Theatre Review: “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” at Indianapolis Civic

Last Friday night I drove to the northwest side of Indianapolis to the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre (sometimes still known as the Indianapolis Civic Theatre) to see their production of the Tony Award-winning drama, “The Last Night of Ballyhoo.”  It was written by Alfred Uhry and directed at Civic by Jennifer Loia Alexander.

This was a very enjoyable, uplifting night at the theatre.  “Ballyhoo” is not a fluff piece, but even though it is about prejudice and family dysfunction it is not an earnest downer either.  In fact, I was surprised and delighted by its combination of substance and sweetness.   I laughed often, and I was touched by the playwright’s optimistic belief in humanity’s capacity for both change and loyalty.

What the Show Is About

A long-established, well-off, socially prominent, and nominally Jewish extended family in 1939 Atlanta, Georgia is shaken up when a 2nd-generation, devout Jew from Brooklyn comes to work in the family business and falls in love with one of the daughters.  She falls in love with him, too.

“Ballyhoo” is the name of a very socially-important dance that young Jewish men and women from near and far hope to attend every year.  Joe Farkas (the young man from Brooklyn) invites Sunny Freitag (the more attractive daughter) to go with him, but later, when he finds out that it is held in a club that does not admit “the other kind” of Jew – i.e., his kind – he is outraged.  Sunny is thinks he is over-reacting.

In the meantime, long-held jealousies and resentments between the sisters-in-law and siblings and cousins that are all living together there in the same house get stirred up in humorous ways by thoughts of attending – or, God forbid, missing! – “Ballyhoo.”

Artistic Considerations

As I think about this show now, a few days after seeing it, I keep coming back to its delicate, satisfying mix of charm, humor, romance, and depth.  Some of that pleasing mix is due to script itself and to the strong ensemble of actors, of course, but I think director Jennifer Loia Alexander must also deserve special praise for her deft guidance.  It is a pretty “talk-y” script when I stand back and think about it, with lots of layers that are very plainly marked, but I think it is her direction of it that makes it consistently engaging and gives it a natural feel.

Under her direction, the actors portray a family – and a community – that is hilarious yet believable.

At one point I saw the woman sitting in front of me put her hands on her head and growl in frustration to her companion at something one of the characters said, as if she knew someone in her own family that behaved just like that character.

At another point, I overhead the woman sitting behind me say to her companion, “Oh, it’s going to get ugly now!” 

In other words, there is a lot of family drama in this drama.

But there is also a lot of love, and a good bit of chaste romance.

I swooned over the affectionate chemistry that actors Pete Lindblom (Joe Farkas) and Melissa Brown (Sunny Freitag) let develop between their attractive characters as they fall in love.  I was fascinated by the toxic yet somehow equally cementing chemistry that Leah Dewalt (Lala Levy) and Tyler Eglen (Peachy Weil) let develop between their wacky-yet-believable characters as they, too, fall in…love?

The three older family members are also exquisitely delineated:  Kirk D. Fields plays the good-hearted, hard-working-but-also-lazy-in-a-way man of the house, Adolph Freitag.  Lucy Fields plays his somewhat ditsy but not-as-dumb-as-you-might-think widowed sister-in-law, Reba Freitag (Sunny’s mother.)  And Jolene Mentink Moffatt…oh, my, she is a hoot as Boo Levy: Adolph’s overbearing sister (also a widow) and Lala’s helicopter mother.

The set, designed by Dan Tracy, is of the warm and beautiful Freitag home.  Michael J. Lasley’s sound design includes several music choices that perfectly enhance the wit of the play itself.  Barbara Riordan’s costume designs perfectly enhance the characters’ personalities and relationships.  Lala’s party dress, for example!  Oh, my, I am laughing again, remembering it.

Appeal Factors and Audience

Although the content of this show is completely family-friendly, I would only suggest it to teens and adults because it is best appreciated by people who have some awareness of history.  Also, the subtleties in this piece that will delight many adults will be missed by most little kids, I’m afraid, and they will just be bored.

I have not yet seen the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s production of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” but it runs through February 25, 2011, and I have heard good things about it.  I bet that the combination of that show and this one would make a deeply satisfying and enjoyable “cultural literacy” weekend of theatre.

Who Did What

Director Jennifer Loia Alexander was assisted by Chelsea Anderson.  Ryan Koharchik was the lighting designer.  Michael J. Lasley was the sound designer.  Barbara Riordan designed the costumes.  Danna Sheridan is the stage manager.  Dan Tracy designed the set.

The deck crew includes Michelle Boswel, Joanne Johnson, Matt Keller, Nichol Kirby, Maria Meschi, Abby Scharbrough, and Michael Schmidt.

The sound crew includes Torry M. Bievenour and Isaiah Newkirk.

Box Office

“The Last Night of Ballyhoo” runs through February 5, 2011 at the Indianapolis Civic Theatre on the Marion University campus.  Call the Box Office 317-923-4597 or visit www.civictheatre.org to make a reservation.

 ‘See you at the theatres!

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com and www.twitter.com/IndyTheatre

(I don’t know who took the photo above but I am using it with permission from the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre.  The actors are (left to right) Tyler Eglen as Peachy Weil, Leah DeWalt as Lala Levy, Melissa Brown as Sunny Freitag and Pete Lindblom as Joe Farkas.)

(Update 1/28/11:  The photo was taken by Zach Rosing.)

4 thoughts on “Theatre Review: “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” at Indianapolis Civic”

  1. Hope,
    Thank you so much for your thoughtful review. You are RIGHT ON to give Jennifer Alexander the directing credit you do. Without her loving expertise, the play would have been so much less.
    Thanks again

  2. Thanks for letting me know, Zach. I updated the post to give you photographer’s credit.

    I love the photo, by the way. It conveys a lot about the personalities and relationships of the four characters!

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