ATI and CSO combine for one killer production

By John Lyle Belden

Today’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” at the Palladium of the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel – a first-time collaboration of Actors Theatre of Indiana and the Carmel Symphony Orchestra – explores the full potential of its dramatic and musical experience.

This popular musical is an inspired choice, with its blending of the macabre, dark humor, and tragic and romantic love, backed by an operatic aural tapestry.

The ATI company — including members of its 2016 “Sweeney” production including director Richard J. Roberts — and the CSO, under the baton of Janna Hymes, are joined by the Indianapolis Arts Chorale with area singers including members of the Indianapolis Children’s Choir. Their powerful vocal presence is like another section of orchestra, on par with the strings or wind instruments. Taken together they provide a properly dense dramatic atmosphere for the actors upon the stage to flourish.

The ATI co-founders reprise their roles. Don Farrell totally disappears into the wig, makeup, and scowl, so that all you see is Sweeney, the barber unjustly exiled so that a corrupt judge could take his wife. Now Todd has returned for vengeance; his plan includes giving the best shave in London – if you survive it. Judy Fitzgerald likewise transforms into Mrs. Lovett, baker of the “worst pies in London,” but the problem isn’t her talents, but her lack of good flesh for the meat pies. Mr. Todd’s impulsive nature with his silver razors presents her with a ghoulish opportunity. Cynthia Collins returns as the mad Beggar Woman, ever present and revealed to be more than just the one to babble “Mischief! Mischief!” outside Lovett’s shop.

Joining the cast for this spectacular: Matthew Conwell is the charming and aptly-named Anthony Hope, who repays his off-stage rescue by wooing and rescuing Sweeney’s long-lost daughter Johanna (bold beauty Elizabeth Hutson). Conwell’s voice is superb, filling the song “Johanna” with harmonious longing. David Cunningham is wonderful as the tragically naive Tobias Ragg. Mario Almonte III is sharp as rival barber Adolfo Pirelli.

For the villians, Tim Fullerton plays judge Turpin as one whose growing madness makes him increasingly dangerous, a true rival to Todd. ATI veteran Michael Elliott presents Beadle Bamford with easy slimy charm.

Rory Shivers-Brimm reprises his earlier turn as characters including madhouse keeper Jonas Fogg, truly triumphant considering his recent recovery from health issues. Karaline Feller completes the cast in roles including the Bird Seller. Thanks to Roberts’s direction and effective use of costumes by Katie Cowan Sickmeier, various players easily morph into supporting roles, such as the pie shop customers, giving the illusion of a larger cast.

Scenic designer Paul Bernard Killian and prop master Amanda Pecora make creative use of this unique setting, with simple set pieces, only the infamous baking oven being instantly recognizable. As for what could be the true “star” of the show, the Barber Chair is deceptively simple. Painted blood red, it takes its proper place on the stage, but doesn’t pull focus from the brilliant work of its human costars. Roberts makes great use of the space as well, further including the orchestra as part of the production by having characters encircle it and making use of the Palladium’s rear balconies.

Did I say “today” at the beginning of this? Yes, for those looking online on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, you have the opportunity to make the second of two performances tonight at 8 p.m. (Tickets at thecenterpresents.org or Palladium Box Office). Friday celebrated a triumphant “opening night” (with jokes that they were “halfway through the run”).

For those who can’t make it or read this later, note this as a shining example of what future collaborations can be. Hymes noted after Friday’s show that they had only two weeks of rehearsal to put the various components together – a testament to the level of talent and dedication local theatre performers and musicians put into their work for you, the Central Indiana audience.

Boy overcomes inner blindness in IRT’s ‘The Cay’

By John Lyle Belden

It is interesting when a theatre, for its show during Black History Month, stages a production that gets us to think about race in a bigger context than the typical American struggle of black/white. Such is the case with “The Cay,” on the upperstage of the Indiana Repertory Theatre through Feb. 26.

Adapted from the Theodore Taylor novel by Gayle Cornelison, and directed by Richard J. Roberts, the two-person drama is told from the perspective of a white boy, Phillip (Dalyn Stewart), who has the adventure of a lifetime. It is 1942, and living in the Caribbean, he sees World War II as an exciting novelty. As the island of Curacao is home to a Royal Dutch Shell oil refinery, German U-boats lurk nearby. This fact goes from fascinating to frightening when one sinks the ship taking Phillip home to America.

The boy is pulled onto a makeshift raft by an old black man, Timothy (David Alan Anderson). Being from the Virgin Islands, he knows how to survive on the open sea, and later, upon the small island (the “Cay” of the title) where the raft is carried by the tides.

But their survival is complicated by two factors: Phillip being blind to his own white privilege and spoiled state, and being literally blinded by a head injury. Even without physical sight, he “sees” Timothy as “Black” as a cultural state of being, something fundamentally different than himself. Over time, Phillip’s inner vision is corrected as the old man teaches him lessons in self-reliance he will need in the coming tests.

Anderson is brilliant as always in his role, and Stewart is a revelation as he more than keeps up with his costar. A lot is put on his shoulders, being narrator as well as one of a two-person cast, and Stewart handles it with Tom-Sawyeresque charisma. (Or Huck Finn, if you wish, given the obvious plot comparisons.)

The other “star” of this production is Stew, the cook’s cat on Phillip and Timothy’s ill-fated ship, which ended up on the raft with them and as a companion on the island. Rather than wrangle a real housecat (with its own diva demands), scenic designer Eric Barker molded some common kitchen items into a metal cat which the actors move around as needed – sound designer and composer Matthew Tibbs provides violin-string “meows” when appropriate.

After the opening night performance, Roberts and Barker said the cat design inspired them to make other aspects of the set, including the towering palm trees and the fish the characters catch, constructed of the metal flotsam and jetsam of life that wash up on distant shores. The result is a strangely beautiful stage and unifying visual theme that fits the story perfectly.

Find the IRT downtown at 140 W. Washington St.; call 317-635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.

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