Catch the spirit of Civic’s ‘Color Purple’

By John Lyle Belden

The Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre is helping bring live audiences back in a big way with the Tony-winning musical “The Color Purple.”

For those unfamiliar with the acclaimed Alice Walker novel, or the Oscar-nominated Stephen Spielberg film (starring Whoopi Goldberg), this complex and dark coming-of-age story is difficult to justly describe. From a book by Marsha Norman with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray – directed for the Civic by Michael J. Lasley with musical direction by Teneh B.C. Karimu – “The Color Purple” is challenging and disturbing, yet uplifting and life-affirming. This is one of those musicals where it’s best to just go and see for yourself the pain and triumph, and have the soulful voices wash over you. Whether or not God is in this place, or even with our heroine Celie, his Spirit has no doubt taken notice.

A lot happens in the story, so the musical keeps the characters, their motivations and actions mostly sung-through, up front with some handy chairs the only necessary props. Early 20th-century rural Georgia is more evoked than shown. The chorus starts out singing to the Lord, while Celie (Bridgette Michelle Ludlow) essentially asks if the Creator has forsaken her. Life with her abusive father (Bradley Alan Lowe) is so bad, that marriage to whip-toting Mister (Troy T. Thomas) is marginally better.

Though descended from slaves, Mister considers every person on his land his property, even his children. He frequently reminds Celie she is “ugly” and berates young son Harpo (Brenton Anderson) for being kind-hearted. At least Celie’s sister Nettie (Kendra Randle) manages to escape, promising to write to her from wherever she goes – but Mister intercepts the letters, letting Celie think she is alone in the world.

A strong-woman example comes into Celie’s life in Harpo’s bride Sofia (Rachel Bibbs), who will herself find the limits of standing up to authority in that era. We also meet the magnetic Shug Avery (Ashlee Baskin), the singer who is Mister’s one weakness, and who shakes things up even more than expected by befriending Celie. The large cast also features Miata McMichael as sweet Squeak, and Rayanna Bibbs, Tiffany Gilliam and Alexandria Warfield as the Church Ladies – this culture’s equivilant of a Greek Chorus.

Performances are solid, including Ludlow’s perseverance, Baskin’s complexity, Anderson’s charm, Rachel Bibbs’s full-throated attitude, and Thomas’s complete character arc.

Though bad times come frequently, there are genuine moments of joy and laughter, music in the juke-joint, colorful fabrics, and without spoiling, I’ll note that a measure of justice is meted out.

See – and feel – “The Color Purple” through Oct. 23 at the Tarkington theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get info and tickets at civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Diamond’s rough drama gets Monument-al treatment

By John Lyle Belden

Two academics, an actor, and a doctor walk onto a stage.

Thus begins the drama “Smart People” by Lydia R. Diamond, presented by Monument Theatre Company at the Fonseca Theatre Company’s Basile Theatre. We are introduced to our four characters each finding themselves in frustrating circumstances: tenure-track Harvard professor Brian White (Maverick Schmidt) berates his students for not getting the gist of what he sees as obvious conclusions; psychology prof Ginny Yang (Kim Egan) tries to present her research findings, interrupted by trivial questions; aspiring actor Valerie Johnston (Barbara Michelle Dabney) struggles to apply her MFA-informed approach to a Shakespeare role while the director gives her inconsistent, illogical instructions; and Dr. Jackson Moore (Jamaal McCray) answers to an administrator berating him for taking life-saving initiative with a patient over his supervisor’s instructions. Ever feel like people just don’t get what you are trying to say?

Over the course of these two long acts, their four lives somehow weave together (how small was Cambridge, Mass., in 2008?), leading up to a borderline-intervention dinner with the whole cast late in the play. While each person’s niggling frustration continues through the plot, the big controversy is in White’s research, in which he publicly presents that he has biologically quantified “white privilege” (Diamond abandoned subtlety; the professor’s name is only Exhibit A).

The play has a lot to say, and says it, as things progress mainly because that’s how Diamond wrote them, which means I have to give a lot of credit to this foursome in giving their individual characters dimension and some degree of credible life.

It’s an interesting comedy that includes jokes the characters themselves point out aren’t funny. Yet there are some bits of humor, mostly in the same vein as Avenue Q’s “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” (but without the singing). Mainly we get a series of interesting scenes with thought-provoking points. For instance, White’s rants point out well-meaning white liberals’ self-imposed blindness to their passive racism. But flaws in the research, such as the near-impossible task of defining a singular “white” culture to have this inborn bigotry, get brushed aside. Non-whites other than African-Americans get token mention. In one moment, Yang counsels an off-stage Japanese-American woman who identifies as white – apparently the psychologist’s insistence in this unseen person embracing an Asian identity eventually leads to a suicide attempt, but this plot thread leads nowhere.

One can tell that this play looked awesome in the scripts given to the cast and director Rayanna Bibbs. There’s so much “meat” to chew on as an actor, a wide range of emotions, controversial moments to make your audience do a “wait-what?!” And it all caps off with the then-improbable election of Barack Obama (not a big spoiler). For those reading this who really dig such drama exercises, and the big-issue conversations you’ll have on the way home, “Smart People” could be a smart choice. Even better, Monument is doing a pay-what-you-can season.

