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.

Civic’s puttin’ on a hit

NOTE: As the Word/Eagle is in flux with the renaming and corresponding change in official website, John is putting his reviews here — for now.

By John Lyle Belden

For a more-silly-than-spooky Halloween crowd-pleaser, you can’t go wrong with “Young Frankenstein,” presented by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre through Nov. 5 at The Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel.

In this Mel Brooks musical, based on the Mel Brooks movie (inspired by the Mary Shelley novel), Frederick Frankenstein (played by Steve Kruze), grandson of the infamous mad doctor – who has changed the pronunciation of his surname in a vain attempt to shake its infamy – must go to his grandfather’s castle in the generically central/eastern European town of Transylvania Heights to settle the estate.

Once there, Frederick meets family servant Igor (Damon Clevenger), who has rounded up a lovely lab assistant, Inga (Devan Mathias). At the castle, they are welcomed by Frau Blucher (Vickie Cornelius Phipps), who was more than a housekeeper to the elder Frankenstein – a case in which a single line from the film became a whole song in the musical.

The temptation to follow in the family business becomes too great, and Frederick makes a Monster (B.J. Bovin) despite the village having passed a law against such practices, inviting the ire of local police Inspector Kemp (Parrish Williams). Add a surprise visit by Frederick’s fiancé Elizabeth (Nathalie Cruz) and a lot of mayhem – and song-and-dance numbers – ensue.

This production goes all-out on the famous “Puttin’ on the Ritz” singing Monster scene, a great credit to the cast and choreographer Anne Nicole Beck. And Williams doubles as the blind Hermit in another famously funny scene.

No one can match the manic genius of Gene Wilder, but Kruze manages to make the title role his own. Cruz and Phipps are natural scene-stealers, and Mathias is a treat. Bovin makes the most of the limited motions of the Monster, and his often-confused expressions add to the comedic effect. But the show doesn’t work without a great Igor (pronounced “Eye-gor”), and Clevenger is pitch-perfect in the role. It’s a credit to the others that he doesn’t steal the whole show.

Brooks’ gags still zing and his Tony-nominated monster of a musical still entertains. Get info and tickets at civictheatre.org.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor at The Eagle (formerly The Word), the central-Indiana based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Avenue Q: A great place to visit again

By John Lyle Belden

It’s always amazing, while attending a performance of “Avenue Q,” to see the reactions of those who haven’t seen it before when a Muppet-style puppet drops the F-bomb in one of the first songs (“It Sucks to Be Me”). When I see the, “Did I just hear that?” I’m thinking, “You ain’t heard nothing yet.”

After all, this is the musical that brought us, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “The Internet is for Porn.”

Yes, when Fabric-Americans and other diverse people have outgrown Sesame Street, they move uptown, all the way up the alphabet to Avenue Q. This show captures the style of Childrens Television Workshop shows, but is definitely NOT for children. Still, it’s worth it to plug the ears of your Inner Child and go. The show is full of laughs and heart, even with the mature edges, as you get to know and love people just trying to make something of their lives, like all of us.

But what if you have been to this street before? For those who enjoy singing along with “Porn! Porn! Porn!” and look forward to the sight-gag in the hospital scene, you will have a lot of fun with the Footlite Musicals production, running through Sunday at the Hedback Theatre, 1847 N. Alabama St. in downtown Indy.

It’s hard to pick a stand-out performance in this cast, as all are at the top of their game, including Phil Criswell as puppet-seeking-purpose Princeton, Emily Schaab as beautiful Kate Monster, Graham Brinklow and Damon Clevenger as odd couple Nicky and Rod, Chris Meek as struggling comic Brian, Nathalie Cruz as tell-it-like-it-is therapist Christmas Eve, and Ryan England as pervy Trekkie Monster. The biggest pleasant surprise is building super Gary Coleman played by Ervin Gainer, who actually looks like the late child actor. In addition, throw in excellent support from Leigh Alexovich and Dejuan Jackson as boxes, Bears and left hands, as well as Zarah Miller as the legendary Lucy T. Slut.

Another note to newcomers: There is a song about giving to charity, during which the “hat” is passed around the audience – though actors could usually use the money (and cast and crew at Footlite are volunteers), all funds will go towards a genuine charity announced at that point in the show.

Go to www.footlite.org or call 317-926-6630 for ticket reservations.

(This review also posted on The Word.)