The Indianapolis area has a generous bounty of holiday entertainment options available. Many are repeated annually and have become holiday traditions. Last weekend, I took advantage of seeing three of my favorites, all of which thrust me into the holiday spirit and will no doubt do the same for you and your family. On Friday, Nov. 25, I saw “A Phoenix Xmas 22” at the Phoenix Theatre, the following Saturday, Nov. 26 it was “A Beef and Boards” Christmas at Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre and Sunday, Nov. 27 I took in a matinee of “A Christmas Carol’ at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. And if that was not enough to secure my Christmas fix I caught Megan Hilty in “Count Your Blessings: A Megan Hilty Holiday Concert” on Monday, Nov. 28 at The Cabaret at the Columbia Club. Let me say, right off the bat, that what all four had common was that they were extremely well produced and highly entertaining as well. Below are some reviews:
“A Very Phoenix Xmas II”
If your taste is geared towards the quirky and irreverent and you like your Christmas entertainment unconventional, and even edgy, then you will certainly enjoy this mix of drama, comedy, dance, storytelling and multimedia, authored by various local playwrights. Much of what you can expect is revealed in the show’s subtitle: “I’m Dreaming of an Intersectionally Thoughtful Multicultural Winter Holiday.” Bryan Fonseca directed the show which is presented on the Livia and Steve Russell Stage. He referred to in his programs notes as a “present for you. It’s filled with surprises that are small and funny, satirical, political, touching and some just silly.” Without question, Fonseca, the Phoenix’s producing director and the show’s splendid cast delivered exactly what he promised. Phoenix playwright-in-residence Tom Horan also supplied content.
Making his Phoenix debut as the show’s affable emcee was Jay Hemphill who, affecting a charming southern drawl he used in the opening number playing a cowboy, turned in a splendid performance as the show’s host. When introducing each of the show’s sketches, dances and songs, Hemphill shared fascinating facts about some of the odder Christmas customs of countries all over the world. Joining him was a ensemble of likeable, versatile performers consisting of Jean Childers-Arnold, Paeton Chavis, Paul Collier Hansen, Andrea Heiden, Devan Mathias and Keith Potts—all accomplished singer/dancer/actors.
Highlights for me included “Home for Christmas,” written by Andrew Black, and featuring Chavis, Heiden and Mathias in a story about a woman and a young girl at a ticket gate, with both separately trying to secure a flight to Indianapolis on Christmas Eve with their fate in the hands of a ticket agent who holds all the cards.
Definitely a bright spot, of many within the varied mix, was a tap dance routine set to “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” featuring Hansen and Potts.
One of the show’s “surprises,” and one of its most powerfully affecting was “Homs for the Holidays. ” Depicting the war-torn ravage wisited on the third largest city in Syria, and its tragic impact on its decimated citizens, the piece featured Hiden, Mathias, Hemphill, Potts and Hansen.
Jeff Martin and Bernie Killian’s set, consisting of what appears to be a pile of junk seems a curious artistic choice, but a totally Phoenix Theatre one, once it is explained in the “Homs” piece. Very effective were the jagged screens flanking the pile. On them were projected song lyircs, text, video and other images.
Although some of the material fell short, the majority of the show’s content was solidly entertaining with some darkness and political commentary included to remind us that “Joy To The Word” during the holiday season is not a sentiment felt by everyone on our planet. Yet, in typical fashion, the Phoenix, through this collection of universal sentiments, reminds us to be grateful, feel empathy and love for our fellow man.
“A Very Phoenix Xmas 11” runs through Dec. 23. For tickets and information about call (317) 635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.
“A Beef & Boards Christmas”
It’s is the 24th consecutive year that the venerable Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre it’s annual Christmas extravaganza. It’s got glitz and glamour galore with an over-the-top Christmas appeal, but unless you are a total cynic, which I admit I am not when it comes to Christmas, this spectacle is guaranteed to warm your heart, stir your soul and solidly put you in a festive holiday mood.
