Agape youth willing to ‘rumble’ with tough topics

By John Lyle Belden

Agape Theater Company, a middle- through high school youth program hosted by Our Lady of the Greenwood Catholic Church, has a particular approach. It takes on classic stage works – from Shakespeare to Broadway – with an eye to the moral and spiritual lessons they hold. In June, they tackled the subject of a Tony winner with now two Oscar-winning film productions: “West Side Story.”

(Various excuses I could give prevented Wendy and I from attending opening weekend, but Agape invited us for the closing.)

With book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the mid-20th century musical is based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” with feuding families replaced by rival street gangs: the Jets, white kids whose working-class families are getting pinched by Manhattan’s building boom; and the Sharks, young immigrants from Puerto Rico hoping for their own American Dream. Personally, I think the “Story” is a little better than in R&J, as the tension and stakes are a little more real with a clash of two cultures, and Tony (our stand-in for Romeo) is, while still a lovesick fool, less immaturely foolish than that boy in Fair Verona. Plus, there are those cool songs (reeeal cool).

Directed by Kathy Phipps with musical director April Barnes, the young cast gave a top-notch performance. The present medical concerns that put a lot of understudies and swings on the stage in New York also struck here, yet the company managed to roll with the changes, with only a couple of cancellations, and making cast changes without losing a step.

Bursting with talent and Latinx pride are Rebekah Barajas as Maria, Jaelynn Keating as Anita, and Cordale Hankins as Sharks leader Bernardo. Leading the Jets with an ever-tense feeling their turf is slipping away are smooth Riff (Grant Scott-Miller, u/s Nathan Ellenberger) and hot-headed Action (Clayton Mutchman), who long for their true leader, Tony (Johnny Gaiffe, u/s Caleb Wilson) to take charge. But Tony has a real job, and senses real possibilities (“Something’s Coming”) but as the saying goes, “When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet.” The gangs want to have the rumble (gang-fight) to end all rumbles, with the terms set at the neutral-ground school dance. Tony and Maria are each reluctant to attend, but they go – they meet – and their fates are set.

Other tensions include the cops, ever-present but always a step behind (and the butt of the joke in one song). More subtle is the hint dropped by Bernardo that Tony is called “Pollack” behind his back, not even fully respected by his fellow Caucasians. In today’s climate, we especially feel for “tomboy” Anybodys (Aleah Mutchman, u/s Jocelyne Brake) and the desire to join a hoodlum gang being their only hope for being “one of the boys.”

The dancing and acting were superb – having actors the ages of their characters helped – as were the voices, heartbreaking at times. Still, despite the fun moments, the story is still a tragedy. There was no backing down from the dark moments, complete with believable anguish.

In a promotional video, the principal cast spoke of the emotional burden they were taking on, and of being true to all who have done these roles before. When asked what they hoped the audience would take away, the unanimous answer was that all would take time to look past people’s differences and let go of hate. They did well towards accomplishing that mission.

Agape will next perform at IndyFringe in August, with “Sing Down the Moon: Appalachian Wonder Tales.” They also return to Indy Bard Fest this fall with Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.” For more information, including supporting this 501c3, visit agapetheatercompany.com.

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.