The King turns Queen in Phoenix’s ‘Georgia McBride’

By John Lyle Belden

Phoenix Theatre opens its 2019-20 season with the fabulous Off-Broadway comedy, “The Legend of Georgia McBride” by Matthew Lopez.

Set in the Florida Panhandle, just as Casey (Sam C. Jones), a budding Elvis impersonator with a bit of high school musical experience, is finally getting his act to work, Cleo’s Bar on Panama City Beach decides to change its entertainment. Desperate for a bigger (or any) audience, bar manager Eddie (Ty Stover) takes a chance on his cousin, drag queen Miss Tracy Mills (John Vessels).

Casey is in a bind, as his wife Jo (Bridgette Ludlow) is pregnant, so he stays on as bartender. Then, when Miss Tracy’s fellow entertainer, Anna-Rexia Nervosa (Jonathan Studdard), can’t go on, Casey is pressed into service in dress, wig and makeup, and Georgia McBride is born!

Once our hopelessly hetero hero accepts his new persona, “her” popularity rises on the beach-bar scene, but Casey can’t bring himself to tell Jo what he’s been doing. It’s easy to see that a reckoning is coming for Florida’s newest Queen.

This play is loaded with both humor – in side-splitting comic moments – and heart. In Jones and Ludlow’s performance, you can tell Casey and Jo truly love each other, though he tests her patience with his immaturity, and she his with her bouts of pessimism.

Vessels is amazing, whether playing the confident woman backstage or the hilarious performer in the spotlight. Studdard is excellent in double-duty as Rexy, who informs Casey that the drag life is more than just a lip-synching gig; and as Casey and Jo’s landlord and friend, Jason – his double-take when he find’s out about Casey doing drag is priceless. Stover as Eddie is in his element, as he plays a thin-tempered but lovable Falstaff with bills to pay.

The drag scenes are played to the Phoenix audience as the bar’s audience, so cast members informed us after opening night that people sitting up front could tip them like in a regular drag show. Those scenes include clever musical mash-ups, and wonderful costumes by Stephen Hollenbeck. Suzanne Fleenor directs.

The “Legend” continues through Oct. 6 at the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois in downtown Indianapolis. Information and tickets at phoenixtheatre.org.

Civic: Good News(ies)

By John Lyle Belden

Though based on little-known history and a film that bombed, Disney’s “Newsies” has built a strong following. And now the Tony-winning musical is locally produced in central Indiana by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, running through May 11 at the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel.

The story is based on the New York Newsboys’ Strike of 1899, during which impoverished children revolted at price hikes on the papers they sold for publishing moguls Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst – and won. Disney dramatized it musically for cinemas in 1992, without success (despite starring a young Christian Bale), but the film found fans through its video release. Disney finally put it on the stage (where arguably it always belonged) in 2011 – on Broadway in 2012 – with a fresh book by the legendary Harvey Fierstein while keeping and expanding the music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman.

Although the plot does lean on a mix of fictional and real characters, the overall history rings true, even moreso in the Civic production with the addition of “newsgirls” (boys and girls both hawked papers at the time and participated in the strike).

Our eventual hero, Jack Kelly (Jake Letts) and unfortunately-nicknamed Crutchie (David Cunningham) are among the more respected of the Lower Manhattan Newsies. They are mostly orphans, except for newcomer Davey (Joseph Bermingham) and little sister Les (Emily Chrzanowski), forced to be breadwinners while their father is too injured to work.

Meanwhile, Pulitzer (Steve Cruze) reasons an easy way to make up for flat and declining paper sales is to raise the price of the papers. After all, what can a bunch of poor kids do about it? Faced with possible starvation if they can’t make up their losses, the Newsies give their answer – Strike!

The children have allies: a woman reporter, Katherine (Ani Arzumanian), who wants to stop writing fluff and gets the Newsies on the front page; and Vaudeville diva Medda Larkin (Tiffany Gilliam), who hires Jack (a talented artist, by the way) to paint backdrops and hosts a Newsies rally at her theater. Pulitzer responds, flexing his considerable power, but our underdogs find a way to beat the publishers at their own game.

Other notable roles include Darrin Gowan as Wiesel, who sells the Newsies the papers; Parrish Williams as evil Warden Snyder of The Refuge, an orphanage run like a prison; and Tom Beeler as New York Gov. Theodore Roosevelt (yes, the eventual President).

The show is largely a by-the-numbers musical — complete with reluctant hero, lead characters falling in love, potential betrayal, and “just when you think all is lost…” – but those numbers, the song-and-dance numbers, are something special. Our large youthful ensemble put on several spectacular dancing scenes – directed by Suzanne Fleenor, with musical direction by Brent Marty and choreography by Anne Beck – with memorable tunes including “The World Will Know” and “King of New York.”

For a good-time musical with historical heft, the Civic’s “Newsies” is worth your dime. Call 317-483-3800 or visit civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.

Phoenix shines with ‘Bright Star’

By John Lyle Belden

A show like the musical “Bright Star” brings with it a lot of expectations.

It is co-written by the legendary Steve Martin (with singer-songwriter Edie Brickell), a connoisseur of the absurd, even as a playwright (see “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” “The Underpants”). But if one recalls the spirit of his film “Pennies From Heaven,” Martin also loves the innocence of a feel-good musical. And “Bright Star” delivers with its upbeat attitude (the title is also the third musical number) and just an edge of drama – sort of an “Oklahoma” set in the Carolinas. Wendy compares the feel to “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou.”

We are alerted to the fact that this is based – loosely – on a true story. But, I would advise one not to read the story of the Iron Mountain Baby, printed in the program, until after you see the show, as it makes the plot more predictable than it already is. Besides, the true events happened in earlier decades, and in Missouri. “Bright Star” is a fictional tale (with the luxury of replying to “oh, that couldn’t have happened” with “it actually did, once”) taking place in Hayes Creek, Asheville, Zebulon and Raleigh, N.C.

