‘Sweeney Todd’ now serving customers at Footlite

By John Lyle Belden

The dirty streets of 19th century London have been a rich source of great stories, from the fact-inspired fiction of Charles Dickens to the fiction-inspiring facts of Jack the Ripper. Out of these shadows steps “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” Now, attend the tale at Footlite Musicals.

This murderous denizen of Dickens-era penny-dreadfuls is the subject of a popular 1979 musical by Stephen Sondheim, with book by Hugh Wheeler, based on a 1973 play by Christopher Bond. Perhaps you’ve seen the Tim Burton film, or the occasional stage show over the years. Under the direction of Josh Vander Missen, this Footlite production still manages to thrill.

Daniel Draves masterly uses his average-joe looks as the title character. Todd is just another man getting off a boat, a friendly barber – or with a small shift of expression he casts an air of menace, or even madness. He wields a sort of gravitas as well as those trademark silver blades.

Jennifer Simms is a spot-on pitch-perfect Mrs. Lovett on a par with stage and screen notables who have taken on the infamous pie shop. She needs better meat, though, and Todd needs a disposal method as he slashes his way towards long-overdue revenge – you see where this is going.

Troy Bridges is adorable in manner and voice as Anthony Hope, the sailor whose life Todd saves on their recent voyage (for Todd, who had been sent away under another name, it is his secret return from exile). Hope becomes just that as he seeks to rescue Todd’s daughter, Johanna (Christina Krawec) from the evil Judge Turpin (Ben Elliott).

While Elliott makes Turpin downright creepy, Donald Marter portrays the judge’s assistant, Beadle Bamford, as more of an amoral product of his time. You get the sense that if he were hired instead to bust heads for Mr. Todd, he’d do so with the same joy in a day’s “honest” work.

Parker Taylor excels in (pardon the expression) a meaty role as somehow-innocent youth Tobias Ragg. He’ll talk up a crowd for you, seeing it as more a game than a grift, and returns Lovett’s kindness with total devotion.

Other notable roles include Rick Barber as Todd’s rival, Adolfo Pirelli; a cameo by Dan Flahive as bedlam-keeper Jonas Fogg; and Melody Simms as the ever-present Beggar Woman.

One nice touch to this production is the opening overture is played on Footlite’s 1925 theater pipe organ (the full orchestra plays though the musical).

Set designer Stephen Matters delivers on one of the show’s true “stars,” the modified barber chair which Todd uses to dispatch and dispose of his victims, sitting upon a versatile two-story wooden frame.

Equal parts gothic thriller and dark comedy with a good serving of Sondheim, this “Sweeney Todd” is worth experiencing, or revisiting if you’ve met the man before. Performances run through Oct. 2 at the Hedback Theater, 1847 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at Footlite.org.

Footlite makes ‘Rotten’ a sweet show

By John Lyle Belden

Once upon a time, and what a time it was! It was the Renaissance, and in England there were many people you know well – if you are a scholar of the Renaissance in England. But for the rest of us there was one superstar, who was actually quite famous in his own day.

William Shakespeare!

But the hit Broadway musical “Something Rotten!” is not about him (though, being himself, he butts in). It concerns one of his many theatrical rivals, who is so unknown he’s downright fictional (this is a musical, not a documentary), Nick Bottom! And we see the lengths Bottom went to be on top.

Written by Kary Kirkpatrick, Wayne Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell – with some lines by the Bard which are public domain anyway – this show is brought to the stage by Footlite Musicals, directed by Ed Trout, through this weekend.

Nick hates Shakespeare – a feeling borne of jealousy because he kicked Will out of his acting troupe, telling him to try something else, like writing, and he did. Now Nick (Kayvon Emtiaz) and his brother, genius poet Nigel (Roy Bridges) are struggling to get a play produced. It was going to be about Richard II, but you-know-who is getting one on stage first, and the patron Lord Clapham (Joshua Cox) is going to pull funding unless the Bottoms come up with a sure-fire original show.

And what is worse, now Nick’s wife Beatrice (Jessica Hawkins) is disguising herself as a man to find work to feed them.

Desperate, Nick seeks out a soothsayer (Darrin Gowan), calling himself Nostradamus (the famous one’s nephew), to find out what the future of theatre will be. Surprisingly, the mage is not a fraud, and he forsees – musicals!

Meanwhile, Nigel encounters Portia (Ellen Vander Missen), daughter of strict Puritan pastor Brother Jeremiah (Dennis Jones). Nigel discovers Portia secretly enjoys poetry and plays, beginning their secret though chaste affair. She inspires him so much, he even shows some verses to Shakespeare (Rick Barber), but Nick warns his brother off dealing with the Bard, as they have their own show to create.

