I want to preface this with the acknowledgement that * I did not see every show there was to see in the Indianapolis area this past year. * Not even close. Also, a five-star review may not have landed a show a spot in my favorites list. Instead, a combination of unique, inventive approaches and outstanding work on and off stage (especially on a low budget) with a great script are my criteria. With that said, here are my top picks for 2016.
Addams Family at Footlite Musicals
What made it great: across-the-board top-notch staging that featured talent, enthusiasm, and commitment. Ed Trout’s whimsical direction (and spooky scenic design), spot-on costumes by designer Curt Pickard, and other details crafted by behind-the-scenes crew members made this show a massive hit. On stage, leads to chorus did a standout job. Michael Davis and Kathleen Clarke Horrigan created spitting images of Gomez and Morticia (respectively), but the vocal superlatives were the powerful voices of Ivy Bott as Wednesday and Carrie Neal as Lucas’s mother, Alice.
Next to Normal at Carmel Community Players
What made it great: director Carlo Nepomuceno’s focus on talent. Georgeanna Teipen (the main character), Russell Watson, Sharmaine Ruth, Kyle Mottinger, Daniel Hellman, and Bradley Kieper delivered exquisite emotion and vocal performances in this raw narrative without utilizing bells and whistles.
Sweeny Todd by Actors Theatre of Indiana
What made it great: probably one of if not the best Sweeny productions I’ve ever seen. ATI maximized its use of the small, black-box stage with a multipurpose set piece by designer P. Bernard Killian. Don Farrell was awesome as the ghoulish Todd in presentation and musical ability. Judy Fitzgerald played a perfect foil for Farrell’s insanity as the sociopath Mrs. Lovett. Kudos to director Richard J. Roberts.
Young Frankenstein at Indianapolis Civic Theatre
What made it great: across-the-board top-notch staging that featured talent, enthusiasm, and commitment. Director Michael Lasley indulged us with shticky pleasures while achieving and maintaining excellence in performance and presentation. Jaw-dropping scenery framed ensemble musical numbers that came at you with the power of a case of 5-hour Energy drinks. Steve Kruze, Nathalie Cruz, Damon Clevenger, Devan Mathias, Vickie Cornelius Phipps, and B. J. Bovin owned their caricatures 100 percent and reveled in their insensible, bawdy humor.
Crumble (Lay Me Down Justin Timberlake) at Theatre on the Square
What made it great: a dark, lyrical script, direction by Rob Johansen, and the performances of Clay Mabbitt and Paeton Chavis. The bizarre humor of the show was appallingly sidesplitting. The language used in the script is sexy, luscious, even poetic at times. The actors agilely wrapped their lips around the fascinating lines. Mabbitt was excellent as the anthropomorphic character House that yearned for a loving touch, an oiled hinge, a release of radiator steam. Mabbitt’s deft physicality in depicting doors, windows, and falling plaster and his slithering along walls and floors were amazing. Chavis—as a hyper, foul-mouthed, belligerent 11-year-old who exhibited symptoms of schizoaffective disorder and spewed explicit venom via her dolls—was mesmerizing in her on-stage intensity.
The Diviners by Casey Ross Productions in association with the Carmel Theatre Company
What made it great: Casey Ross’s direction and charming characters. Ross’s stagecraft was showcased in the underwater scene. A combination of slow motion and David C. Matthews’s lighting depicted action when (the likable and relatable) Pat Mullen and Davey Peluse were underwater cut with moments that they surface with normal motion and lighting. This scene was impressively effective and a great use of the black-box space.
It’s Only a Play at Theatre on the Square
What made it great: caricature portrayal. Darrin Murrell directed the cast into Breakfast Club-like stereotypes, making this sendup of all things theater a hoot. Adam O. Crowe, Thomas Cardwell, Kathy Pataluch, and Afton Shepard deserve particular shout-outs for throwing themselves into the silliness wholeheartedly.
