Simon comedy gets ‘radio’ treatment

By John Lyle Belden

It’s been a wild year, with social unrest, a wild presidential election, war in Vietnam — yes, it’s 1968. To bring back the flavor of the good ol’ days, “station WCAT” in Carmel is hosting a live radio play of the Neil Simon hit, “Plaza Suite.”

This is the situation presented by Indy Bardfest, which is taking a break from Shakespeare fare to explore more recent celebrated playwrights. The necessity of personal distance for those on the stage, as well as in the audience, in the wacky year of 2020 make the radio drama an excellent format for presenting a character- and dialogue-driven play such as this.

Director Matthew Socey has given the cast of Tony Armstrong, Nan Macy, Afton Shepard, and Matthew Walls, assisted by Tony Johnson as host and sound-effects guy, plenty of opportunities for visual antics to accompany the “theatre of the mind” atmosphere. On-stage social distancing is achieved as each stands apart at their own microphone, even during moments like the creatively unorthodox kissing scenes.

Simon’s ‘68 Broadway smash is three acts, each its own story, all taking place at 3 p.m. on different days in Room 719 of the Plaza Hotel in New York City. In the first, an exercise in emotionally-charged dark humor, Karen (Macy) has booked the suite as a surprise anniversary gift in hopes of recharging her lackluster marriage to Sam (Armstrong). But she finds she may be too late, and maybe even in the wrong room. Walls appears as members of hotel staff, and Shepard as Sam’s beautiful secretary.

In the second act, successful young Hollywood producer Jesse Kiplinger (Walls) arranges to meet with his high-school sweetheart, Muriel (Shepard), a working-class New Jersey housewife. He longs for the simplicity of the past, while she is fascinated by his life among the stars. Much humor is derived from the cumulative effect of vodka stingers vs. the delicate dance of seduction. Their exchange is a fun examination of the people we pretend to be, even to ourselves, as Jesse works out how to keep their metaphorical masks in place long enough to get Muriel’s actual dress off.

The third act, arguably the best and most popular, has stressed out parents Roy (Armstrong) and Norma (Macy) struggling to coax daughter Mimsey (Shepard) to unlock the bathroom door so she can make her way downstairs to her wedding. Roy is already fuming at how expensive the ceremony and reception have become, while Norma is a nervous wreck. Slapstick abounds, even with the limited movement in this format. 

This production is wonderfully cast, as all have great range and the ability to convincingly go from serious to silly as the situation demands. Johnson gets surprisingly involved in the action, such as being a sympathetic fourth wall to a character’s asides, adding to the charm of this unusual show. 

Bardfest has one weekend left in the “Plaza Suite,” Friday through Sunday, Oct. 9-11, at The Cat theatre in downtown Carmel. Visit indybardfest.com for info (or see them on Facebook) and thecattheatre.com for tickets.

CCP returns with ‘Last Five Years’

By John Lyle Belden

“The Last Five Years” sounds like the experience of the last five months, but it is the title of the musical bringing live theatre back to Carmel.

Presented by Carmel Community Players at The Cat downtown, the Off-Broadway hit by Jason Robert Brown is an examination of a relationship, a doomed marriage, blending the individual perspectives of the husband and wife – one experiencing it from beginning to end, the other reflecting from the end to the beginning. At mid-performance (it is presented as a 90-minute single act) the two “cross paths” at the wedding. It is an interesting dramatic device overall, and it works.

Bradley Allan Lowe, who fell in love with the songs when gifted a CD of the cast recording in his youth, directs Nina Stilabower and Daniel Draves as Cathy and Jamie, an ill-fated couple who started with joyous promise. He, an ordinary-looking guy, is an up-and-coming novelist. She, a beautiful woman, is a struggling actress. They encourage each others’ careers at first, but especially as his keeps him with literary socialites in New York, while hers has her in obscurity in Ohio, the cracks in their relationship widen until the break becomes unavoidable.