With past monarchs off the table, what well-known aspect of history could our playwrights use for their first musical? “The Black Death” is dying in rehearsals, so Nick gets more desperate, and paying his last farthing, asks Nostradamus what Shakespeare’s greatest work will be, so that he may copy it in musical form.

The visions are cloudy, but the answer seems to be “Omelette.”

So, songs about eggs it is.

Yes, this comedy with singing is just as silly as it sounds, and even more funny. While an homage to everything Shakespeare — as well as parodying his superstar status (both then and now) — practically every modern musical hit gets skewered in the process. We even get the Jewish producer, Shylock (Dan Miller). Ervin Gainer is the Minstrel who gets the whole thing started off.

Could we all use a good laugh now? This is a great laugh. All performances are spot-on and hilarious, especially Emtiaz as our frustrated hero, Barber as the jaded icon (secretly stuck for a new idea as well), Hawkins as the take-it-in-stride spouse, and especially Gowan as the seer who barely believes the bits that are in focus – “a bunch of cats, on stage, singing… no, wait… no, it’s actually a bunch of cats on stage singing.”

If you like Shakespeare or musicals at all, you must see this almost-Shakespeare musical. Performances are Thursday through Sunday at the Hedback Theatre, 1847 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis. Info and tickets at footlite.org.

Footlite gets truly ‘Wild’

By John Lyle Belden

In 1928, Joseph Moncure March published his narrative poem, “The Wild Party,” a tale of Prohibition Era excess that was shocking at the time, and still quite racy. Taking the notion of living well as the best revenge to its debauched extreme, the story has been made into a film and at least two stage shows. The musical with book, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa premiered in New York in 2000.

Now, “Andrew Lippa’s Wild Party” has taken over the stage of Footlite Musicals, directed by Bradley Allan Lowe. 

Queenie (Nina Stilabower) “was a blonde” with extreme sexual appettes. She would find them sated by fellow vaudeville performer Burrs (Joseph David Massingale). But she gets jaded, and he takes things too far. Thus, hoping for both excitement and a chance to embarrass her lover, Queenie proposes they throw a party. And with a guest list familiar with a wide range of sin, things are bound to get very, very wild.

Among those who show up for a long night of loud phonograph jazz, cocaine, and bathtub gin are Madeline (Miranda Nehrig) the lesbian, Eddie (Daniel Draves) the pugilist, Mae (Karen Hurt) Eddie’s gal, Jackie (Cameron Hicks) the dancer, Brothers D’Armano (Connor Chamberlin and Isaac Becker) the lovers and musical producers, Dolores (Aprille Goodman) the hooker, and Nadine (Lauren Frank) the minor. Fashionably late comes vivacious Kate (Logan Hill) with her date, Mr. Black (Allen Sledge).

Also occupying the stage for much of the show are Ervin Gainer, Logan Laflin, Claire Slaven, DeSean McLucas, Grant Craig, Jacoba White, Job Victor Willman, Anna Lee, Reno Moore and Tessa Gibbons. True to the title, the cast create a visual cacophony throughout most of the scenes, with some appropriate freezes when the action focuses on a solo or duo. Prior to the party, many stand by (and sing and dance) as a chorus mostly unseen by Queenie and Burrs. When the party gets going, there is a lot happening.

Lippa putting his own spin on the text, creating a mostly sung-through musical, didn’t seem to do the original verse any favors. Since March gave various characters the spotlight in the poem, it translated to Queenie and Burrs’ songs mostly advancing the plot, while the most memorable numbers are asides with supporting characters. Nehrig puts in the best performance with Madeline’s comic sapphic lament “An Old-Fashioned Love Story.” Draves and Hurt charm with Eddie and Mae’s “Two of a Kind.” The D’Armanos give us a fun digression, with Queenie and Burrs, presenting part of their saucy Biblical musical.

Stilabower and Massingale do very well as the leads, while Sledge adds surprising depth as Black develops feelings for Queenie, who surprises herself by reciprocating. Hill is dynamite, channeling the greatest redheaded comics in her portrayal of Kate. 

A note must be made of the show’s content. It goes beyond the swear words and the drunken fight (At this party? Who would have guessed?). This is the most mature content I’ve seen in a Footlite show – two words: choreographed rape. In movie terms, consider this a hard “R”. 

If you are familiar with the source material, or feel you are up for this kind of entertainment, check out the Wild Party through March 20 at 1847 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis. Info and tickets at footlite.org.

Footlite put a ‘Spell’ on us

By John Lyle Belden

The Broadway hit “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is one of those musicals we find simply F-A-N-T-A-S-T-I-C, and Footlite Musicals is treating us to the latest production to hit an Indy stage.

Created by Rebecca Feldman and her theatre collective The Farm (book by Rachel Sheinkin, songs by William Finn, additional material by Jay Reiss), and inspired by America’s fascination with the Scripps National Spelling Bee (launching smart kids to instant momentary fame), this Tony-winner presents a local contest that qualifies the winner for the big Bee in Washington, D.C., with two past Nationals attendees in the mix.

