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.

Footlite presents who-will-do-it murder mystery musical

By John Lyle Belden

One thing is clear from the beginning of “Murder Ballad,” someone is going to die.

Playing at Footlite Musicals, this intense no-intermission rock opera presents four characters: our Narrator (Miranda Nehrig), who guides the fateful story’s journey while eventually becoming a character in her own right; Tom (Dave Pelsue), a proud bartender with dreams but little to show for them; Sara (Bridgette Michelle Ludlow), a frustrated poet fiercely in love with Tom, but feeling them drifting apart; and Michael (Daniel Draves), a writer who gives up his verse to make a perfect life for Sara.

After a coy courtship, Michael and Sara marry, have a daughter, make a home – but eventually, feeling restless again, Sara calls Tom at his new, successful bar. Old feelings awaken; this will not end well.

Pelsue, a veteran of shows such as “Rock of Ages” and “Tooth of Crime,” is totally in his element. Nehrig combines singing chops with exceptional acting – her ability to effectively speak volumes with a simple facial expression suits the Narrator role well. Ludlow makes a wonderful, powerful Indy theatre debut. And Draves works well the full range of emotions – his tenderness in apt contrast to his eventual rage.

Audience seating is on the Footlite stage, with actors sometimes moving among the cabaret tables for a more immersive experience. There is also a great on-stage band, with Eddie McLaughlin, Kris Manier, Will Scharfenberger and music director Ainsley Paton.

At the core, this is a story of love, betrayal and consequences, things we can all relate to. The principal mystery – who is killed, at whose hands – is revealed at the end. But then, we get what may be the musical’s best song in the Finale: a commentary on how we in the audience so enjoy murder as entertainment (so long as it’s not us getting hurt).

So, maybe we all got a little blood on our hands. Still, it’s one hell of a show.

“Murder Ballad” has one more weekend of shows, Thursday through Sunday (Jan. 17-20) at 1847 N. Alabama St.; call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.

Footlite: Visit ‘Brigadoon’ while you can

By John Lyle Belden

The musical “Brigadoon” is one of our favorite shows. But like the fabled town that only appears in our dimension once every 100 years, productions of this gem seem nearly as rare.

I had thought I would have to settle for a nicely-done high school production a couple of years ago (it’s perfect for such a venue, with its large cast, colorful costumes and spirited Gaelic dancing) and, of course, the classic Gene Kelly film – but then Footlite Musicals picked the show to open its 63rd season.

Brigadoon no longer appears on maps of Scotland, thanks to a “miracle” brought about in the 18th century to spare the town and its people from impending doom. In 1947, a pair of New Yorkers out on a hunting trip find themselves lost in the woods, and in a way, in time.

Charlie Metzger is Tommy Albright (the Kelly lead role), a man whose life seems to be going well, but it’s not making him happy. Ethan Mathias plays Tommy’s best friend Jeff Douglas, a cynical soul who almost never loses his dry humor. They wander into the magical town to find its unusual residents on a happy day – the wedding of two of its citizens. Charlie Dairymple (Donald Marter) is to marry bonny Jean MacLaren (Ellen Vander Missen), which doesn’t set well with Harry Beaton (Josh Vander Missen), who had hoped to woo and win the lass himself. As for our visitors, Tommy finds himself “Almost Like Falling in Love” with Jean’s sister Fiona (Sydney Norwalk); and Jeff winds up on the bed of Meg (Kristen Tschiniak), who was hoping for more than an innocent afternoon nap. The day is quite eventful, not only with outsiders in town, and the wedding, but also a fateful chase of one who would risk their very existence.

The cast are wonderful all around, and in good voice – especially Marter with his renditions of “I’ll Go Home With Bonnie Jean” and “Come to Me, Bend to Me.” My partner Wendy notes that the latter song, often sung in a commanding tone, is far more tender here, a yearning and longing for the one Charlie loves.

Choreographer Linda Rees has worked up plenty of nice traditional movement, including a Sword Dance, keeping the many actors stepping lively throughout the show.

I always consider Jeff a dream role, as he doesn’t have to sing a note, and he gets so many great witty lines. Fans of the show might notice one sharp barb missing – we were informed it was on purpose, decided on even before considering today’s social climate. Also, a tale of “butchers” who were out to destroy the town actually refers to cruel raids that did occur in Scotland in the mid-1700s, giving this fictitious world a historic anchor.

I can’t help but wonder what it’s going to be like in 2047, when the successors to Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe, the show’s creators, will stage what happens in Brigadoon’s next “day.” But for now, I insist you make the trek to the highlands of the Hedback Theater, 1847 N. Alabama St., to see this production before it vanishes into the mists. Performances are Thursdays through Sundays, Oct. 4-7 and 11-14. Call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.