Merry Wives of Windsor by Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project
What made it great: superlative direction, set, and acting. Director Bill Simmons hit a ringer with his premiere shot at directing a Shakespearian play. The cast and crew was a who’s who of renowned Indianapolis-theater favorites. Spumoni-ice-cream colors, lawn-dart head ornaments, a mish-mash of retro clothing, ukuleles, and a bubble-gum-blowing, hula-hooping object of desire. These people are pros. Each and every cast member was top-notch here and adroit at physical comedy. Just a very few include Rob Johansen, Adam O. Crowe, Amy Hayes, Claire Wilcher, and Carrie Schlatter, and mention must be made of Sara White’s sets and Peachy Kean Costuming’s attire.
Avenue Q at Footlite Musicals
What made it great: across-the-board top-notch staging that featured talent, enthusiasm, and commitment. Under the co-direction of Kathleen Clarke Horrigan and Ed Trout, the cast was exceptional. Really, pointing out any musical numbers or scenes as “the best” wasn’t possible—every voice, every note was superlative. I was floored by the quality of the show. Just a very few shout-outs include puppeteers Phil Criswell (Princeton), Emily Schaab (Kate Monster), Damon Clevenger (Rod), Graham Brinklow (Nicky), Ryan England (Trekkie Monster), and Zarah Miller (Lucy). The high-quality puppets the actors used were acquired through an Adopt a Puppet program, making them the equivalent of the ones used in professional productions. Scenery was also a boon.
Bat Boy at Theatre on the Square
What made it great: a strong lead and the cast’s unfailing commitment to nutty. Zach Neiditch directed Justin Klein as Bat Boy, who did a spectacular job of transitioning from a cave-dwelling, grunting wild child to an eloquent, proper young man, complete with a British accent. Other notables were Mindy Morton, who was perfect as the long-suffering wife, and Devan Mathias’s mixture of teen angst and idealism. Vocal director David Barnhouse teased impressive performances out of the whole cast. Music, makeup, lighting—it was all good.
Drankesphere by EclecticPond Theater Company at the IndyFringe Festival
What made it great: unconstrained, ribald humor by comedians par excellence. A drinking game meets a fast-and-loose Romeo and Juliet. This raucous, frenetic send-up brought us such lines as “Are you fucking fisting me right now?” and “Who the fuck is in my bushes?” (the infamous balcony scene). Some of Shakespeare’s original lines were thrown in for good measure at a tempo that didn’t seem humanly possible—but was deeply impressive.
Every Christmas Story Ever Told at Buck Creek Players
What made it great: out-of-control hilarity. This show (which just closed last weekend) was what other holiday sendups only wish they were: genuinely, uproariously funny. Under director D. Scott Robinson, Jessica Bartley, Stacia Ann Hulen, and Steven R. Linville exuded genuine energy and abandonment. They weren’t just playing parts—they were interacting, having a good time, and even cracking each other up. I laughed so hard I snorted.
Hand to God at the Phoenix Theatre
What made it great: Nathan Robbins’s performance of his inordinate attachment to his demonic, vulgar, bloodthirsty puppet Tyrone. Under the direction of Mark Routhier, the entire cast was stellar, but additional emphasis must be given to Robbins and his character’s id in puppet form. His mastery of the craft was remarkable. His puppeteering was so deft that you came to see Tyrone as a separate entity that had accepted the devil as his lord and savior. In contrast to Tyrone, Robbins conveyed a shy, insecure teen in Jason. His split-second oscillation of unrestrained rage to confused, scared boy could twist your spine.
The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful at the Indiana Repertory Theatre
What made it great: chemistry on stage and embracing “theater of the ridiculous.” Director James Still, Marcus Truschinski, and longtime acclaimed theater-staple Rob Johansen captured and hog-tied the play’s nonsensical elements, producing one of the IRT’s most uproarious and unexpectedly deviant shows. Truschinski and Johansen played off each other flawlessly. The three of them made melodramatic farce a new artform.