Agape youth willing to ‘rumble’ with tough topics

By John Lyle Belden

Agape Theater Company, a middle- through high school youth program hosted by Our Lady of the Greenwood Catholic Church, has a particular approach. It takes on classic stage works – from Shakespeare to Broadway – with an eye to the moral and spiritual lessons they hold. In June, they tackled the subject of a Tony winner with now two Oscar-winning film productions: “West Side Story.”

(Various excuses I could give prevented Wendy and I from attending opening weekend, but Agape invited us for the closing.)

With book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the mid-20th century musical is based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” with feuding families replaced by rival street gangs: the Jets, white kids whose working-class families are getting pinched by Manhattan’s building boom; and the Sharks, young immigrants from Puerto Rico hoping for their own American Dream. Personally, I think the “Story” is a little better than in R&J, as the tension and stakes are a little more real with a clash of two cultures, and Tony (our stand-in for Romeo) is, while still a lovesick fool, less immaturely foolish than that boy in Fair Verona. Plus, there are those cool songs (reeeal cool).

Directed by Kathy Phipps with musical director April Barnes, the young cast gave a top-notch performance. The present medical concerns that put a lot of understudies and swings on the stage in New York also struck here, yet the company managed to roll with the changes, with only a couple of cancellations, and making cast changes without losing a step.

Bursting with talent and Latinx pride are Rebekah Barajas as Maria, Jaelynn Keating as Anita, and Cordale Hankins as Sharks leader Bernardo. Leading the Jets with an ever-tense feeling their turf is slipping away are smooth Riff (Grant Scott-Miller, u/s Nathan Ellenberger) and hot-headed Action (Clayton Mutchman), who long for their true leader, Tony (Johnny Gaiffe, u/s Caleb Wilson) to take charge. But Tony has a real job, and senses real possibilities (“Something’s Coming”) but as the saying goes, “When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet.” The gangs want to have the rumble (gang-fight) to end all rumbles, with the terms set at the neutral-ground school dance. Tony and Maria are each reluctant to attend, but they go – they meet – and their fates are set.

Other tensions include the cops, ever-present but always a step behind (and the butt of the joke in one song). More subtle is the hint dropped by Bernardo that Tony is called “Pollack” behind his back, not even fully respected by his fellow Caucasians. In today’s climate, we especially feel for “tomboy” Anybodys (Aleah Mutchman, u/s Jocelyne Brake) and the desire to join a hoodlum gang being their only hope for being “one of the boys.”

The dancing and acting were superb – having actors the ages of their characters helped – as were the voices, heartbreaking at times. Still, despite the fun moments, the story is still a tragedy. There was no backing down from the dark moments, complete with believable anguish.

In a promotional video, the principal cast spoke of the emotional burden they were taking on, and of being true to all who have done these roles before. When asked what they hoped the audience would take away, the unanimous answer was that all would take time to look past people’s differences and let go of hate. They did well towards accomplishing that mission.

Agape will next perform at IndyFringe in August, with “Sing Down the Moon: Appalachian Wonder Tales.” They also return to Indy Bard Fest this fall with Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.” For more information, including supporting this 501c3, visit agapetheatercompany.com.

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.