In addition, there’s the burden of living up to being a Broadway hit. Considering it’s the Phoenix Theatre launching the local premiere, and the standing ovation by the packed audience at Thursday’s preview, this expectation has been well met.

At the end of World War II, Billy Cane (Ian Laudano) comes home from the Army to find his Daddy (Joey Collins) and childhood best friend Margo (Betsy Norton) waiting for him, but his mother passed on. Billy aspires to be a writer, and gives his essays to Margo, who runs the local bookstore, to edit for submission to magazines. He decides to take his best works and deliver them by hand to the Asheville Southern Journal – a fool’s errand, as copy editor Daryl (John Vessels) is a strict gatekeeper. But senior editor Alice Murphy (Molly Garner) sees something in this young man, and agrees to read his work.

We then get a look at Murphy’s past, and from there the story flows back and forth between the 1920s and ’40s, but Martin and Brickell’s plot – and director Suzanne Fleenor – don’t let things get confusing. Speaking of flow, the choreography, nicely done by Carol Worcel, seems to extend even to inanimate objects as furniture and setpieces on subtle casters seem to dance in and out of scenes as needed.

As a teen, Alice falls in love with Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Patrick Clements), son of Zebulon’s no-nonsense Mayor (Charles Goad). She is seen as the “black sheep” of her family, headed by her Bible-toting father (Paul Tavianini) and mother (Maryjayne Waddell), so it isn’t surprising when she gets in trouble. Jimmy Ray wants to do right by her, but the Mayor wants no scandal and takes matters literally into his own hands.

In Billy’s era, he has been accepted as a writer for the Journal, but struggles to find his voice – while also dealing with advances by Daryl’s assistant, Lucy (Ashley Dillard). Meanwhile, back in Hayes Creek, Margo wonders if a new dress will be enough to wake Billy up to her growing feelings for him.

All the plotlines come together in ways you see coming but are still satisfying. This is aided by some first-rate performances – Laudano as the happy optimist, Garner giving Alice deep wells of strength, Clements with his powerful voice and effortless manner, Collins radiating wisdom through his aw-shucks hillbilly facade, Norton as charming as ever as Margo, the antics of Dillard and Vessels that lend comedy relief without getting too silly, Tavianini’s firm hand reaching toward the light, and Goad’s grasping hand committing to the role of villain. Ensemble members also get their moments, including Kenny Shepard as the Mayor’s assistant, and Conner Chamberlin as Max – the lonely guy who has no shot with Margo, but can’t help trying.

An excellent band of strings and bluegrass instruments, led by Brent Marty at the piano, occupies the back of the stage like a natural part of the environment.

I’ve heard from the Phoenix, 705 N. Illinois St., that the show’s run – through Oct. 7 – is selling out fast. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

Phoenix blesses us with ‘Rosewater’

By John Lyle Belden

The Phoenix Theatre, at its new home at 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indy, is off to a great start with the musical of “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” – by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken (one of their first collaborations) from the novel by Indiana’s own Kurt Vonnegut – playing through June 3.

The title refers to Eliot Rosewater, son of a millionaire U.S. Senator, who manages the family foundation which gives money to practically everyone who asks. But being generous is not enough to soothe his conscience, bothered by his actions in World War II that resulted in the death of German volunteer firemen. So he disappears from his New York office and pops up at volunteer firehouses across America, seeking his purpose until he finds it – at the family home in Rosewater County, Indiana.

Aside from the significance of telling an Indiana story by a Hoosier author, performing a satire about greed in today’s political climate, and having a show with science-fiction elements (the Phoenix’s very first show years ago, “Warp,” was sci-fi themed), it is notable that this musical is playing during May, Mental Health Awareness Month.

Psychological well-being is at the heart of the Rosewater story, from Eliot’s serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder, to the Senator insisting that no son of his would be “nuts,” to the plot hanging on our hero being insane because he actually considers those “beneath” him to be worthy of dignity – even equals. This latter disorder is too much for his wife to bear, driving her mad to the other extreme: only able to function among the very rich. Even Eliot’s well-meaning signs, saying, “DON’T KILL YOURSELF; CALL THE ROSEWATER FOUNDATION,” point to the need to encourage people to seek necessary help.

Patrick Goss wins our heart as Eliot, surrounded by a top-notch cast that includes Emily Ristine as his wife, Sylvia, and Phoenix founding member Charles Goad as Sen. Rosewater. Isaac Wellhauen is nicely conniving as financial advisor Norman Mushari, who finds a way to divert the Rosewater millions to long-ignored members of the family (for a hefty fee, of course). Suzanne Fleenor, another Phoenix founder and “Warp” veteran, plays Eliot’s psychiatrist. Other parts are also taken by familiar faces: Jean Childers Arnold, Scot Greenwell, Rob Johansen, Devan Mathias, Josiah McCruiston, Deb Sargent, Peter Scharbrough, Diane Boehm Tsao, and Mark Goetzinger as McCallister, the family banker.

Little bits of sci-fi poke in from time to time in true Vonnegut fashion, as the show is also a tribute to the greatest SF writer who never lived, Kilgore Trout. Like the best of the misunderstood genre, the otherworldy perspective allows us to get a fresh perspective on our very human behavior (and gives the props and costumes folks something to have fun with).

The songs and script show the spark of the genius that gave us “Little Shop of Horrors” and those Disney classics. The look and performances are well worthy of the beautiful new space, another triumph for director Bryan Fonseca.

The new theatre has plenty of room, and plenty of free parking, so go check it out. Info and tickets at www.phoenixtheatre.org or call 317-635-7529.