Footlite brings simple complexity of ‘Bridges’

By John Lyle Belden

“The Bridges of Madison County” is an unusual love story, its surprising depth reaching beyond the plot of a lonely housewife having an affair with a traveling photographer. That made it successful as a novel, movie, and finally as “The Bridges of Madison County: The Broadway Musical,” presented by Footlite Musicals through March 18.

It`s 1965, and Francesca (Lori Ecker), an Italian war bride, is alone at her husband`s Iowa farm while he and their children are two states away for a national 4-H livestock show, when a strange but handsome and charming man arrives in the driveway. He is Robert Kinkaid (Rick Barber), a photographer for National Geographic Magazine, sent to get shots of the famous local covered bridges. As the rural roads aren`t clearly marked, he has gotten lost looking for the last bridge on his list.

With Francesca`s help, Robert finds the bridge, but they start to lose their way in a manner that will affect them both for the rest of their lives.

What comes to pass seems as inevitable as it is wrong, so we see this couple in how they help each other more than how they are likely to hurt the others they love. But actions have consequences, and force hard choices.

Ecker is outstanding, and Barber has a voice as strong as his muscular body. Though they are committing the sin, you can`t help but feel for them – maybe even root for them.

Darrin Gowan is rock-steady as Francesca`s husband Bud. He could have been played as a victim, a sucker, or one whose behavior pushed his wife into another man`s arms, but we get no such cliché. Just as Francesca acts of her own free will, Bud is constantly true to his obligations and those he loves, even if there`s something about them he frustratingly can’t control. Their son, Michael (Joseph Massingale), and daughter, Carolyn (Elly Burne), are also interesting three-dimensional characters. In each we see both the practical nature of their father and the free spirit of their mother.

Jeanne Chandler as neighbor Marge is a wonderful surprise, her character a bit nosy but out of honest concern for the family next door she has come to love. And Chandler’s solo song allows her to steal the scene in style. Kudos to Bob Chandler for taking the role of Marge’s husband Charlie on short notice after the injury of original cast member Daniel Scharbrough in a fall (according to Dan’s Facebook posts, he is recovering).

The set, designed by Jerry Beasley, is beautiful in its simplicity – especially the covered bridge – giving just enough pieces to let your imagination complete the scene, while the actors (including a large but well coordinated chorus) are free to move and help the setpieces flow in and out as needed.

If you have any liking for a romantic musical – particularly if you enjoyed the James Waller novel or Clint Eastwood/Meryl Streep film of “Bridges” – this nicely put together community production, under the direction of Tim Spradlin, is well worth your time.

Find this charming little piece of Madison County, Iowa, at the Hedback Theatre, 1847 N. Alabama, Indianapolis; call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.

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‘Brooklyn’ comes to Footlite

By John Lyle Belden

As it is often said, context is everything.

“Brooklyn: The Musical” has a backstory that nearly overshadows the show itself. Its creators, Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson, once collaborated decades ago before going seperate ways. More recently, McPherson, who had a comfortable life in New England, came across Schoenfeld, then a homeless street musician in Brooklyn. She took him in, and inspired by his tough life, they wrote what would become this musical.

After opening in Colorado, “Brooklyn” had a nearly full year on Broadway – October 2004 to June 2005. New York critics were not kind, but Kathleen Clarke Horrigan of Indy’s Footlite Musicals saw it during its final month and fell in love. After years of hunting for a way to bring the musical to Indiana, she finally has “Brooklyn” occupying the Footlite stage.

This is Footlite’s traditional January “cabaret” style show, with seating right on the stage, actors and audience sharing a common space. When we arrive to take our seats, we are transported to a grubby street corner by the Brooklyn Bridge, complete with trash, graffiti and discarded humanity. One man, the Street Singer (Stevie Jones) starts to perform with a generous voice and open guitar case. He is joined by four others, hardy “City Weeds” that spring up to help present his “Sidewalk Fairy Tale.”

For the most part, this show is the play-within-the-play about a Parisian girl, “Brooklyn,” named for the home of the American father she never knew. After losing her mother (played by Page Brown), Brooklyn (Shelbi Berry) eventually makes her way to New York as a famous singer, with one unfinished song that only her real dad would know. Local diva Paradice (Kendra Randle) is not amused and wants this French upstart off her turf. Brooklyn accepts Paradice’s challenge for a winner-take-all sing-off in hopes that this will aid her quest. But when she finds her father (Donny Torres) and learns his truth, will a happy ending to this tale be possible?

I’m leaving out a lot of details, of course, so you can discover them yourself. Dwelling on them would ruin the overall fantasia effect of the story, anyway. In the end, we truly learn who this story is about and for, which then sets the “fairy tale” as a whole in a clearer light.

