Not an easy road for family in IRT drama

By John Lyle Belden

It’s a story many can relate to: A family takes a road-trip to another state to visit a grandparent, in part to give the teenage son a chance, away from neighborhood distractions, to think about where his life is going. Little sister tattles when one brother pokes another. Younger brother has his favorite song played over and over and over. So, it’s a family comedy, right?

“The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963” (based on the book by Christopher Paul Curtis, adapted by Cheryl L. West) adds a more serious context: an African-American family’s journey into the Jim Crow South.

At the Indiana Repertory Theatre through March 1 (effectively throughout Black History Month), parents Daniel and Wilona (Bryant Bentley and Tiffany Gilliam) travel with misbehaving teen Byron (Brian Wilson), five-year-old daughter Joey (Dalia Yoder), and nine-year-old Kenny (Xavier Adams) — through whose eyes we see the story — from their home in Flint, Michigan, to Birmingham, Alabama, and the home of Grandma Sands (Milicent Wright). 

Though the family is fictional, the world they live in was all too real, and not that long ago. The Watsons carry the Green Book, a reference of places safe for black travelers to stop. They dare not go to just any gas station or motel — like a white family — and the idea of just driving until you are tired is foolhardy and dangerous, as the Watsons discover. Even the police, who should be there to protect them, are potential predators. At Grandma’s house they are safe, but they know venturing out at all carries risk. Still, nothing has prepared them for when one of the most tragic incidents of the Civil Rights Era rocks the family to its core.

Bentley plays a dad who is likeable and practical, and a little stubborn; for him, family is everything. Gilliam’s Wilona clings to her better memories of the Alabama she grew up in, her one blind spot for a mom otherwise prudent and cautious. The three youths excellently act “their age,” the boys showing some growth as the events affect them. Yoder’s Joey stays perpetually innocent, always charmingly standing up for whichever sibling is in trouble at the moment. Wright, a familiar face on IRT stages, is a welcome presence, effortlessly commanding. The cast also includes Grayson Molin in two starkly contrasting roles — as Buphead, Byron’s white best friend; and later as an unfriendly native Alabamian. 

Directed by Mikael Burke, with excellent visual effects by Reuben Lucas, the play is a study of contrasts, especially between the familial humor of the road trip and the moments of horror. Current events add the irony that Flint, a struggling, literally toxic place now, was in the ‘60s a thriving city and comforting home base for the Watsons. But they return there changed, and Kenny nearly broken. Find out how, why — and experience the terror of the “Wool-Pooh.”

“The Watsons Go to Birmingham” in one movie-length act on the IRT Upperstage, 140 W. Washington (near Circle Centre) in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com

IndyFringe: YAS, Twain

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

Zach & Zack have returned to the Fringe with their latest historical farce. This look into the life and times of Mark (or maybe Shania) Twain enacted by a diverse cast gives you an unusual insight into highlights and lowlights of Twain’s story.

From the beginning of the show, when each cast member comes out dressed as Twain (complete with overstated mustaches) arguing about the exact wording of one of his quotes, you know this will not be a typical offering. Then Mary Margaret Montgomery bursts in late and begins to start her presentation on Shania Twain (she wasn’t listening at rehearsals).

The narrative begins in earnest once they unfurl the blue fabric representing the Mississippi River. The part of Twain is never played by a single actor but each member of the troupe embodies a different element of his story.

Twain’s younger years and the origin of his pen name (he was born Samuel Clemens) are touched upon as well as his and his brother’s ill-fated trip to Nevada. They were too late for the Gold Rush, but this period brought about the inspiration for his first story which launched him to a decent amount of fame.

We touch on several of the people and stories that influenced him throughout the years, including his tempestuous courtship and marriage with his future wife Olivia, portrayed brilliantly by Tiffany Gilliam.

Everyone is then treated to the delightful interlude that is, “Matt and Evan Explain the Novels”. This wacky bit highlights Matthew Altman and Evan Wallace’s comedy chops as well as giving a brief overview of the various novels Twain wrote.

Christian Condra’s turns as Twain’s brother, Orion, and the Fallen angel, Satan, highlight his spectacular range as an actor. Shawnte Gaston is slips from character to character so effortlessly that one could easily overlook the intense skill needed to embrace the magnitude of her talent. Montgomery’s spunk and determination to promote her own Twain story offers much-needed comic relief in a tale that takes many darker turns than one would expect.

If audiences flock to this (Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 21 & 24-25, at the District Theater) as vigorously as they did with past Zach & Zack shows, buy your tickets immediately as future performances are already close to selling out.

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.

Footlite’s sweet ‘Dream’

By John Lyle Belden

Simply put, the Footlite Musicals’ production of “Dreamgirls” is a triumph.

The whole show gives off energy, channeled through the performances of our Dreamettes/Dreams – Deena (Kat Council), Lorrell (Tiffany Gilliam) and especially Effie (Rayanna Bibbs) – along with Effie’s songwriting brother C.C. (Tyler Futrell), ambitious manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (Ollice Nickson), faithful Marty (Jalil Stephens) and the electric James “Thunder” Early (Brenton Anderson).

In a story inspired by the struggles of African-American singers, especially girl groups, to make it big in the mainstream music scene in the 1960s, a hopeful trio from Chicago enters the famous Apollo Amateur Night in New York. They don’t win, but get their break as Taylor, then a car salesman, exploits opportunities and arranges for the Dreamettes to back Early under Marty’s management. From there, their arc goes upward, even if it takes cash payola to get their songs on the charts over white imitators. Taylor’s manipulations become more and more brazen, until Marty quits and Effie finds herself replaced (by Michelle [Vanessa Web]) and left crying backstage. Act II finds our characters in the 1970s and the transition from R&B to disco. How has success, or lack thereof, treated our Dreamgirls?

If you know how that turns out – see it for the beauty and power of it in your presence again. If you haven’t, see it, it’s one heck of a show. If you have only seen the movie (excellent in its own way), see the difference with its inventively single set and churning pace. Feel the heat from Early’s performances. Get blasted by Effie’s pipes.

Hats off to director Damon Clevenger, something this good couldn’t happen by accident.

And I am telling you, you should be going – to the Hedback Theatre, 1847 N. Alabama St., weekends through May 21. Call 317-926-6630 or see www.footlite.org.