‘First Date’ jitters take form of advice-giving friends in Footlite musical

By Wendy Carson

Dating — the stress, vulnerability, tension, sheer terror, and coping with it all. Is all of this worth it, to possibly find “the One”? This is the subject the Broadway musical, appropriately titled “First Date,” playing at Footlite Musicals.

The show focuses on Aaron (Zach Hoover) and Casey (Halle Catlow) as they undergo a blind date, and we experience it with them, while seeing their inner thoughts portrayed by others in the cast.

Starting with drinks at the bar, it is obvious that these two have nothing in common except shared geography and a couple of friends who feel they might be a good fit for each other. Still, they are curious enough to overlook their first impressions — and Casey ignores the “bailout calls” of Reggie (Austin Stodgill), her gay bestie — to get to know each other more.

Religious differences, past relationship horrors, and even the embarrassment of their internet history are broached, yet they keep feeling out the possibility of their compatibility. Each constantly teeters on the verge of leaving, yet in their minds, Casey’s sister Lauren (Hannah Janowicz) and Aaron’s best friend Gabe (Ben Fraley) keep showing up to convince them to stick it out.

So, will these two make it to dinner — or maybe breakfast? Will Casey actually let Reggie’s calls give her an out? Will Aaron overcome his feelings for ex-fiance Allison (DonaMarie Kelley)? Can the head Waiter (Darrin Gowan) inspire them to actually fall in love? Honestly, is any of this actually worth it?

Margaret Smith and Adam Gardner complete the cast as waitstaff and part of the mental chorus.

This being Footlite’s annual “cabaret” production, audience seating is on the stage at tables of Darrin’s Restaurant, adding an appropriate intimate feel. The show — book by Austin Winsberg, music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner — is laugh-out-loud funny, with memorable tunes including “First Impression,” “The Girl For You,” and “I’d Order Love.” (We’ve heard them occasionally on SiriusXM’s “On Broadway” channel.) Direction is by Kathleen Clarke Horrigan, with choreography by Trish Roberts and music directed by Linda Parr.

So good, you might want to take a date of your own, “First Date” runs through Jan. 19 at 1847 N. Alabama St., near downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-926-6630 or visit http://www.footlite.org.

Footlite hosts fresh take on popular fairy-tale musical

By John Lyle Belden

Sometimes, when you need it most, a special person appears, a wise character who makes everything better with their magical touch.

A Fairy Godmother? Sure. But for now. I’m referring to Bob Harbin. Mr. “Bobdirex” has cast his spell on Footlite Musicals in his direction of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella.” While most often seen as a version of the 1957 television production, he has gone with the 2013 Broadway book of the musical by Douglas Carter Beane. Consider this a more postmodern and “woke” version — as one critic of the New York staging put it, influenced by “Les Mis” and “Spamalot” — while still retaining plenty of the fairy-tale charm and the wonderful R&H songs.

We check off the old story points: A girl is reduced to servitude by her cruel stepmother and spoiled stepsisters, but she keeps a positive attitude “in her own little corner” by the hearth. Meanwhile, the local Prince (who is quite Charming, but he’ll go by one of his several names) needs to find a bride so he holds a Royal Ball, which our evil Steps go to but leave Cinder-Ella behind, to be rescued by a Fairy Godmother, who provides the gown and glass slippers while charming a pumpkin into a carriage and handy animals into its horses, driver and footmen. Spell ends at midnight, so after Cindy and the Prince fall in love-at-first-sight, the clock chimes, and off she goes…

But, wait! Also: Prince ‘Topher (Jacob Hardin) is more than two-dimensional and has his own inner struggle; likewise, stepsisters Charlotte (Kristin Cutler) and especially Gabriella (Tara Cherry) have feelings other than snobby disdain, with the latter secretly in love with peasant rabble-rouser Jean-Michel (Dustin Branum) — oh, and there’s that young student revolutionary added to the cast. Madame Stepmother (Jill O’Malia) is still evil as heck, but we have another villain in minister Sebastian (Markell Pipkins), who maintains the kingdom until the Prince comes of age, enacting all sorts of oppressive measures. And to top it all off, when she runs from the ball, Cinderella (Lauren Russel) takes both shoes! What’s going on here?!