Stilabower is excellent in character and voice, showing what a loss it is for Broadway not to notice Cathy. Draves, presenting a likable mensch, carries himself well while showing Jamie’s full range of feeling. The two occupy a nicely designed stage, by Lowe and Kassie Woodworth, with the juxtaposition of simple furnishings with the visual metaphor of a whirlwind of papers that could be his novel drafts, or pages of musicals she tries out for.

There are also interesting costume choices – credited to Lowe, Draves, Stilabower, and Cathie Morgan. Note that the must-be-seen-to-be-believed Hanukkah pajamas were real, found online. (Ask Lowe where to order them.)

While very entertaining, the show presents with safety in mind. CCP takes the ongoing health crisis seriously: Seating is spaced and limited to 50 percent capacity; temperatures are taken at the door; all patrons must wear masks, and are asked to buy tickets in advance.

“The Last Five Years” runs through Aug. 2 at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way (just south of the Main Street Arts & Design district). Get details and tickets at CarmelPlayers.org.

CCP serves up wacky ‘Tenor’

By John Lyle Belden

A Broadway hit that has become a community theatre favorite, Ken Ludwig’s “Lend Me A Tenor” is back on stage courtesy of Carmel Community Players.

For the unfamiliar, this hilarious farce takes place in the mid-20th century, set entirely in a Cleveland hotel room. The local opera company has secured a performance by world-renowned tenor “Il Stupendo” Tito Morelli (JD Walls). Mr. Saunders (Thomas Smith), the show’s producer, knows of the singer’s appetites for booze and women, and warns his young assistant, Max (Tyler Marx) to keep a close eye on him. Tito arrives with wife Maria (Sonja Distefano), who is furious about everything, especially Tito. Add to this the visits by Saunders’ daughter Maggie (Caity Withers), who loves Max but adores Tito; ambitious soprano Diana (Rachelle Woolston), who will do anything to get a career boost from the tenor; local socialite Julia (Sally Carter) who wants nothing more than to be seen with Morelli in public; and a singing bellhop (Joe Wagner), insisting on giving an impromptu audition. It’s important to note that Max is a talented aspiring singer, as well. Also, we lose track of the number of sleeping pills Tito takes for his afternoon nap.

The result is two full acts of slamming doors, sharply-executed physical comedy, and all the misunderstandings you can stand — along with some nice moments of operatic singing. Under the direction of Susan Rardin, this bunch take to their roles with gusto, each pitch perfect from Smith’s paternal surliness, to Withers’ charm, Woolston’s seductiveness, Distefano’s fire, Wagner’s cheekiness, Carter’s posh attitude and Walls’ resignation as he finds himself on the wildest ride in Ohio outside King’s Island. Marx as our everyman at the heart of an ever-deepening situation wins us over with his nervous aplomb as Max somehow makes it through it all. Also, as the featured opera is “Pagliacci” (the tragic clown), the tendency of white face makeup to come off on others adds its own comic element.

This “stupendo” production has one more weekend, playing through March 8 at The Cat performance venue, 254 Veterans Way (near the downtown arts district), in Carmel. Call 317-815-9387 or visit www.CarmelPlayers.org.

 

CCP: Trial drama revisits USS Indianapolis tragedy

By John Lyle Belden

The story of the USS Indianapolis, a World War II heavy cruiser sunk by a Japanese submarine after delivering essential parts of the first atomic bomb, is well known to Hoosiers. But less known is the fact that the ship’s captain, Charles McVay III, was court-martialed afterward – the only U.S. commander to ever face charges for losing a vessel in wartime.

This is portrayed in the drama “The Failure to Zig-Zag,” presented by Carmel Community Players. The title is also one of the charges against McVay – a violation of the practice of constantly changing course in good weather to avoid being targeted. The play by John B. Ferzacca (which premiered at Indiana Repertory Theatre in 1981) examines the trial, as well as the events that led up to it. It combines courtroom drama with flashbacks to the ship and the survivors’ ordeal, lending elements of horror.