The issue of homelessness permeates this story and production, but – as is true in everyday conversations – it is not directly addressed. This show won’t preach to you, but does present these people’s humanity, the “Heart Behind These Hands,” and clues to what can bring a person down to life under a bridge. This production is also helping raise awareness and funds for the local Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention (www.chipindy.org).

Jones is a wonderful narrator with sweet voice and charisma to spare. Beautiful Berry and sassy Randle make an exellent sweet-sour yin-yang. Brown is angelic (literally) and Torres brings all the layers of his complex character. In other words, these “weeds” are a pitch-perfect bouquet of talent.

Also impressive is the look and atmosphere of the stage set by Stephen Matters, like a gritty set for “Rent” gone to seed, complete with lights and sounds (but thankfully no smells) to make you feel almost a bit unsafe. Costumes (by Curt Pickard) and props are marvels of recycling and improvisation with discarded everyday objects, oddly adding to the whimsy of some scenes.

Combine these elements with backing street people (Rayanna Bibbs, Tristan Bustos, Amy Douglas and Michael Davis) and an on-stage band led by Linda Parr, and you have one of those musicals that is as much an experience as a show. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself humming an “Unfinished Lullaby” or have the words “With our tears, we water roses” tattooed to your memory.

This rare gem of an almost-forgotten musical has performances today through Sunday and Jan. 18-21 at 1847 N. Alabama. Call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.

Footlite’s offering not your typical ‘holiday’ show

By John Lyle Belden

Some of the most interesting movies and plays are based on real events, especially those with can-you-believe-it novelty. That was especially the case with the legend of the Texas “Chicken Ranch” – a brothel that was an open secret for most of a century, named from its willingness to take poultry in payment during the Great Depression. It inspired the ZZ Top hit, “La Grange,” as well as the Broadway musical and 1982 film, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”

And now, Indy has “Whorehouse” in it! (“Lord have mercy on our souls!”) A home-grown production is playing through Dec. 10 at Footlite Musicals.

This seems an odd choice for the season – though everyone else has all the classics covered, so this does stand out. However, the play is set around Thanksgiving-to-Christmas time, sometime in the 1970s.

The Chicken Ranch has been running smoothly for generations, now under the watchful eye of Miss Mona (Julie Powers), with a friendly relationship with local Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd (Mike Bauerle). The house attracts young women who want something different from life, including Angel (Abby Okerson), who wants stability and away from violent pimps, and appropriately-named Shy (Molly Campbell).

But anti-crime and consumer-watch crusader Melvin P. Thorpe (Todd Hammer) has made exposing and closing the Chicken Ranch his next mission – pursuing fame and high TV ratings as well as a moral cause. Thanks to media exposure on televisions across Texas, the Best Little Whorehouse’s days are numbered.

Powers commands the stage well, along with Eryn Bowser as Mona’s assistant, Jewel. Hammer mentions in his program bio that Thorpe is a bucket-list role, and he certainly has fun with it – making him enjoyable to watch as well. Jim Nelms cuts a sweet “Sidestep” as the Texas Governor.

Needless to say, there is mature content (though no nudity) so this show is only for teens and older. It looks good,with a nicely designed and furnished set with the musical’s band visible playing in the parlor. The costumes appropriately range from sassy to classy.

As for the performance, overall it’s entertaining, and an alternative to all the Scrooges and Nutcrackers elsewhere, but what we saw left us feeling it could have been a lot better. Fortunately, off-key notes and missed dance steps can be fixed between shows, so we don’t want to come off as too critical (and others in the audience did enjoy it), just honest. Considering the high quality of previous productions at Footlite this year, perhaps we had set our expectations a bit high.

Find Footlite at 1847 N. Alabama St., or online at footlite.org.

Footlite presents a class ‘Act’

By John Lyle Belden

I only have a vague memory of seeing the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg film, “Sister Act.” But you don’t have to have seen it at all to appreciate the Broadway musical version, presented by local talent at Footlite Musicals. Goldberg’s only connection to the stage edition was as producer, otherwise the show was stripped down to the general plot and rebuilt with original songs (by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater) and its own sense of fun.

Set in 1970s Philadelphia, aspiring singer Deloris Van Cartier (Morgan Webster) witnesses her manager and boyfriend, Curtis (Ollice Aurelius Nickson), commit murder. With the help of Eddie (Donald Marter), a cop with a crush on Deloris, she is hidden with a cloister of nuns at a church with its own problems. Attendance at services has been falling, and the choir is horrible – apparently each sister sings in a different key. Mother Superior (Karen Frye Knotts) prays fervently for help, but can this spoiled foul-mouthed lounge entertainer be the answer?