You have until Dec. 15 to see how this all works out to the expected happy ending. With the odd twists and its constant way of mining humor from them, this is an entertaining take on the whole Once-Upon-a-Time schtick, and with tunes like “The Prince is Giving a Ball,” Fol-De-Rol,” “Impossible is Possible,” and “Ten Minutes Ago,” sure to please any who love the original show.

Great performances by all I’ve listed so far — who knew we could find the Stepsisters so fun? — as well as Heather Catlow as Marie, the old woman with something shiny under that frumpy dress; and Chris Jones as Lord Pinkleton, servant to Topher and Sebastian, and master of the sarcastic eye-roll. 

Russel is appropriately beautiful in voice, movement and attitude. Cutler wields both ditsy-ness and sarcasm to hilarious effect. Cherry also plays not-too-bright but makes up for it with chutzpah and surprising depth. Branum plays a boy full of radical fire, but ironically low in confidence, and charming either way. Catlow is appropriately maternal with wry humor. Hardin makes the most of a story that usually just makes him the means to Cinderella’s end, showing some growth from spoiled boy to worthy of his eventual kingdom.

The show also looks great, with costumes by the team of Etta Biloon, Renee Stout, Vickie Tewes, and Darlene Uggen; and wigs by Tim Hunt and Jill Wooster (you’ll never forget Gabrielle’s hairpiece). Sets are by Stephen Matters; choreography is by Linda Rees; music director and orchestra conductor is Kayvon Emtiaz. Note the cast and crew are all volunteers, doing it for the love of the art.

Oh, and there are also puppets. Who doesn’t like puppets?

Thanks, Bob! For a fresh and fun diversion from all the holiday happenings, “Cinderella” graces the Footlite stage at 1847 N. Alabama St., near downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-926-6630 or visit www.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.

Footlite brings on teen hit

By John Lyle Belden

“Bring it On: The Musical,” based on the popular movie, is about more than cheerleading and the fun of being in a dance crew. Aside from being about friendship, acceptance, honesty, dedication and keeping everything in perspective, it is an immersive look at teenage life.

A Young Artists Production of Footlite Musicals, the entire cast are teens playing high school students. There are no onstage adult roles, placing the audience solidly in the kids’ world, where what they feel, experience and want is all that matters. For Campbell (Sierra Shelton), that means a lifetime of dedication towards one goal: to lead her cheer team to a championship at Nationals. 

But fate — or perhaps something more — has disrupted her plans, and Campbell goes from cheer Captain at posh Truman High to one of the new seniors at Jackson High, a gritty school that had disbanded its cheerleading program. What Jackson does have, though, is a dedicated Dance Crew, led by Danielle (Sophia Araceli Hughes). Could this be Campbell’s ticket back to her “one perfect moment?” 

At this point,  one could predict all the teen-movie plot beats, and likely understanding this, writer Jeff Whitty (“Avenue Q”) and songwriters Tom Kitt, Amanda Green and Lin-Manuel Miranda toy with those expectations. The show is somewhat by-the-numbers to keep it comfortably entertaining, with enough tweaks to keep us engaged and help turn some tropes on their ear. One can recognize Miranda’s driving rap-patter in some numbers, but it works and adds to the contemporary feel with his present fame.

Shelton and Hughes are each solid in their leadership roles, great in voice, step and charisma. However, our hero is Erin Vaughn as Bridget, who goes from cheer-wannabe who has to settle for the mascot costume at Truman to becoming fully accepted into her class and Crew at Jackson — becoming a hottie without a cliche “makeover.” 

Supporting roles are well-played, despite less depth in their scripting. Addison Bartley as Eva is the most complex of these, cheerfully chewing scenery as the girl-next-door who isn’t as nice as she first seems (yes she goes to expremes, but didn’t we all as sophomores?). 

