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.

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.

‘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.

Bobdirex’s ‘Notre Dame’ rings true

By John Lyle Belden

Upon hearing that Bob Harbin and his Bobdirex productions are staging “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” a musical featuring the Alan Menken/Stephen Schwartz songs of the 1996 Disney animated film, you might wonder (as I did): Bob likes to go big and take chances, but didn’t the movie “Disney-fy” the Victor Hugo novel, making it too saccharine with an entirely-too-happy ending?

Take heart, purists. While there are a number of similarities to the animated version (and nearly all performed versions through the years have taken some liberties with Hugo’s text), this musical – originally produced in Germany by Disney Theatricals in 1999 – embraces the darker aspects of the story and doesn’t shy from its tragic elements.

This show effectively uses multiple members of the cast as narrators through the story, but most of that job falls to Clopin (Keith Potts), king of the Gypsies. We begin with how Frollo (Bill Book), the Archdeacon of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, came to adopt and raise Quasimodo (Jacob Butler), a severely deformed young man who lives sheltered among the church bells, tasked with ringing them. With no living human friends, he talks to the bells, the Saints’ statues and his fellow grotesques, the Gargoyles (Curtis Peters, Matt Rohrer and April Armstrong-Thomas).

The annual Festival of Fools draws Quasimodo out into the church courtyard, where, after meeting beautiful dancer Esmeralda (Shelbi Berry), he is crowned by Clopin as “King of the Fools.” But this king is mocked rather than honored, and Quasimodo returns to his bell tower.

The gypsy girl’s beauty draws the notice of not only the Hunchback, but also the Captain of the Guard Phoebus (Logan Moore) and Frollo. The Archdeacon struggles to convert his carnal longings into a desire to save her soul, and decides that if he can’t make her pure in his hands, he’ll have it done by fire.

The result is a stirring story of struggle between the sacred and profane, and how the line blurs between them. An ever-present choir punctuates scenes with chants like Kyrie Eleison, completing the atmosphere of the well-built Gothic set. The show’s Disney influences give it energy and welcome touches of humor, but isn’t overdone.

Harbin has not let us down, as we get excellent performances from all, especially Book and Potts, each charismatic in their own way. Berry is stunning. And Butler gives an award-worthy performance as our unlikely hero.

Once again, Bobdirex has delivered a must-see show, with performances Thursday through Sunday (June 29-July 2) and July 7-9 at the Marian University Theatre, 3200 Cold Spring Road, Indianapolis. Thursday, June 29, all military members get in free, with discounts for their companions. For more information, call 317-280-0805 or visit bobdirex.com.