately, the audience is also on the Footlite stage, an intimate arrangement that gives the vocalists the freedom and challenge of working un-mic’ed.

Circumstances limited the show’s run, so see it this weekend at the Hedback Theater, 1847 N. Alabama St. Call 317-926-6630 or see footlite.org.