Fellow Truman squad members include Katherine Felli as Skylar, who frankly enjoys playing the blonde stereotype to the hilt; Bailey Harmon as her minion, Kylar; and Maxwell Catlow as he-man with a gooey center Steven.

The Jackson students feel a bit more real, including Nathan Brown as Randall, the school DJ; Devin McDuffy and Devon Cummings as Cameron and his best bud Twig, who has the hots for Bridget; and Jaelynn Keating and Evan Vaughan as Nautica and La Cienega, Danielle’s sassy crewmates. The show broke ground with the first transgender high school character on Broadway, and most refreshingly La Cienega is completely accepted in the Jackson High culture, with only one fleeting reference in the dialogue; Vaughan plays it all with attitude, but naturally.

This fun show was packed with cheer and dance fans on Sunday, and the momentum could carry over to its second (and final) weekend, Thursday through Sunday, Aug. 15-18, at 1847 N. Alabama St. Get info and tickets at www.footlite.org.

‘Hunchback’ musical at Footlite

By John Lyle Belden

Footlite Musicals had chosen for its young adults (high school/college student) production Disney Theatricals’ “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” long before the historic cathedral suffered from a recent fire. But with that reminder of the building’s central place in French culture in mind, this performance takes on even more resonance.

Like the Disney animated film, the musical is based loosely on the Victor Hugo novel, but retains much of the original story’s air of tragedy. Its grounding in a sacred place is reinforced by a well-voiced choir that adds atmosphere and exposition throughout the show. Stained-glass windows are projected on the theatre walls and actors frequently work the aisles, giving the production an immersive, intimate feel.

The Archdeacon Frollo (Markell Pipkins) is not a two-dimensional villain; his backstory is shown to give him motivations, but not justification, as he is not entirely the righteous figure he believes he is. Kyle Cherry shows great talent and charisma in embodying Quasimodo, our titular Hunchback, providing the man within the disfigured face (under heavy makeup) and body.

Director Kathleen Clarke Horrigan had so much talent to choose from that any of the dancing Gypsies could have flying-kicked their way into the lead role, but Adrian Daeger was wisely chosen for lovely Esmeralda. Though highly regarded among Gypsies, the character is not a part of the Parisian band led by Clopin (Jim Melton), so she doesn’t notice their cruelty to Quasimodo until it is nearly too late. Her kindness then distinguishes her from the other characters, all cruel and selfish except perhaps for the soldier Phoebus (Jacob Hardin), who has become Captain of the Notre Dame cathedral guard.

Melton is superb in what turns out to be more than just a supporting character, as Clopin provides much of the narration. Fortunately, Hardin acts and sings as good as he looks. Pipkins was aptly cast in a central role, as he is fascinating to watch and listen to.

Supporting characters are also excellent, particularly the statues that are our hunchback’s only friends: Gargoyles (Olivia Ash, William Cisneros and Noah Fields) and statues of The Madonna (Tayler Seymour) and a female warrior Saint (Megan Delucanay), possibly Joan of Arc (though a French Catholic hero, not officially a saint at the time). Not wasted as comic relief, these five are Quasimodo’s advisors in the moments he is alone, each from their carved-in-stone perspective.

While the ending is not happy-shiny (potentially a relief or a shock to you, depending on if you preferred the book or the animation), it is quite appropriate and heroic in its own way. I found it satisfying, as it adheres to the musical’s central question, “What makes a monster, and what makes a man?”

And as is typical of “student” productions on central Indiana stages, these actors are no mere kids, having walked – and danced – the boards for maybe a decade in various youth productions. They provide another quality show at Footlite, and a good excuse to go inside from the summer heat. Performances are July 4-7 and 11-14 at 1847 N. Alabama St., near downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.

New telling of old stories at Footlite

By John Lyle Belden

Footlite Musicals presents the biblical musical “Children of Eden,” which tells stories from the early chapters of Genesis in a loose, storytelling style similar to “Godspell.”

