A little ‘Chrystmas’ magic

By John Lyle Belden

Bryan Fonseca returns to his tradition of the holiday show he had nurtured for a dozen years, with Fonseca Theatre Company’s “A Very Bryan Chrystmas: How the Grinch Culturally Appropriated Christmas.”

(That original series is also continued at the Phoenix Theatre, 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.)

Bryan’s cast of Jean Arnold, Paul Collier Hansen, Jonathan Stombaugh, Phebe Taylor, and Dorian Wilson, with the help of Tim Brickley (music director) and Mariel Greenlee (choreographer), bring us 12 scenes of music, comedy and dance. The works of five local playwrights are featured: Eric Pfeffinger and Mark Harvey-Levine’s modern takes on the Nativity; John P. Gallo’s hilariously macabre holiday tradition; Kenyon Brown’s tale of new Grinch mischief; and Cassandra Rose’s bittersweet scene of family dysfunction. Music includes songs by Tish Hinojosa, Pete Townshend, and Tim Minchin, as well as a mix by DJ QueVee.

For those who remember, Fonseca brings back the ultimate Jewish Mother with Harvey-Levine’s “Oye Vey Maria,” but most of the bits are new, such as Brown’s “Mistletopriation,” which acts out the show’s title statement, with Hansen as the Christmas-hating terrorist. And Taylor shows her knack for playing practically any age, especially in her sweet performance of Hinojosa’s “Arbolito.” 

Throughout, this show is a little irreverent and a lot of fun. Performances run through Dec. 22 at the new Basile Theatre, 2508 W. Michigan. Get info and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.

Fonseca Theatre’s journey through America with ‘Miss You Like Hell’

By Wendy Carson

In the style of an organization willing to challenge conventions, Fonseca Theatre Company stages it’s latest offering, “Miss You Like Hell,” in a garage-warehouse. The sets surround the audience and a trail divides it into four sections, which are mostly filled with rolling and swiveling chairs to help viewers follow the action.

This musical by Quiara Alegria Hudes, with music and lyrics by Erin McKeown, is the spiritual and physical journey of a mother and daughter as they travel across the United States. While on the surface this sounds like a cliche plot, there are a lot of story elements twisting and turning so that you are never quite sure exactly how you feel about the main characters at any time.

Beatriz (Sarah Zimmerman) says she has come to reconnect with her teenage daughter, Olivia (Sharmaine Ruth), who she has not seen in years. She seems genuinely worried about Olivia’s mental state after finding a blog post threatening suicide, but Beatriz has her own needs and agenda as well. Zimmerman does a skillful job meting out her character’s motivations in a way that makes you understand that no matter how many mistakes she has made, she is still a parent and ultimately loves her child, even if her actions don’t always seem that way.

Very reluctant at first, Olivia eventually embraces this adventure with her mom and discovers more about her family history, including the background of major events in her life. Ruth deftly swerves from belligerent brat to scared child to young adult seamlessly. Her performance shows the truth of what growing up means to a person as well as what it takes out of a child.

The rest of the cast compose a Greek chorus as well as their individual roles.

Paul Collier Hansen and Patrick Goss delightfully provide some much needed comic relief as Mo and Higgins, two best friends from Arkansas on a meaningful journey of their own. Ian Cruz is in rare form as Manuel, a possible love interest and convenient rescuer. Bridgette Ludlow charms us as Olivia’s most active blog respondent, as well as the strong dose of reality that she needs to grow. Paige Scott plays up her fierce side playing the various officers of the law that are encountered throughout the trip. Yolanda Valdivia is solid as Beatriz’s attorney, taking on her difficult immigration case. Dan Scharbrough gives his curmudgeonly best as a South Dakota bureaucrat and a Wyoming hotel manager. Some scenes are punctuated with a dancing ancestor, portrayed with bold grace by Camile Ferrera. Company founder Bryan Fonseca directs. Tim Brickley leads an excellent on-stage band.

The story begins in Philadelphia, our cradle of freedom, and ends in southern California, where part of the “wall” we hear so much about now stands. This examination of the American dream dwells on questions of heritage, culture, justice and rights. But above all, it is about family, the one we are born to, and the fellow travelers who become just as important to us.

This road trip is worth the journey, playing through July 28 at Kinney Group, 2425 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis (just a block from Fonseca Theatre’s new home, now under construction). Enter at the back doors. The venue gets rather warm in the summer weather, so dress light. Find info and tickets at FonsecaTheatre.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.

