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.

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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.

Big fun at ‘Little Shop’

By John Lyle Belden

The horror movie-turned-musical “Little Shop of Horrors” has set up at Indy’s Footlite Musicals through the end of the month. And for its many fans, that’s all I need to say.

For the unfamiliar, it is the story of nerdy flower-shop worker Seymour, who discovers an unusual plant that makes the shop prosper and him famous. The one downside: the plant feeds on human blood. Then there’s sweet Audrey, who Seymour is sweet on and even names the plant after, but she has an abusive sadistic boyfriend – as the song goes, “He sure looks like plant food to me!”

Phil Criswell handles the many shades of Seymour, from coward to reluctant hero. Michael Davis is good as well, as shopkeeper Mr. Mushnik. John Kern more than earns his keep by not only playing the sadistic dentist boyfriend, but practically every other supporting character.

Emily Schaab is an excellent Audrey – while she doesn’t have the voice of Ellen Greene (who sang the role on Broadway and in the film) she doesn’t make the mistake of trying to sound like her, making this role her own.

Audrey II is ably handled by puppeteer Theo Vanore with the unmistakable voice of Tristan Ross.

And it’s all backed by a wonderful chorus – both in the doo-wop and Greek sense – of Rayanna Bibbs, Rachel Bibbs, Iloni Cospy, Adrienne Dixon and Bianca Cureton. Hopefully at least one of these women will reappear in Footlite’s production of “Dreamgirls” in May.

While it may be cliché to say this is a fun show, it’s hard to think of a better adjective. The pacing is smooth and the songs dare you to sing along (actually, there is one moment of audience participation). Note that if you have only seen the 1986 Frank Oz film, there are some different songs and a different ending.

Find Footlite at 1847 N. Alabama St.; 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.

Footlite has gay time hamming up ‘Spamalot’

By John Lyle Belden

Note: This review also appeared in print in The Eagle (formerly The Word), which has its site issues about worked out. John is Associate Editor there.

As fans know, England in the time of King Arthur and Camelot was “a silly place,” as envisioned by Monty Python’s Flying Circus in the 1970s film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

The silliness has come to the stage of Indy’s Footlite Musicals with its production of “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” the Broadway hit musical “lovingly ripped off from the motion picture” by one of its creators, Eric Idle, who provides a couple of vocal parts for the locals to use in the show.

The plot (such as it is) involves Arthur gathering knights to join him at the Round Table, then getting the call from God to search for the Holy Grail. The stage play uses this to recreate various silly scenes from the film, modified a little, and add more songs – such as the “not dead yet” peasant now gets to sing and dance about not being deceased – as well as a tune from a different Monty Python movie (which Idle wrote and apparently really likes, so there). As the film starred six men who sometimes wore dresses, a female lead was needed for the musical, so the Lady of the Lake (only mentioned in one scene of the movie) comes to life and, naturally, steals her scenes including one in which she complains about not being on stage for a while.

And good news for LGBTQ fans: While the Pythons frequently winked to the audience on gay topics as much as they could get away with in their era, one of the Knights here completely comes out of the castle closet in a rainbow-and-glitter dance number.

The cast all acquit themselves well. Drew Duvall makes a noble Arthur, properly deadpanning his way through the silliness as a British monarch should do. Vince Accetturo makes the perfect counterpoint as the King’s faithful Patsy. A tip of the helm to our knights: Christian Condra as Lancelot, Christopher Jones as Robin, Clint Buechler as Bedevere, Tony Schaab as Galahad and Jerry Davis as Sir Not Appearing (who nonetheless appears in at least two other scenes).

And Rebecca McConnell is wonderful as the Lady of the Lake. The style of this show and character fits her perfectly, and she plays it for all she’s worth.

Since, unlike the movie in which the Pythons just wore different costumes in different scenes, it works better to just cast more actors, we get great support from the ensemble, including Jonathan Young as Dennis’s mother and the Knight of Ni, Curtis Peters as Tim the Enchanter and Lancelot’s servant Concorde, and Mark Cashwell as the “No singing!” father of Prince Herbert – charmingly played by Cody Wence. Sam Surette is still not dead.

Needless to say – though actually I need to say, as this is a review – “Spamalot” is highly entertaining and a treat for fans of British humour, whether you’ve not seen these skits or have them memorized. As the source material was a shoestring film production, don’t expect too much in the way of special effects – though there is a fog machine. The content is roughly PG-13 (a few naughty words and innuendo).

No fish were harmed in the making of this musical. Ni!

Performances are weekends through Dec. 11 at the Hedback Theater, 1847 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis. Call 317-926-6630 or see www.footlite.org.