In the Beginning, Father (played by Allen Sledge) commands Creation into being, setting aside a garden he calls Eden for his prize creations, Adam (Mitchell Hammersley) and Eve (Nina Stilabower), where they spend their days in perfect splendor, while Adam names all the animals, and Eve grows increasingly curious about the one tree they are not to eat from.

The familiar story goes from there — but with some variation from the exact wording of scripture. After the Fall, Adam and Eve give birth to Cain and Abel (Katherine Sabens and Amelie Zirnheld as children, later Keane Maddock and Jonathan Krouse). In this telling, Adam believes he can win his way back into the Garden, and forbids his family to wander. But Cain has his sights on the horizon, and in the fight that ensues, tragedy sends him into exile, cursed along with his progeny by Father.

The second act quickly goes through the “begats” and gives a version of the story of The Flood with Hammersley and Stilabower as Noah and his wife, Todd Jackson II as Shem, Krouse as Ham, and Maddock again the nonconformist as Japeth, who chooses servant girl Yonah (Yasmin Schancer), who has the Mark of Cain, as his bride.

The cast also includes about 20 “Storytellers” who help relate the narrative, and portray all manner of animals, as well as wind and water. The Serpent in the Garden takes five of them (Schancer, Shelley Young, Donamarie Kelley, Presley Hewitt and Maggie Lengerich) sharing their sung and spoken lines to mesmerizing effect. The best scene is the “Return of the Animals” to the Ark, with practically everyone getting into the act, miming all sorts of creatures, with the aid of colorful costumes by Chris Grady. Lauren Johnson directs.

This musical by John Caird and Stephen Schwartz is a unique experience, retelling the old stories in a manner that emphasizes our connectedness and yearning for redemption when those connections are broken. It’s a true ensemble effort, but Stilabower and Maddock do stand out, as well as — appropriately — Sledge, as the loving, stern and mysterious paternal figure.

“Children of Eden” runs through May 19 at 1847 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis. Call 317-926-6630 or visit footlite.org.

‘What a glorious feeling…’ at Footlite

By John Lyle Belden

“Singin’ in the Rain” is one of the greatest films of all time. And being a fun singing-and-dancing musical, it only takes a little adapting to bring the Betty Comden and Adolph Green script to the live stage. So now you can come in out of the winter weather to see it rain on the boards of Footlite Musicals.

For those unfamiliar, this is a show about Hollywood in the late 1920s, when silent pictures suddenly gave way to the “talkies” as studios found ways to add sound to movies. Don Lockwood (played by Grant Russel) and Lina Lamont (Sarah Marone) are the biggest stars of the silent screen, but after the popularity of “The Jazz Singer,” Monumental Pictures mogul R.F. Simpson (Bryan Padgett) is forced to make the next Lockwood & Lamont film with sound. Don speaks and sings beautifully — Lina, not so much. Fortunately, Don has found (and fallen in love with) young chorine Kathy Seldon (Sydney Norwalk), whose angelic voice could save the day. Just don’t tell Lina!

The cast also includes Juddson Updike as Don’s best pal, Cosmo Brown. The two sparkle on their feet through the many dance numbers. Norwalk is sweet and sings superbly. And Marone is so fun to watch, even when you “cyaaant staand” her character’s selfish antics.

Directed by Kathleen Clarke Horrigan, the Footlite production “makes ‘em laugh” with all the hilarious moments of the story, including pre-filmed footage such as the ill-fated first cut of “The Dueling Cavalier.” There is even a silent-movie curtain speech, starring Josh Vander Missen, who also has a fun scene as Lockwood’s diction teacher (“Moses supposes…”).

And, yes, it does rain on stage.

If you are a fan of the film, you’ll enjoy this. There’s something special in seeing something so good in three dimensions (sans gimmicky glasses), and when the cast work the aisles, it gives new meaning to “surround sound.”

Performances run through March 17 at Footlite, 1847 N. Alabama, Indianapolis. Call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.