So, whether you want to give a donation for the company’s artistic efforts, or you are just a fellow starving artist who can only give what’s in your pockets at the moment, make your reservation at monumenttheatrecompany.org. The play runs through Aug. 15. Find the stage at 2508 W. Michigan, indoors (box office staff are masked).

IndyFringe: Les Chanteuses

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Magic Thread Cabaret brings us an hour of stellar voices raised in tribute to some of the most legendary Divas of our day. Plus, they give us three local ladies whose talents are a brilliant match to the beloved songs they are presenting.

Rayanna Bibbs leads off the night by taking the helm of Aretha’s “Respect”. She channels Jennifer Hudson in her performance of “I am Changing” and her turn at “Baby Love” will have you dancing in your seat. However, her standout number is “A Natural Woman” where she comes out in the most luxurious fur coat and shows you that she is worth every cent of the cost.

Our next Chanteuse is Bridgette Ludlow who roars in with “Midnight Train to Georgia”. Her amazing treatment of “Baby Love”, starting as a sultry torch song and then shifting gears into the bubbly dance song it is. But in my opinion, I think her most amazing work with her interpretation of “God Bless the Child” that I feel showcases her full range of talent in making me (who absolutely hates that song) thoroughly enjoy the song.

Our final singer is Enjoli’ Desiree. She is the one who is given the largest range of material to work with and she gives us her all. The soft yearning of “La Vie En Rose” is a surprising counterpoint to her roaring dominance of “Proud Mary”. She proves that there is not a sentiment she can perfectly express through song.

My one criticism of the show is that the Pianist spends a good portion of the show trying to upstage the singers. I know he is the artistic director, so that should mean that he understands that this is their time in the spotlight and he should allow them to shine.

While each singer assuredly deserves the title of Chanteuse, it is when their voices are brought together that make for some of the most magical performances of the night. So make it a point to pay tribute not only to the Divas being honored, but also the Divas honoring them.

Remaining performances are Friday through Sunday at the District Theater (former TOTS location) 627 Massachusetts Ave.

IndyFringe: ‘Broadway’s Leading Ladies: A Tribute’

This show is part of the 14th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 16-26, 2018 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

Presented by Dustin Klein and Tom Alvarez and their Magic Thread Cabaret, “Broadway’s Leading Ladies” is a rousing revue sung by local divas Shelbi Berry, Rayanna Bibbs and Virginia Vasquez.

From the moment the trio get to “work” on a hit from “Hamilton,” we are treated to one powerful performance after another. You’ll want Vasquez to “Gimme, Gimme” more, see Berry “Defying Gravity,” and be reassured that Bibbs is “…Not Going.” Yes, as the latter song says, you’re gonna love them.

Kudos also to the three-piece band of Klein, Greg Gegogeine and Greg Wolff, as well as Austin Schlenz for his on-stage assistance.

No tables at this cabaret, on the third floor of the Firehouse union hall (748 Mass Ave.), but we don’t care — they would only get in the way of the standing ovation.

‘Brooklyn’ comes to Footlite

By John Lyle Belden

As it is often said, context is everything.

“Brooklyn: The Musical” has a backstory that nearly overshadows the show itself. Its creators, Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson, once collaborated decades ago before going seperate ways. More recently, McPherson, who had a comfortable life in New England, came across Schoenfeld, then a homeless street musician in Brooklyn. She took him in, and inspired by his tough life, they wrote what would become this musical.

After opening in Colorado, “Brooklyn” had a nearly full year on Broadway – October 2004 to June 2005. New York critics were not kind, but Kathleen Clarke Horrigan of Indy’s Footlite Musicals saw it during its final month and fell in love. After years of hunting for a way to bring the musical to Indiana, she finally has “Brooklyn” occupying the Footlite stage.

This is Footlite’s traditional January “cabaret” style show, with seating right on the stage, actors and audience sharing a common space. When we arrive to take our seats, we are transported to a grubby street corner by the Brooklyn Bridge, complete with trash, graffiti and discarded humanity. One man, the Street Singer (Stevie Jones) starts to perform with a generous voice and open guitar case. He is joined by four others, hardy “City Weeds” that spring up to help present his “Sidewalk Fairy Tale.”

For the most part, this show is the play-within-the-play about a Parisian girl, “Brooklyn,” named for the home of the American father she never knew. After losing her mother (played by Page Brown), Brooklyn (Shelbi Berry) eventually makes her way to New York as a famous singer, with one unfinished song that only her real dad would know. Local diva Paradice (Kendra Randle) is not amused and wants this French upstart off her turf. Brooklyn accepts Paradice’s challenge for a winner-take-all sing-off in hopes that this will aid her quest. But when she finds her father (Donny Torres) and learns his truth, will a happy ending to this tale be possible?

