Houston-inspired musical at Footlite

By Wendy Carson         

 I’ll begin by noting that neither John nor myself have seen the movie, “The Bodyguard,” which is the source for the musical of the same name, now on stage at Footlite. That said, this review will focus solely on the merits of the stage show, and not be complicated by comparisons that film fans will make. I was told that there were a few changes made for the story flow, but those are for others to examine and recount.

The overall plot is basic: Obsessed fan threatens pop star and experienced bodyguard is hired to protect her. Add to this a few ambition issues and romantic subplots, and the whole thing could easily boil down to a cheesy “Hallmark Movie” – yet somehow it all works together quite well. I found myself actually charmed by the spectacle.

No matter your personal opinion of Whitney Houston, she had a fierce voice. With the majority of the songs presented being what might be considered personal anthems, the show’s success or failure heavily lands on the actress/singer playing her role. Fortunately, Angela Nichols-Manlove fills those shoes almost effortlessly. She fully brings out the headstrong sassiness of Houston’s character Rachel while still showing her vulnerable side.

RC Thorne gives the titular character the firm determination of the profession but manages to highlight the fear that drives him in this endeavor. He brings believable life to the hard-boiled exterior with a soft heart archetype.

JB Scoble as The Stalker was appropriately creepy. I was quite impressed with the choreography of his interactions with various characters during the scenes he shared. However, I never felt as though the script tried to adequately explain his motivation and backstory. This weakness of the source material aside, Scoble and director Bradley Allan Lowe made our mystery man appropriately menacing.

Young Cairo Graves as Rachel’s precocious son, Fletcher, is the breakout star of the show. His talent at not stealing every scene he is a part of (which he could quite easily do) was as impressive as his scope of abilities. He is a true triple-threat who we could see delighting us for many years to come.

Melissa Urquhart is also sharp as Rachel’s sister, Nicki, around whom much of the plot twists. Additionally, she provides a powerful voice on a couple of numbers.

At our performance, Lowe ably stepped in for a supporting actor Shalmon Radford, who fell ill. (Hopefully, Radford will return this weekend.) The cast also includes Sam Hill, Robert Dooley, Carolyn Lynch, and Miranda Nehrig. Backing singers and dancers were Anya Andrews, Damaris Burgin, Kaylee Johnson Bradley, Kendell Crenshaw, Azia Ellis-Singleton (Nicki understudy), Suzana Marmolejo (Rachel U/S), DeSean McLucas, Jada Radford, and Ryley Trottier.

Whether you are a fan of the movie, or of Whitney, or just want to see something different and upbeat, this is a show that will bring you laughs, possibly tears, and make you sing along in joy.

For “All the Man That I Need” (and other hits), see “The Bodyguard,” by Alexander Dinelaris (based on a screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan), playing through March 19 at Footlite Musicals, 1847 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis. Get tickets and info at Footlite.org.

Powerful ‘Ragtime’ at Footlite Musicals

By John Lyle Belden

Since it launched in 1996, Terrance McNally’s musical “Ragtime” — based on the E.L. Doctorow novel — has become an American “Les Mis,” a great sweeping epic of national identity and tragic power. And now it graces the stage of Footlite Musicals.

Set in the first decade of the 20th century, an upper-middle class family in New Rochelle, N.Y. find themselves at the crossroads of a number of intersecting stories, blending historical figures and events with characters who were a reflection of the era in various ways — good and bad. 

One can’t dispute the star power of such roles as ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Allen Sledge), who faces one racist indignity too many; his tragic girlfriend Sarah (Angela Manlove); extraordinarily kind Mother (Heather Hansen), discovering liberation despite society’s constraints; her headstrong Younger Brother (Jared Gaddis), whose search for meaning takes him to radical extremes; and immigrant Tateh (Daniel Draves), whose artistic soul keeps reaching for the American Dream until he finds it. 

Another impressive performance is by Edgar, the Little Boy, who acts as one of the play’s narrators as well as involvement in numerous scenes — a big task for a young actor, which Lincoln Everitt carries out well.

