‘Carol’ gets musical comedy treatment

By John Lyle Belden

Marley was dead to begin with…” truly is a downer opening, but things can only go up from there, especially when Charles Dickens gets the once-over by local theatrical genius Ben Asaykwee, who wrote and directed the musical “A Christmas Carol Comedy,” playing through this weekend at the District Theatre.

Asaykwee has another show (“ProZack” at the Phoenix) so entrusts a cast of young and old, veterans and newcomers, led by the versatile Matt Anderson as Ebenezer Scrooge (and the assistant director).

To set the irreverent tone, we have a batch of young urchins (Quincy Carman, Ellie Cooper, Zara Heck, Ethan Lee, Sam Lee, Judah Livingston, Esmond Livingston, and Calvin Meschi) providing narration and appearing as needed. Others play various roles, notably Jared Lee at Bob Cratchit, Emerson Black as Jacob Marley, Amanda Hummer as Christmas Past, Tiff Bridges as Christmas Present, Shelbi Barry as Christmas Future, and Maria Meschi as ol’ Fezziwig. In addition, we have the talents of Lisa Anderson, Jenni Carman, Reilly Crouse, Jessica Dickson, Austin Helm, Emily Jorgenson, Anna Lee, Noah Lee, Adriana Menefee, Kallen Ruston, Michelle Wafford, and Charlotte Wagner.

Drop all expectations of a faithful rendition of the holiday classic (we all know it already) and revel in the silliness as this gang has a ball bringing more joy to the season. The revelation of Tiny Tim must be seen to be believed. There are also song-and-dance numbers, as Dickens no doubt never intended – watch out for flying cast members.

Our evening’s viewing at the District (627 Massachusetts Ave., Indianapolis) was a sell-out; it will likely happen again. See indydistricttheatre.org.

Journey with ‘Violet’ at ATI

By Wendy Carson

 One quick note before I dive into the review: This is the third production of the musical “Violet” we have seen over the years, the first time based on the 1997 Off-Broadway production, before it was taken to Broadway in 2014. Each local performance has not only been different, but also better than the one before. Therefore, if you have seen the show prior to this, I still strongly suggest you see it, the latest edition, at Actors Theatre of Indiana. It’s a superb production, and I adored it (and not just because my hometown is part of the show).

Written by acclaimed composer Jeanine Tesori with Brian Crawley, based on a Doris Betts short story, the plot has remained consistent: At the age of thirteen, Violet was hit in the face by a flying axe head, leaving her horribly scarred. Years later, in the 1960s, she is on her own and has finally saved up enough money for the bus fare to take her from North Carolina to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the TV Preacher whom she knows will be able to restore her beauty. Along the way, she befriends a couple of soldiers. The three of them quickly become close, with the men reluctant to let her take the final leg of her journey as they are sure she will be sorrowfully disappointed in her Preacher’s abilities. They are both waiting for her when she returns, healed, but not as she had expected.

Sydney Howard expertly brings out the adult Violet’s hopefulness and sorrow over her predicament while Quincy Carmen as young Vi (in frequent flashbacks) shows the innocence and fortitude that made her the woman she became.

Luke Weber as Monty, the Army Private First Class fresh from Special Forces school, shows the naivete of a soldier looking forward to going to war. Maurice-Aime Green as Flick, the more seasoned Sergeant, reflects the harsh reality of the differences the mere color of his skin brings to his military career and everyday life.

Matt Branic, as Violet’s father, brings out the devotion, stoicism and love of a single parent trying to do the best for his little girl, despite that one horrific moment.

Eric Olson is sheer perfection as the Preacher who may or may not actually have the power to heal, but certainly has the ability to motivate.

While it is easy to present both the Father and the Preacher in a negative light, Branic and Olson each maintain their characters’ humanity as they play their parts in Violet’s life. This is not a story of “good” or “bad” people, but of a journey, and the life lessons learned along the way.

As the rest of the cast play many interchangeable characters throughout the show, one pair does stand out with their true diva roles: Tiffany Gilliam brings down the house as the Music Hall Singer the trio goes out to see while overnighting in Memphis. It is obvious that were she around during that era, she would indeed have been a star on that stage.

Tiffanie Bridges seems to channel the voice of the angels as her turn as Lula, the lead singer in our Preacher’s choir. While her character reminds him that she is singing not for the “show,” but for the Lord, her talent shows this to be true.

ATI co-founder Judy Fitzgerald’s roles include a friendly fellow passenger; other characters, including bus drivers, are provided by Richard Campea and Cody Stiglich.

Director Richard J. Roberts has taken eleven talented singers and actors, a phenomenal script, and a band that can bring such vivid emotion to their music, and given us a beautifully moving show. Pianist Nathan Perry is music director, with musicians Greg Gegogeine, Charles Platz, Kathy Schilling and Greg Wolf. The versatile stage by P. Bernard Killian features a map of the bus route painted across the floor, which includes Fort Smith, Arkansas (where I was born).

Performances of “Violet” run through Nov. 13 in The Studio Theatre at The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. For tickets and information, visit atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.