Phoenix craftily regifts classic bits in annual Xmas show

By Wendy Carson

Welcome to North Pole University! The students and staff are all here to make sure you are up to speed and ready for the next semester. That is the framing conceit of this year’s installment of Phoenix Theatre’s A Very Phoenix Xmas, “Up to Snow Good.”

The cast members pose as different NPU characters in order to introduce the various scenes making up the show. Since this will be the final presentation in the current location, all of this year’s skits are glowing highlights from past shows.

While you may have seen all of the vignettes before, each one has been carefully reworked in a totally new way. In fact, my all-time favorite number, “The Baby,” has been transformed into an awesome puppet show and I feel that it is a far superior rendition to the original.

Also, since these shows have been going for over a decade, it is easy to forget some of them. “Les Miserabelves” is one such example. I had honestly forgotten the hilarity resulting from blending a certain Christmas classic with a French Revolutionary musical. Needless to say, it stands the test of time.

Devan Mathias’s tender take on “Hard Candy Christmas” is hauntingly beautiful especially as she slowly transforms into a her next skit’s character as she sings.

Paul Collier Hansen’s stirring portion of “Hallelujah Hallelujah” is pure sweet sadness with a tiny touch of hope.

Rob Johansen amazingly transforms from a hard-edged Private Eye in “Christmas Heat” to a sleek acrobat in “You Can Fly”.

Nathan Robbins gives a solemn turn in the sweetly insightful “A Requiem for Shermy,” with Gail Payne as another nearly-forgotten character, a scene which will leave you reassessing how you watch a certain popular Christmas classic.

These, along with Jean Arnold, Andrea Heiden and Carlos Medina Maldonado, are all such standout talents. And with such great material, under the direction of Phoenix boss Bryan Fonseca, they all work together so well without chewing the scenery or stealing scenes.

Given the Phoenix’s well-earned reputation for edgy and controversial fare, we’re happy to note that even with their tongue in cheek, there is nothing too over-the-top (though the creche catapult in the War on Christmas scene comes close).

So pull on your ugliest Christmas sweater, gather your loved ones and snuggle up at the Phoenix Theater, 749 N. Park Ave. in downtown Indy, with a spirited take on the holidays as we know them, on the main stage through Dec. 23. Get info and tickets at www.phoenixtheatre.org.

ATI hosts one wild wedding

By John Lyle Belden

“It Shoulda Been You” is a freewheeling comedy musical in a single movie-length act, presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana through Feb. 12 at The Studio Theater in The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

The setting is a wedding held at a hotel, with all its comic potential – especially when the bride and groom come from different backgrounds. Rebecca Steinberg (Laura Sportiello) is from a middle-class Jewish family, while her fiancé Brian Howard (Michael Ferraro) is from well-to-do WASPs. Tasked with not letting this blessed occasion become a disaster is Rebecca’s unmarried older sister Jenny (Karaline Feller), who fortunately has the help of magically fabulous wedding planner Albert (John Vessels).

Bring on the inevitable clash of personalities between Rebecca’s parents, Murray (Matthew Reeder) and Judy (Judy Fitzgerald), and Brian’s parents George and Georgette (Bill Book and Cynthia Collins); and mix in Maid of Honor Annie (Teneh B.C. Karimu) and Best Man Greg (Jeff Pierpoint) – who are more a part of the upcoming marriage than anyone suspects – Rebecca’s ex-boyfriend Marty (Nic Eastlund), and the assorted roles played by Paul Hansen and Holly Stults, and you have a volatile combination that results in hilarity with a welcome happy ending for all.

The songs are snappy, adding to the punchlines and helping the story along. The cast is excellent in voice and comic form. Vessels puts his scene-stealing skills to excellent use, and you can’t help but feel for Sportiello’s Jenny from the moment she opens the show through to when she utters its last line.

Having this play in the intimate confines of the Studio Theater adds to the close familial atmosphere, and even facilitates one actor’s entrance. To get everyone in the mood, there is a Guestbook as you enter the theater, and ushers let you know as you are seated whether you are on the bride or groom’s side. A necessary salute, then, to director Bill Jenkins and the crew for a fun production, including an elegantly simple, yet simply elegant set by P. Bernard Killian.

And by the way, I’m leaving out a surprising plot twist – see it for yourself!

