Footlite: New take on ‘New World’

By John Lyle Belden

“Songs For a New World,” the first show by Jason Robert Brown (“Parade,” “The Last Five Years,” “13,” “Bridges of Madison County,” “Mr. Saturday Night”) is hard to describe, existing in an undefined middle ground between musical, song-cycle, and cabaret. Critics haven’t been kind, but many adore it, including local performer Jerry Beasley, who directs the current production of “Songs” at Footlite Musicals.

“It’s a concert,” he said, desiring it to be something more. “I wanted to tell 14 little stories.”

Perhaps bringing it closer to Brown’s original concept of various narratives all linked by a common theme – a person’s profound moment of decision – Beasley enriches the musical without altering its content. The cast is expanded from four to eight main singers plus two soloists, and he adds little touches to bring more context. The classic “Stars and the Moon” becomes a lesson shared among more than one singer, and thus us watching. “Christmas Lullaby” shows how an expecting mother truly feels she is giving hope to others. The youth in “The Steam Train” returns to a later song, giving it a today’s-news edge. There is humor in “The River Won’t Flow” and heartache in “The Flagmaker, 1775” – there is something for everyone throughout.

Wonderful performances by Ryan Bridges, Cameron Callan, Erin Emtiaz, Dylan Kelly, Maggie Meier, Abigail Miller, Keziah Muthama, and Kendrell Stiff, with Kayvon Emtiaz as “King of the World” and the incomparable Kevin Bell in “Surabaya-Santa.” Kelsey McDaniel stands by as swing; the on-stage orchestra is led by Jeremy Kaylor.

Appropriately, this is Footlite’s January “cabaret” production, with the audience seated on the stage in close proximity to the actors. While the chairs are in rows rather than at tables, there are still only so many of them, so act quick for tickets to remaining performances, Thursday through Sunday, Jan. 19-22. Contact Footlite.org or call 317-926-6630.

CCP returns with ‘Last Five Years’

By John Lyle Belden

“The Last Five Years” sounds like the experience of the last five months, but it is the title of the musical bringing live theatre back to Carmel.

Presented by Carmel Community Players at The Cat downtown, the Off-Broadway hit by Jason Robert Brown is an examination of a relationship, a doomed marriage, blending the individual perspectives of the husband and wife – one experiencing it from beginning to end, the other reflecting from the end to the beginning. At mid-performance (it is presented as a 90-minute single act) the two “cross paths” at the wedding. It is an interesting dramatic device overall, and it works.

Bradley Allan Lowe, who fell in love with the songs when gifted a CD of the cast recording in his youth, directs Nina Stilabower and Daniel Draves as Cathy and Jamie, an ill-fated couple who started with joyous promise. He, an ordinary-looking guy, is an up-and-coming novelist. She, a beautiful woman, is a struggling actress. They encourage each others’ careers at first, but especially as his keeps him with literary socialites in New York, while hers has her in obscurity in Ohio, the cracks in their relationship widen until the break becomes unavoidable.

Stilabower is excellent in character and voice, showing what a loss it is for Broadway not to notice Cathy. Draves, presenting a likable mensch, carries himself well while showing Jamie’s full range of feeling. The two occupy a nicely designed stage, by Lowe and Kassie Woodworth, with the juxtaposition of simple furnishings with the visual metaphor of a whirlwind of papers that could be his novel drafts, or pages of musicals she tries out for.

There are also interesting costume choices – credited to Lowe, Draves, Stilabower, and Cathie Morgan. Note that the must-be-seen-to-be-believed Hanukkah pajamas were real, found online. (Ask Lowe where to order them.)

While very entertaining, the show presents with safety in mind. CCP takes the ongoing health crisis seriously: Seating is spaced and limited to 50 percent capacity; temperatures are taken at the door; all patrons must wear masks, and are asked to buy tickets in advance.

“The Last Five Years” runs through Aug. 2 at The Cat, 254 Veterans Way (just south of the Main Street Arts & Design district). Get details and tickets at CarmelPlayers.org.