Director Susan Rardin brings this powerful story back to central Indiana with a cast of varying experience, including military veterans, but all dedicated to bringing an important part of history to life. They even got to perform scenes for the annual USS Indianapolis survivors’ reunion.

Tim Latimer portrays McVay with constant unshakable dignity, mingled with disbelief that the Navy to which he had devoted his entire life would so crudely abuse him. Powerful performances run through the entire cast, including Kevin Caraher as Cpt. James Harcourt, the defense counsel; Ron May as Cpt. Dwight Effis, the prosecutor; Robert Fimreite as Rear Adm. David Wall, tasked with keeping the Navy’s reputation spotless; Jeremy Teipen as Lewis Greene, a reporter and grieving father; Brad Staggs as Lt. Cmdr. Alan Brett, the USS Indianapolis Executive Officer; and especially Ron Gotanco as Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto (another unprecedented element of the trial was testimony by the enemy). Other roles, including ship’s crew, were played by Kirk Donlan, Drew Hunter, Hank Kratky, Tyler Marx, Nolan Karwoski, Rich Phipps, Pavel Polochanin, Jeremy Ried, Austin Uebelhor and Joe Wagner.

Wendy and I had an opportunity to read the script over a year ago, and this is one of the plays we had most anticipated. It’s hard to describe the impact of seeing this unfold in front of and around you, all based on actual events, tragedy compounded by travesty – but with the spirit of a survivor throughout.

The term “must-see” gets thrown around a lot (even by us) but this play definitely qualifies. Performances are Thursday through Sunday, July 25-28, at the Cat, 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel. Tickets are selling fast (Thursday is already sold out) at www.carmelplayers.org.

CCP ‘Streetcar’ a well-crafted vehicle

By Wendy Carson

A Streetcar Named Desire” is probably Tennessee Williams’ most famous play: the story of Blanche DuBois, an aging southern socialite who has squandered all her resources and must seek the assistance of her sister, Stella Kowalski, to survive.

Blanche is horrified by Stella’s “common” husband, Stanley, and the “squalor” in which they live (low-rent apartments in New Orleans’ French Quarter), but she has no other options so must endure this state of affairs. While Stella and Stanley’s place is small and rustic, it is clean, homey and they are quite satisfied with it.

Though Stanley has a fiery temper and loutish ways, he truly loves Stella and would do anything for her. Needless to say, Blanche and Stanley are at odds from the beginning and their tense friction continues throughout the progress of the play.

Desperate to escape her current situation and find someone who can afford to return her to her previous status, Blanche begins to woo one of Stanley’s friends, Mitch. Being a long-time bachelor who lives at home with his ailing mother, he appears to be a perfect mark. However, though she plays at being young and prudish, her reckless, scandalous past soon catches up with her. Meanwhile, Blanche’s trauma-fueled drunken delusions are getting worse, making her untrustworthy even when the worst actually happens.

Laura Lanman Givens glides beautifully through Blanche’s various moods, making the character far more sympathetic than she is often played – leading this production to a refreshing lightness rarely seen in a Williams show. Jonathan Scoble aptly shows Stanley’s hot-headed fury without making him an insufferable lout. Addison D. Ahrendt’s portrayal of the devoted sister and wife — forced to endure the stormy tantrums of the two people she loves the most – is delicate, yet perfectly nuanced.

Adam B. Workman makes the most of his moments as Mitch; Sebastian Ocampo is charming as their poker buddy, Pablo; Scott Prill and Susan Yeaw as loving/bickering neighbor couple Steve and Eunice Hubbell, add just the right spice to the scene; and Addie Taylor’s two brief roles seem to bookend the play. Also making brief but important appearances are Nolan Korwoski, Susan M. Lange and Ken Klingenmeier. Brent Wooldridge is director.