I’m leaving out a lot of details, of course, so you can discover them yourself. Dwelling on them would ruin the overall fantasia effect of the story, anyway. In the end, we truly learn who this story is about and for, which then sets the “fairy tale” as a whole in a clearer light.

The issue of homelessness permeates this story and production, but – as is true in everyday conversations – it is not directly addressed. This show won’t preach to you, but does present these people’s humanity, the “Heart Behind These Hands,” and clues to what can bring a person down to life under a bridge. This production is also helping raise awareness and funds for the local Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention (www.chipindy.org).

Jones is a wonderful narrator with sweet voice and charisma to spare. Beautiful Berry and sassy Randle make an excellent sweet-sour yin-yang. Brown is angelic (literally) and Torres brings all the layers of his complex character. In other words, these “weeds” are a pitch-perfect bouquet of talent.

Also impressive is the look and atmosphere of the stage set by Stephen Matters, like a gritty set for “Rent” gone to seed, complete with lights and sounds (but thankfully no smells) to make you feel almost a bit unsafe. Costumes (by Curt Pickard) and props are marvels of recycling and improvisation with discarded everyday objects, oddly adding to the whimsy of some scenes.

Combine these elements with backing street people (Rayanna Bibbs, Tristan Bustos, Amy Douglas and Michael Davis) and an on-stage band led by Linda Parr, and you have one of those musicals that is as much an experience as a show. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself humming an “Unfinished Lullaby” or have the words “With our tears, we water roses” tattooed to your memory.

This rare gem of an almost-forgotten musical has performances today through Sunday and Jan. 18-21 at 1847 N. Alabama. Call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.

Footlite’s sweet ‘Dream’

By John Lyle Belden

Simply put, the Footlite Musicals’ production of “Dreamgirls” is a triumph.

The whole show gives off energy, channeled through the performances of our Dreamettes/Dreams – Deena (Kat Council), Lorrell (Tiffany Gilliam) and especially Effie (Rayanna Bibbs) – along with Effie’s songwriting brother C.C. (Tyler Futrell), ambitious manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (Ollice Nickson), faithful Marty (Jalil Stephens) and the electric James “Thunder” Early (Brenton Anderson).

In a story inspired by the struggles of African-American singers, especially girl groups, to make it big in the mainstream music scene in the 1960s, a hopeful trio from Chicago enters the famous Apollo Amateur Night in New York. They don’t win, but get their break as Taylor, then a car salesman, exploits opportunities and arranges for the Dreamettes to back Early under Marty’s management. From there, their arc goes upward, even if it takes cash payola to get their songs on the charts over white imitators. Taylor’s manipulations become more and more brazen, until Marty quits and Effie finds herself replaced (by Michelle [Vanessa Web]) and left crying backstage. Act II finds our characters in the 1970s and the transition from R&B to disco. How has success, or lack thereof, treated our Dreamgirls?

If you know how that turns out – see it for the beauty and power of it in your presence again. If you haven’t, see it, it’s one heck of a show. If you have only seen the movie (excellent in its own way), see the difference with its inventively single set and churning pace. Feel the heat from Early’s performances. Get blasted by Effie’s pipes.

Hats off to director Damon Clevenger, something this good couldn’t happen by accident.

And I am telling you, you should be going – to the Hedback Theatre, 1847 N. Alabama St., weekends through May 21. Call 317-926-6630 or see www.footlite.org.

Big fun at ‘Little Shop’

By John Lyle Belden

The horror movie-turned-musical “Little Shop of Horrors” has set up at Indy’s Footlite Musicals through the end of the month. And for its many fans, that’s all I need to say.

For the unfamiliar, it is the story of nerdy flower-shop worker Seymour, who discovers an unusual plant that makes the shop prosper and him famous. The one downside: the plant feeds on human blood. Then there’s sweet Audrey, who Seymour is sweet on and even names the plant after, but she has an abusive sadistic boyfriend – as the song goes, “He sure looks like plant food to me!”

Phil Criswell handles the many shades of Seymour, from coward to reluctant hero. Michael Davis is good as well, as shopkeeper Mr. Mushnik. John Kern more than earns his keep by not only playing the sadistic dentist boyfriend, but practically every other supporting character.

Emily Schaab is an excellent Audrey – while she doesn’t have the voice of Ellen Greene (who sang the role on Broadway and in the film) she doesn’t make the mistake of trying to sound like her, making this role her own.

Audrey II is ably handled by puppeteer Theo Vanore with the unmistakable voice of Tristan Ross.

And it’s all backed by a wonderful chorus – both in the doo-wop and Greek sense – of Rayanna Bibbs, Rachel Bibbs, Iloni Cospy, Adrienne Dixon and Bianca Cureton. Hopefully at least one of these women will reappear in Footlite’s production of “Dreamgirls” in May.

While it may be cliché to say this is a fun show, it’s hard to think of a better adjective. The pacing is smooth and the songs dare you to sing along (actually, there is one moment of audience participation). Note that if you have only seen the 1986 Frank Oz film, there are some different songs and a different ending.

Find Footlite at 1847 N. Alabama St.; call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.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.