Anyone who reads the dictionary for fun (yes, there’s a song about it) can come across as a little odd – or a lot – so director Kathleen Clarke Horrigan (who often works with actual youth) gives some young adult actors a chance to creatively engage their inner child. There’s:

  • Leaf Coneybear (Josh Vander Missen), raised by hippies and generally clueless, but a spelling savant who gets possessed by the words.  
  • Logainne SwartzandGrubenierre (Jonna Kaufmann), pride of her two dads and likely the world’s youngest firebrand liberal, who writes out the word invisibly on her arm.
  • Marcy Park (Adrian Daeger), epitome of the Asian overachiever stereotype – six languages! — and it’s starting to get to her.
  • Returning champ Chip Tolentino (Jim Melton), the Boy Scout who gets surprised by the one thing he wasn’t prepared for.
  • Olive Ostrovsky (Kelsey McDaniel), who really hopes one of her super-successful parents shows up to see her make her mark; her secret weapons are the hand she recites the word into, and her beloved bestie Websters.
  • William Morris Barfee, pronounced ending in -AY, with one functioning nostril, catty attitude, and the “magic foot” that makes him a potential favorite to win it all. Brendon McCray wore those fancy shoes during opening weekend; upcoming shows have Adam Gardner as Barfee.

And last, but not least, there are three to four lucky spellers plucked from the audience! Don’t worry, you have to apply to get drawn for the gig. If selected, you’ll get at least a moment on the stage and a juice box, provided by Comfort Counselor Mitch Mahoney (Antony Winfrey), a parolee escorting eliminated contestants off the stage as his community service.

We also meet host, and past champion, Rona Lisa Peretti (Sarah Marone-Sowers); vice-principal Panch (Bryan D. Padgett), returning as word pronouncer, promising there won’t be an incident this time; and a brief cameo by Jesus Christ himself (Ed Trout). Trout and Andrew Exner also appear as paternal characters, while Hannah Janowicz plays Moms, and Leaf’s hot sister, Marigold.

This production is full of the energy and fun that has made this musical a hit nationwide, with trophy-worthy performances all around. Like Rona, you’ll be hard-pressed to select your “favorite part of the Bee.”

You also have a shot at seeing what was a nearly sold-out run. This was to be Footlite’s traditional January show that places the audience on-stage for a more intimate cabaret feel. However, with present health concerns, the stage will only hold cast (and audience spellers), which works fine for this particular musical, and ticket-holders take the regular seats – still general admission — allowing for bigger audiences than initially planned. Performances run through Sunday, Jan. 23. Get information and tickets at footlite.org.

Hilarious ‘Gentleman’s Guide’ at Footlite

By John Lyle Belden

As Monty Navarro discovers he is related to the noble D’ysquith family, we become fully aware of two things: first, that him having eight people between himself and the wealth and position of being an Earl means we have the idea behind at least half of the title, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder;” and secondly, that we are in for quite the old English style farce with its skewering of Edwardian-era class structure and manners, as well as other kinds of violence happening to numerous D’ysquiths, all played by the same game actor.

This Broadway hit by Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak, on stage at Footlite Musicals, stars handsome devil Troy Bridges as Monty. He is our narrator (this play is his confession) and exudes enough charm to somehow seem the story’s hero – especially considering how boorish and slimy that Daniel Draves portrays each D’ysquith whom our aspiring gentleman has to dispatch.

As for the “love,” Ellen Vander Missen plays Sibella, with whom Monty is smitten, with an interesting mix of sweet and shallow. A girl can’t marry below her station, after all, but who she loves is her business. However, during his ascent, Monty encounters D’ysquith cousin Phoebe (not directly in the succession line, thank goodness) who is a very good girl, and good to marry. Sydney Norwalk plays this role with the right degree of grace – a bit naive, but never the fool.

Our other notable role is the mysterious Miss Shingle, ably portrayed by Claire Slaven. Other parts (aside from nearly half the cast in Draves’s award-worthy effort) are filled by Heather Hansen, Leigh Query, Kelsey McDaniel, Matthew Blandford, Josh Vander Missen, and Footlite favorite Jerry Beasley.

Director Kayvon Emtiaz conducts this macabre mix of music and mayhem as effectively as Jill Stewart leads the orchestra. Each comic beat hits to hilarious effect, making for a surprisingly upbeat dark comedy complete with jaunty tunes like, “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” and “Why Are All the D’ysquiths Dying?”

Avoid all the death and mayhem of the real world at the entertaining mayhem of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” running through Oct. 3 at 1847 N. Alabama in downtown Indy. Get tickets and info at footlite.org.

‘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.