There is one weekend left to catch this classic of American drama, Thursday through Sunday, May 2-5, presented by Carmel Community Players at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel. Call 317-815-9387 or visit www.carmelplayers.org.

CCP: ‘I Love You, You’re Perfect…’ has changed

By John Lyle Belden

When director Dee Timi proposed staging the popular musical comedy “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” to Carmel Community Players, she said she knew that writer Joe Dipietro had updated the 20-year-old show’s content to reflect dating and relationships in a more online-centered age, but hadn’t yet seen how. Fortunately, the “new” edition is as funny and entertaining as ever.

“I like it,” she said. “It’s more relevant.”

It’s true. This Indiana “premiere” of the 2018 edition, with its references to Google and Netflix retains a lot of the content, charm and hilarity of the original show, and, appropriately, feels like its happening to people you know.

Libby Buck, Christian Condra, Jonathan Scoble and Brenna Whitaker portray numerous characters in 20 different scenes. Sometimes all four are on stage — like the familiar hell of the family road trip. Other times they pair up — including a sweet bit of obsessive parenting with “dads” Condra and Scoble.

This foursome delivers excellent performances, like polished players from SNL or Second City. Condra ups the ante in some parts by mugging like classic Jim Carrey, and it works — especially with his over-the-top inmate in the skit, “Scared Straight.” And Buck seems to channel Vicki Lawrence’s “Mama” character in the charming tribute to dating in one’s senior years.

Performances were packed opening weekend; the show runs through March 10 at The Cat performance venue, 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel. Call 317-815-9387 or visit carmelplayers.org.

An evening with the marvelous Melissa Schott

 By John Lyle Belden

I remember in 2005 seeing the Footlite Musicals production of “42nd Street,” and being blown away by the performance of Melissa Schott in the lead role. I had no idea that — like her character, ingenue Peggy Sawyer — she had just taken her first big chance on a major stage role, and come out on top. All I knew was that she lived in New Palestine, within the coverage area for the Greenfield Daily Reporter, the paper I wrote for.

Melissa SchottWith such a talented “local” to watch, I soon saw her perfect portrayal of the legendary singer in “Always, Patsy Cline.” So, it was no surprise when — again, nearly on a whim — she tried for and got entertainment work in New York.

And this year, for one wonderful weekend, she came “home,” recently performing her first cabaret revue, “Songs in the Key of Me,” at The CAT in Carmel, presented by Magic Thread Cabaret.

Schott said the show’s title refers to how, in taking so many roles as other people, “it’s easy to forget your own voice.” To find those pieces of herself, she brings out the works of people who have influenced her, from Karen Carpenter to Sara Bareilles.

She set the mood by opening with “That’s Life” and “Ain’t We Got Fun,” but also touched our hearts with Cline’s hit “Crazy,” as well as “Pretty Funny” from the musical of “Dogfight.”

Being a classic triple-threat, Schott brought out her tap shoes for a couple of numbers, including — naturally — “42nd Street.”

She shared the stage with old friend Scott Harris of Nashville on the piano, but took over the keys to start the second act, singing and playing Bareilles’ “Gravity.” She also invited Broadway performer Cory Lingner up for a duet of “Only Us” (from “Dear Evan Hansen”).

Revealing yet another facet of her talent, Schott played a song she wrote, “Worlds Away,” inspired by her longing for home while on tour.

Her musical journey had many stops that felt personal to her, including “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “On a Bus to St. Cloud.” She sang “She Used to be Mine,” from Bareilles’ hit musical “Waitress,” then noted that she would be playing a waitress herself, briefly, on a future episode of the Emmy-winning streaming TV show “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”   

Hopefully being a long-time fan doesn’t make me too biased, but her charm, talent, dancing and singing are still superb. And with her residence in the Big Apple, Melissa Schott is one casting-call away from true stardom. Wherever you happen to be able to see her perform, by all means do; and hopefully, she will bring her “Songs in the Key of Me” to another stage very soon.