Fans of B & B veteran, Deb Wims, who has co-hosted the show for 18 years (many with this year’s co-host Kenny Shephard) should be aware that she is relocating with her family so they surely want to catch her swan song before she departs the area. Strong in stage presence, and a classic musical theater belter, Wims will surely be missed by the legions of fans who have soaked up her charisma, energy, and talent and all the joy she brought to audiences over the years.
In the meantime, Wims and a terrific ensemble really shined in this slick and fast-moving review filled with familiar tunes and carols, and outstanding musical staging and choreography by Ron Morgan. Though the singing and acting in the production were solid, it’s the dancing that was really the focal point. Non-stop and high engaging, it featured a cast that excelled at showmanship. Standouts in the show’s chorus were Ian Black and Sean Seager.
A far as the show’s program, there was so much to take in. Like the theater’s sumptuous comfort food buffet, the evening was a veritable smorgasbord of traditional, pop (much of it swing-flavored) and sacred—all enhanced by Jill Kelly’s gorgeous costumes, Michael Layton’s greeting card set design and the evocative lighting design of Ryan Koharchik.
Favorite numbers in Act 1 were “Snow,” “Holiday Music,” “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus,” and “Rudolph/Come Fly With Me.”
Act 11, which was stronger than the previous one, had it’s share of production numbers and songs that proved to be show highlights. They included “”Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” “Snowfall,”and “Christmas Memories,” featuring R & B diva Kendra Lyn Lucas. An emotionally impactful performance was turned in by Kyle Durbin, who, in dress uniform as Marine, intoned “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” His song was followed by the ensemble, all dressed in the uniforms of various military branches, singing a highly poignant “White Christmas.”
Highly enjoyable were the instrumental interludes throughout the show that showcased the sounds of the superb Beef and Boards Orchestra, under the direction of Kristy Templet. They included “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “Sleigh Ride” and “Carol of the Bells.”
Hearkening back to the old days of television holiday specials, the production inspired a lot of nostalgia and reflected old fashioned sentimentality. Yet, it was its innocence and wholesomeness and lack of cynicism that gives it, its very charm. It’s a show, for young and old alike that is yet another antidote to all the negativity that seems to surround us these days.
“A Beef & Boards Christmas” continues through Dec. 23. Tickets for are available by calling the box office at (317) 872.9664 between 10 a.m. & 7 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays. Tickets range from $41 to $66 and include Chef Odell Ward’s dinner buffet, fruit & salad bar, and select beverages. For more information visit www.beefandboards.com.
“A Christmas Carol”
It’s the 26th year that the Indiana Repertory Theatre has presented the Tom Haas’ adaptation of Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol.” Over the years I have seen multiple productions of the Haas’ creation, including ones that the late IRT artistic director, directed himself before he died unexpectedly. Having known Haas personally. I can’t help but think about him each time I see his creation. This year, “A Christmas Carol” is directed by Haas’s protege Janet Allen, the current artistic director at IRT. Allen last directed the play in 1998.
Haas’s 90 minute (with no intermission) speeds up Dicken’s classic tale of redemption about mean-spirited, miserly Ebenezer Scrooge who rejects his own nephew and oppresses his overworked employee Bob Cratchit and is just generally a bitter curmudgeon. Then, one night he is visited by the ghost of his business partner Jacob Marley and later the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. Following harrowing journeys with these messengers, Scrooge comes into full awareness regarding how his dastardly behavior has affected others and most importantly, his own. Later Scrooge awakens and realizes that he is still alive and that he has been given the opportunity to change his ways, and thereby alter what might have been a very sad and bleak ending for him.
Allen’s inspired direction shows in her expert staging of the production which stars Ryan Artzberger as Scrooge, a role he has played the role each year since 2010. Rather than play Ebenezer as elderly and frail, Artzberger’s Scrooge seems closer to his own middle age as opposed to one who is bent and decrepit. In the end, however, Artzberger’s interpretation works.
