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 has gay time hamming up ‘Spamalot’

By John Lyle Belden

Note: This review also appeared in print in The Eagle (formerly The Word), which has its site issues about worked out. John is Associate Editor there.

As fans know, England in the time of King Arthur and Camelot was “a silly place,” as envisioned by Monty Python’s Flying Circus in the 1970s film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

The silliness has come to the stage of Indy’s Footlite Musicals with its production of “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” the Broadway hit musical “lovingly ripped off from the motion picture” by one of its creators, Eric Idle, who provides a couple of vocal parts for the locals to use in the show.

The plot (such as it is) involves Arthur gathering knights to join him at the Round Table, then getting the call from God to search for the Holy Grail. The stage play uses this to recreate various silly scenes from the film, modified a little, and add more songs – such as the “not dead yet” peasant now gets to sing and dance about not being deceased – as well as a tune from a different Monty Python movie (which Idle wrote and apparently really likes, so there). As the film starred six men who sometimes wore dresses, a female lead was needed for the musical, so the Lady of the Lake (only mentioned in one scene of the movie) comes to life and, naturally, steals her scenes including one in which she complains about not being on stage for a while.

And good news for LGBTQ fans: While the Pythons frequently winked to the audience on gay topics as much as they could get away with in their era, one of the Knights here completely comes out of the castle closet in a rainbow-and-glitter dance number.

The cast all acquit themselves well. Drew Duvall makes a noble Arthur, properly deadpanning his way through the silliness as a British monarch should do. Vince Accetturo makes the perfect counterpoint as the King’s faithful Patsy. A tip of the helm to our knights: Christian Condra as Lancelot, Christopher Jones as Robin, Clint Buechler as Bedevere, Tony Schaab as Galahad and Jerry Davis as Sir Not Appearing (who nonetheless appears in at least two other scenes).

And Rebecca McConnell is wonderful as the Lady of the Lake. The style of this show and character fits her perfectly, and she plays it for all she’s worth.

Since, unlike the movie in which the Pythons just wore different costumes in different scenes, it works better to just cast more actors, we get great support from the ensemble, including Jonathan Young as Dennis’s mother and the Knight of Ni, Curtis Peters as Tim the Enchanter and Lancelot’s servant Concorde, and Mark Cashwell as the “No singing!” father of Prince Herbert – charmingly played by Cody Wence. Sam Surette is still not dead.

Needless to say – though actually I need to say, as this is a review – “Spamalot” is highly entertaining and a treat for fans of British humour, whether you’ve not seen these skits or have them memorized. As the source material was a shoestring film production, don’t expect too much in the way of special effects – though there is a fog machine. The content is roughly PG-13 (a few naughty words and innuendo).

No fish were harmed in the making of this musical. Ni!

Performances are weekends through Dec. 11 at the Hedback Theater, 1847 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis. Call 317-926-6630 or see www.footlite.org.