She closed the show with a medley of tunes from Broadway’s “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” A few days ago, I heard one of the songs from the official cast album, and — meaning no disrespect to a Tony winner — Schott was just as good.

Follow Melissa’s showbiz adventures at melissaschott.com or on Facebook. See magicthreadcabaret.com for future showcases of local talent, presented by Tom Alvarez and Dustin Klein (kleinandalvarez.com).

CCP: Look who’s back!

By John Lyle Belden

For a number of years in the recent past, Carmel Community Players would stage the musical “Forever Plaid.” So, now the good old days are back in more ways than one.

The Plaids, a struggling four-part vocal group, were on their way to a promising gig in 1964 when their car was struck by a bus on its way to New York taking fans to see the Beatles live on Ed Sullivan’s show, killing the quartet instantly. But thanks to a cosmic alignment, a hole in the ozone, or some other metaphysical reason, the Plaids have returned to Earth to perform the show they didn’t get to do when they were alive.

The rapport and harmony of CCP’s incarnation of the foursome are natural and well-polished, a reflection of three of them having sung the roles together before: Darren Gowan as Sparky, Syd Loomis as Jinx, and Rich Phipps as Frankie. They are joined by Howard Baetzhold as Smudge, the character who tends to have trouble getting in synch anyway, but as things progress fits right in. The backing musicians are director Sandy Baetzhold on piano and “Uncle Dick” Richard Leap on drums.

There is more going on than sharp four-part harmony on oldie hits including “Catch a Falling Star,” “Sixteen Tons,” and “Perfidia.” They deliver a Calypso segment as well as their high-speed rendition of Ed Sullivan’s classic acts, along with amusing patter as they try to sort out their unusual situation.

Tired of the news and troubles of 2018? Take a step back as gentlemen from a gentler era entertain you as only the Plaids can. There are moments of audience participation – with one lucky fan getting the chance to become an Honorary Plaid – and all get to sign the Plaid Book of Life.

“Forever Plaid” won’t last forever. Performances run through Oct. 7 at The Cat performance venue, 254 Veterans Way in downtown Carmel. For info and tickets, visit carmelplayers.org.

CCP’s charming ‘Witches’ at Carmel’s CAT

By John Lyle Belden

We all have that one person we can’t stand – but then circumstances force you to work together. That is the hex put on the ladies in “Kitchen Witches,” the fun comedy that concludes the 2017-18 season for Carmel Community Players.

Dolly (Denise Fort) is wrapping up her cable-access cooking show due to lack of viewership. But when her old culinary rival, Isabel (Gina Atwood), crashes the finale, the ratings go through the roof. So, to stay on the air, the two women must work together – an obvious strain on producer Stephen (Tim Moore), who is also Dolly’s son. Along with slinging the hash (at each other) our “witches” rehash their past with the late Larry Biddle, Dolly’s husband and Isabel’s lover.

Meanwhile, keeping the cameras in focus is Robbi (Sydney Heller), a local punk who signals “one minute to air” with her middle finger.

The result is hilarious, of course, but Caroline Smith’s charming script has a surprising amount of heart, brought out nicely by the cast and director Courtnie Janikowski. Fort and Atwood play their besties-turned-beasties more infused with damaged pride than malicious anger, and Moore effectively portrays the put-upon son trying not to get another nervous ulcer. Even Heller wins our affections, excellently playing Robbi in “Silent Bob” style.

This show is CCP’s debut in the CAT, a performance space located just off the downtown Carmel Arts & Design District at 254 Veterans Way. This will also be home to much of the 2018-19 season as the company seeks a permanent home.

A good time was had by all at the packed opening night. Though, if I must nitpick, while I do understand the constraints of volunteer community theatre, this production could tighten up its scene transitions, or at least play a little music while we sit in the dark.

But overall, consider me charmed by these “Witches.” Call 317-815-9387 or visit www.carmelplayers.org.