Jeremy Fisher who is making his IRT debut, gave a winning performance as Bob Cratchit. He was joined by IRT regulars and familiar faces on the local theater scene. They included Chuck Goad who chillingly played the ghost of Marley, Rob Johansen, Constance Macy, Robert Neal, Emily Ristine, and Scot Greenwell.
For those experiencing the show for the first time as well as those like me who never tire of it, you can expect the best technical elements seen on any local stage at the IRT which is the gold standard in Indy for high caliber production values. It’s all there—a raked stage: trap doors from which actors make surprise entrances; a foreboding sound score; architectural elements from the former Indiana Theatre laid bare and which serve as the set; lighting that creates a sinister atmosphere; effective period costumes; and of course, make-believe snow—and plenty of it.
“A Christmas Carol” continues it run through Dec. 24. For tickets call the Indiana Repertory Theatre box office at (317) 635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.
“Count Your Blessings: A Megan Hilty Holiday Concert”
Attending Hilty’s concert at The Cabaret was a bittersweet experience. However, it had nothing to do with Hilty.As a matter of fact, I had seen her previously a 2015 Pops concert with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and most recently at the ISO’s opening night gala concert in September. Seeing an entertainer of Hilty’s stature doesn’t come around every day so having the opportunity to see her perform again was a rare opportunity.
What was difficult to accept was the fact that it would be the last time for me to see a show in the elegant Crystal Room of the Columbia Club which has been the home of The Cabaret for the last six years. Recently the organization announced that it was not renewing its contract with the Columbia Club and would be moving to a temporary home at the historic Cook Theater at The Landmark Center on the city’s near Northside until its permanent home is secured. Over the years, the Columbia Club venue has been the site of shows featuring some of the biggest names on Broadway, and in cabaret, film and television. A throwback to the days of sophisticated supper clubs and similar to chic New York nightspots, it has been a room that reeks of glamour and urbanity. I shall miss it but according to Cabaret artistic director and CEO, the permanent location promises to rival the Columbia Club venue.
And speaking of glamour—dressed in a black lace dress and looking very pregnant, the 35-year old Hilty, who is expecting her second child, a boy, with her husband Brian Gallagher, had that quintessential glow, often attributed to soon to be moms, as she performed in front of a full house crowd. It was the third night of a four night sold out engagement.
Besides Gallagher who is a guitarist in her band, Hilty was also accompanied by Matt Cusson on piano, Jack DeBoe on drums and Dennis Keefe on bass.
After opening with a medley of Christmas songs that include lyrics about jingle bells, Hilty and her band perfomed a program of mostly holiday songs from her new solo album “Merry Little Christmas”, a few standards and some Broadway show tunes. The holiday songs included “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” “The Christmas Song,” and “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” She also sang a particular moving rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “River.”
Given that HIlty possesses a vocal power and range that is common to singers of her caliber she was most impressive when she sang songs such as “Popular,” which she performed when she played the role of Glinda in “Wicked” on Broadway.
Prior to her last number, “Don’t Forget Me/Let Me Be Your Star” from the fictional Broadway show”Smash,” in the hit NBC TV series of the same title, Hilty jokingly took the audience behind the curtain. She explained that rather than gong through the motions of leaving the room just to return and do an encore number, she was gong to clue the audience in on exactly what was to take place which she proceeded to do to the audience’s delight. When the actual encore did occur it was met with smiles and laughter. After belting out ‘”They Just Keep Moving The Line,” another song from “Mash,” Hilty ended the evening with “There’s Always Tomorrow” from the animated film, “Rudolph The Red Nose Rainbow” and “The Rainbow Connections,” from “The Muppet Movie.”
For tickets and information about The Cabaret’s 2017 Winter/Spring season at the Cook Theatre call (317) 275-1169 or visit www.thecabaret.org.