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.

‘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.