The “real” people in the show include Henry Ford (W. Michael Davidson), J.P. Morgan (Bryan Padgett), Harry Houdini (Josh Cox), and anarchist Emma Goldman (Lauren Laski) — as well as two whom history would remember in completely opposite ways. Evelyn Nesbitt (Hadas Yasmin) was the Kim Kardashian of her time, a style icon with more notoriety than talent, only known now by her inclusion in Doctorow’s book; while civil rights icon Booker T. Washington (Jerry Davis) is widely celebrated to this day.

Directed by Paula Phelan, this production has solid performances throughout, including from characters who don’t come off quite as heroic in the narrative — such as Father (Mitchell Hammersley) who means well, but finds himself distanced from his family (even when he’s with them) and lost in the changing times; and bigoted fireman Willie Conklin (Josh Cornell), the biggest villain of the show.

A last-minute addition to the cast, Truman Peyton charms as little Coalhouse Walker III in the finale.

The split-level set is used to good effect, with excellent light effects and projections to punctuate scenes, and a nice representation of a Model T to drive across the stage. Zak Techiniak directs the live orchestra.

Part of the impact of this very powerful musical story is in the unflinching look at the treatment of minorities of the era, including the use of vicious language, in context. It is disturbing, as it is meant to be — a visceral reminder of how far we have come in a century, yet how close we are to falling back.

Performances run through Oct. 13 at 1847 N. Alabama St.,near downtown Indy. Call 317-926-6630 or visit footlite.org.

The beat goes on for CCP with ‘Ragtime’

By John Lyle Belden

RAGTIME: A modification of the march with additional polyrhythms coming from African music, usually written in 2/4 or 4/4 time with a predominant left-hand pattern of bass notes on strong beats and chords on weak beats accompanying a syncopated (“ragged”) melody in the right hand. Ragtime is not a “time” in the same sense that march time is 2/4 meter and waltz time is 3/4 meter; it is rather a musical style that uses an effect that can be applied to any meter. – from Wikipedia

How appropriate that “Ragtime” is the title of the first show for Carmel Community Players after losing its previous home: The beat of the theatrical season goes on, as events turn ragged with a stage search resulting in a nicer venue – though outside Carmel and further from Indy. A large and immensely talented cast and crew adapt quickly, making props and actor movement serve a larger space, singing their hearts out as seasonal health issues threaten.

Yet it all works.

It is worth the drive up to Noblesville to see this compelling glimpse of an America that, a century later, still casts its shadows on the events and issues of today.

This Broadway musical is largely the story of three families – Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Ronald Spriggs) and Sarah (Angela Manlove), the woman who fell in love with him; Jewish Eastern European immigrant Tateh (Thom Brown) and his daughter (Ali Boice), seeking any possible opportunity in America; and the wealthy white suburban family finding themselves in the middle of upsetting but inevitable social, historic and cultural changes. Being what would now be called the faces of “white privilege,” in this latter group we don’t even bother with names: Father (Rich Phipps), Mother (Heather Hansen), her Younger Brother (Benjamin Elliott), Grandfather (Duane Leatherman) and Little Boy (Lincoln Everitt).

We also see some people who one might actually meet in early 1900s New York, including anarchist Emma Goldman and Civil Rights icon Booker T. Washington, powerfully portrayed by Clarissa Bowers and Bradley Lowe, respectively. Celebrities include Harry Houdini (Jonathan Krouse), popular magician and escapist; and Evelyn Nesbitt (Molly Campbell), the Kardashian of her era.

Appropriately, the most critical roles give the strongest performances – Manlove and Spriggs bringing us to tears, Brown confronting crushing problems with wry humor, and Hansen struggling to reconcile her “perfect” life into a more just worldview.

Also notable are Guy Grubbs as unrepentant bigot Willie Conklin, and – at the opposite end of character appeal – little Gavin Hollowell steals our hearts in the final scene.

In addition, I must give kudos to Everitt for, as frequent narrator and our future-generations point of view, ably carrying such a big role on his small shoulders.

This musical has seen some controversy, particularly in its period-appropriate use of the N-word, but the horrors of racism should disturb us, and in the end this is not just a story about groups, but individual men and women, like us, dealing with the still-continuing evolution of this thing we call America.

Performances are this Friday through Sunday (April 27-29) at Ivy Tech Community College auditorium, 300 N.17 th St., Noblesville. Information and tickets at carmelplayers.org.