For information and tickets, call 317-843-3800 or visit atistage.org.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Review: Untraditional tradition delivers again

By John Lyle Belden

Gayle Steigerwald – a very familiar face to Phoenix Theatre patrons – admits during “A Very Phoenix Xmas X: Oh Come Let Us Adore Us” that what is mainly a lampoon of holiday traditions has become an Indianapolis holiday tradition itself.

Steigerwald, a veteran of numerous “Phoenix Xmas” skits, acts as emcee for this year’s show, with its mixture of old and new elements in its songs and short plays, garnished with projected photos from past productions while Steigerwald banters as the cast change costumes. The other players – Scot Greenwell, Paul Hansen, Olivia Huntley, Rob Johanson, Eric J. Olson, Sara Rieman and Lincoln Sientz with musician Deb Mullins – are also familiar faces, and eagerly deliver like the pros they are.

The sock monkeys and lighted dancers return, and we get unusual takes on Christmas carols, the tree, gifting, and even the jolly character at the center of the celebration. There’s an avant garde piece, a bit of political commentary, and moments that reach more for the heart than the funny bone. Nothing is too sacred for this bunch, but there is no big sacrilege either. So, feel free to indulge in this alternate “tradition,” playing through Dec. 20 at the Phoenix, 749 Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair downtown); see www.phoenixtheatre.org or call 317-635-7529.

Review: A ‘Fantastick’ show

By Wendy Carson

Once upon a time, there was a boy, a girl, their two fathers and a wall. Thus begins “The Fantasticks,” a little fairy tale of love, deception, desire, foiled plans and happiness presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana.

From the opening strains of the show’s most famous song, “Try to Remember,” you are whisked back to a time when the world was filled with dewy-eyed optimism, and happily-ever-afters can be found at every turn. Therefore, it is very easy to see why this show holds the unbeatable record of running continuously for 42 years and 17,161 performances.

In fact, the aforementioned song is performed by El Gallo, who serves as the narrator and possible villain of the story. Joining him in his unfurling of the story is The Mute, who not only sets the mood by providing props and ambiance to help set each scene but also presents our storyteller with a sounding board of sorts with which to judge the proceedings.

As the beginning of the show approaches, the audience is privy to the standard calls to the cast and crew that are generally kept backstage for only them to hear. All of the main characters enter wearing all black clothes and are provided with a few articles of color by our narrator and his assistant to wear in order to differentiate one from another. Only the two fools are actually allowed any more of a costume for themselves.

The basic story is hardly unique, a son and daughter of two feuding families fall in love despite being separated by a “grudge wall” and seek to marry. What sets this apart is that the fathers are actually best friends and are merely pretending to feud in order to get their children together. They even go as far as to hire a renowned robber to abduct the girl so that the boy can save her and they can drop the sham of a feud and all be joined together in happiness.

While it does appear that this is the outcome, after a bit the children grow jaded and restless for adventure so the boy leaves to seek his fortune and experience life. The girl is left to her daydreams and decides to run away with her would-be abductor in order to find her own adventures. The fathers now feud in earnest and the wall is resurrected.

Heedless of our narrator’s warnings, the world is a harsh place that scars and reshapes them both. They are reunited, worse for wear, with eyes fully opened to the bitter realities of life and adulthood.

Laura Sportiello’s portrayal of Luisa, the girl, is so beamingly bright one might need sunglasses to take it all in. Michael Ferraro’s subtle turn as the boy, Matt, seems almost wooden in comparison. Both Paul Collier Hansen and Michael Elliot do an excellent job of balancing the roles of Henry and Mortimer, the fools, somewhere directly between menacing and pathetic.

In an inspired stroke of casting genius, the roles for the fathers, Bellomy and Hucklebee are both portrayed by women. Judy Fitzgerald and Cynthia Collins excellently embody these roles and make you forget the roles could ever be played by men.

With this level of talent already present it is hard to believe that it could be surpassed, but Logan Moore and Holly Stults manage to do just that. Moore’s stunning portrayal of El Gallo brings menace, delight, snark, and morality to the mix. The ease in which he shifts from seductive to dangerous is wondrous to behold. Assisting him is his narrative duties is The Mute, brilliantly brought to life by Stults. She not only helps out keeping the action going but wordlessly gives the audience commentary and a voice throughout the show.

“The Fantasticks” won’t have an endless run here, playing through Sunday (Sept. 27) at The Studio Theater in The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Call 317-843-3800.