Webster seems a bit over the top at first, but that’s just Deloris being herself. As she, in disguise as a fellow nun, wins over the sisters, she grows on us as well. Knotts is maternally likable as the one old-fashioned resister to the choir’s new soulful style. The rest are mostly reminiscent of the quietly hip sisters of “Nunsense,” especially Sister Mary Patrick (Nina Stilabower) and shy postulant Sister Mary Robert (Bailey Jane Williams), who it’s fun to watch come out of her shell. Nickson is equal parts charming and menacing as he hunts for the woman whose testimony could put him away, accompanied by a goofy trio of henchmen, played by Daniel Draves, Josh Vander Missen and Jonathan Studdard. Marter makes the unlikely romantic hero “Sweaty” Eddie a character to root for. And W. Michael Davidson is a blessing as the church pastor, Monsignor O’Hara.

It’s all good music and good times, with a little drama, as this “Sister Act” makes a joyful noise and “Spreads the Love Around.” Performances are weekends through Oct. 8 at 1847 N. Alabama St., near downtown Indy. Call 317-926-6630 or visit Footlite.org.

Catch ‘Big Fish’ at Footlite

By John Lyle Belden

Nothing is as entertaining as a good story, and in “Big Fish,” on stage through July 23 at Footlite Musicals, we meet a man whose life is full of them.

This recent Broadway musical, based on the 2003 Tim Burton film (and 1998 Daniel Wallace novel), is Footlite’s Young Adult production (with a couple of older actors), directed by Kathleen Clarke Horrigan.

Edward Bloom (Kyle Cherry) believes one should be the hero of his story, and tells his young son, Will (Rocco Meo), one fantastical tale after another. But by the time he grows up, adult Will (Drew Bryson) sees his father as a mystery shrouded in self-made myths. Then, as Edward’s health starts to fail, Will quests for the truth – and finds a new understanding of the man who met a witch, befriended a giant, joined the circus and saved a town.

Edward’s stories come to life through the magic of the stage. We see him encounter a mermaid (Tessa Gibbons), and later the witch (Tayler Seymour) who tells him how he will die. Rather than despair, the news gives him confidence to face any dangerous situation knowing “that’s not how it ends.” So he bravely confronts Karl the Giant (Zachary Hoover) and has himself shot out of a cannon so he can meet and propose to beautiful redheaded Sandra (Regan Desautels).

The show features some memorable songs (“Be the Hero,” “Fight the Dragons,” “Stranger,” “Start Over”) and dance breaks – the Alabama Stomp is guaranteed to bring fish to the surface – as well as solid performances. Aside from actors listed so far, notable cast members include Samantha Russell as Jenny Hill, Edward’s high school sweetheart; Noah Nordman as Don Price, the classmate who returned to Ashton, Ala., after college; and Jeff Reeves, showing the youngsters how it’s done as circus boss Amos Calloway.

Footlite’s production is a beautiful tribute to the bond between fathers and sons, strong even when frayed, as well as the importance of stories and the power of love. Just don’t be surprised if your heart hesitates whenever you see daffodils.

During the run of the show, there is a fundraiser in the lobby benefiting cancer charities.

Find Footlite at 1847 N. Alabama St., just north of downtown Indy; call 317-926-6630 or visit footlite.org.

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.

Footlite show on a ‘Cole’-fired ship

By John Lyle Belden

With so much drama around us, sometimes it’s nice to indulge in a light musical: All aboard, then, for a “De-Lovely” voyage aboard the SS American in Footlite Musicals’ production of “Anything Goes.”

The comic plot involves love, gangsters on the lam, and a lot of silly disguises and misunderstandings. Billy Crocker (Trenton Baker) wants to stop his girl Hope Harcourt’s (Sydney Norwalk) ill-advised marriage to English “gentleman” Sir Evelyn Oakleigh (Ryan Straut), and gets aid from “America’s Thirteenth-Most-Wanted” Moonface Martin (Tom Bartley) and song-and-dance sensation Reno Sweeney (Susie Harloff).

While that’s good for some laughs, the show’s main purpose is as a delivery vehicle for the hits of Cole Porter (“You’re the Top,” “De-Lovely,” “Friendship,” “I Get a Kick out of You,” “Blow Gabriel Blow” and more, including the title tune) and at that, this production delivers.

Norwalk makes a shining Footlite debut; Baker provides his triple-threat credentials; and Harloff, with the help of Reno’s Angels (Kristen Tschiniak, Becca DeTar, Tara Roberds and Nicole Bridgens) takes charge of the ship with dynamite song and dance numbers (with much credit due to Trish Roberds’ choreography). Straut’s frantic fop is a hoot, and Bartley’s comic chops are spot on, aided by another brilliant performance by Emily Schaab as Martin’s accomplice, Bonnie. Craig Kemp adds to the laughs with his hard-luck businessman, Elisha Whitney (Crocker’s boss). Also impressive are dancing sailors Kyle Cherry and Noah Fields.

The book is admittedly a little dated – and director Kathleen Clarke Horrigan admits as much in her opening curtain speech – but this old gem still entertains. Performances are weekends through March 19 at 1847 N. Alabama St., near downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.