‘Sweeney Todd’ now serving customers at Footlite

By John Lyle Belden

The dirty streets of 19th century London have been a rich source of great stories, from the fact-inspired fiction of Charles Dickens to the fiction-inspiring facts of Jack the Ripper. Out of these shadows steps “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” Now, attend the tale at Footlite Musicals.

This murderous denizen of Dickens-era penny-dreadfuls is the subject of a popular 1979 musical by Stephen Sondheim, with book by Hugh Wheeler, based on a 1973 play by Christopher Bond. Perhaps you’ve seen the Tim Burton film, or the occasional stage show over the years. Under the direction of Josh Vander Missen, this Footlite production still manages to thrill.

Daniel Draves masterly uses his average-joe looks as the title character. Todd is just another man getting off a boat, a friendly barber – or with a small shift of expression he casts an air of menace, or even madness. He wields a sort of gravitas as well as those trademark silver blades.

Jennifer Simms is a spot-on pitch-perfect Mrs. Lovett on a par with stage and screen notables who have taken on the infamous pie shop. She needs better meat, though, and Todd needs a disposal method as he slashes his way towards long-overdue revenge – you see where this is going.

Troy Bridges is adorable in manner and voice as Anthony Hope, the sailor whose life Todd saves on their recent voyage (for Todd, who had been sent away under another name, it is his secret return from exile). Hope becomes just that as he seeks to rescue Todd’s daughter, Johanna (Christina Krawec) from the evil Judge Turpin (Ben Elliott).

While Elliott makes Turpin downright creepy, Donald Marter portrays the judge’s assistant, Beadle Bamford, as more of an amoral product of his time. You get the sense that if he were hired instead to bust heads for Mr. Todd, he’d do so with the same joy in a day’s “honest” work.

Parker Taylor excels in (pardon the expression) a meaty role as somehow-innocent youth Tobias Ragg. He’ll talk up a crowd for you, seeing it as more a game than a grift, and returns Lovett’s kindness with total devotion.

Other notable roles include Rick Barber as Todd’s rival, Adolfo Pirelli; a cameo by Dan Flahive as bedlam-keeper Jonas Fogg; and Melody Simms as the ever-present Beggar Woman.

One nice touch to this production is the opening overture is played on Footlite’s 1925 theater pipe organ (the full orchestra plays though the musical).

Set designer Stephen Matters delivers on one of the show’s true “stars,” the modified barber chair which Todd uses to dispatch and dispose of his victims, sitting upon a versatile two-story wooden frame.

Equal parts gothic thriller and dark comedy with a good serving of Sondheim, this “Sweeney Todd” is worth experiencing, or revisiting if you’ve met the man before. Performances run through Oct. 2 at the Hedback Theater, 1847 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis. Get info and tickets at Footlite.org.

Footlite put a ‘Spell’ on us

By John Lyle Belden

The Broadway hit “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is one of those musicals we find simply F-A-N-T-A-S-T-I-C, and Footlite Musicals is treating us to the latest production to hit an Indy stage.

Created by Rebecca Feldman and her theatre collective The Farm (book by Rachel Sheinkin, songs by William Finn, additional material by Jay Reiss), and inspired by America’s fascination with the Scripps National Spelling Bee (launching smart kids to instant momentary fame), this Tony-winner presents a local contest that qualifies the winner for the big Bee in Washington, D.C., with two past Nationals attendees in the mix.

Anyone who reads the dictionary for fun (yes, there’s a song about it) can come across as a little odd – or a lot – so director Kathleen Clarke Horrigan (who often works with actual youth) gives some young adult actors a chance to creatively engage their inner child. There’s:

  • Leaf Coneybear (Josh Vander Missen), raised by hippies and generally clueless, but a spelling savant who gets possessed by the words.  
  • Logainne SwartzandGrubenierre (Jonna Kaufmann), pride of her two dads and likely the world’s youngest firebrand liberal, who writes out the word invisibly on her arm.
  • Marcy Park (Adrian Daeger), epitome of the Asian overachiever stereotype – six languages! — and it’s starting to get to her.
  • Returning champ Chip Tolentino (Jim Melton), the Boy Scout who gets surprised by the one thing he wasn’t prepared for.
  • Olive Ostrovsky (Kelsey McDaniel), who really hopes one of her super-successful parents shows up to see her make her mark; her secret weapons are the hand she recites the word into, and her beloved bestie Websters.
  • William Morris Barfee, pronounced ending in -AY, with one functioning nostril, catty attitude, and the “magic foot” that makes him a potential favorite to win it all. Brendon McCray wore those fancy shoes during opening weekend; upcoming shows have Adam Gardner as Barfee.

And last, but not least, there are three to four lucky spellers plucked from the audience! Don’t worry, you have to apply to get drawn for the gig. If selected, you’ll get at least a moment on the stage and a juice box, provided by Comfort Counselor Mitch Mahoney (Antony Winfrey), a parolee escorting eliminated contestants off the stage as his community service.

We also meet host, and past champion, Rona Lisa Peretti (Sarah Marone-Sowers); vice-principal Panch (Bryan D. Padgett), returning as word pronouncer, promising there won’t be an incident this time; and a brief cameo by Jesus Christ himself (Ed Trout). Trout and Andrew Exner also appear as paternal characters, while Hannah Janowicz plays Moms, and Leaf’s hot sister, Marigold.

This production is full of the energy and fun that has made this musical a hit nationwide, with trophy-worthy performances all around. Like Rona, you’ll be hard-pressed to select your “favorite part of the Bee.”

You also have a shot at seeing what was a nearly sold-out run. This was to be Footlite’s traditional January show that places the audience on-stage for a more intimate cabaret feel. However, with present health concerns, the stage will only hold cast (and audience spellers), which works fine for this particular musical, and ticket-holders take the regular seats – still general admission — allowing for bigger audiences than initially planned. Performances run through Sunday, Jan. 23. Get information and tickets at 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: 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.

Once upon a time, at Footlite…

By John Lyle Belden

Off to the blog
To post a review;
The show was great,
You should see it, too…

Footlite Musicals adds to this summer’s entertainment with its young adult production of Stephen Sondhiem’s “Into the Woods.”

As many know, thanks to the recent film, this musical mashes up several popular fairy tales, which all happen in or near a particularly enchanted forest – The Woods. To this mix of Red Riding Hood, Jack (of Beanstalk fame), Cinderella and Rapunzel are added the fairytale-adjacent Baker and his Wife. A Witch, the Baker’s neighbor, offers to reverse her curse that made them childless, but it will require items possessed by characters in other stories.

So, it’s “off to the Woods” for lots of wacky interactions as each person’s narrative winds toward its well-known conclusion. But then comes the Second Act, when we find that “happily ever after” is the true myth – and you didn’t think that killing a giant would come without consequences, did you?

This is the part
Where John heaps praise
Upon the folks
Who walked the stage…

Given the production values and level of talent in high school and college theater programs across the state, it’s not a detriment to note this is a “student” production, but rather sets the bar higher given the cast’s young energy and dedication. In fact, I’ve seen some of these faces on stage before, and look forward to seeing many on the boards again.

Notables include: Tara Sorg, whose look and delivery as the Baker’s wife reminded me of Broadway’s Joanna Gleason. Kyle Cherry as the Baker was like the movie’s James Cordon, but more talented. I’d note that Paige Brown – our Witch – reminded me of Lady Gaga at her fiercest, but in the future I might compare stars to her. If this play were just the Red Riding Hood story, it would still be worth the ticket as Hannah Bullock as Red has great stage charisma, and, well, we had to kill the Wolf, Christian Condra (recently seen in “Priscilla”), as he was not only eating people but stealing the show. As for Jack, Noah Fields plays that impulsive little brother you want to smack some sense into, but love anyway.

Erin Elliott and Halle Catlow shine as Cinderella and Rapunzel. Zachary Hoover and Joseph Massingale are charmingly haughty as their Princes – providing great comic moments in their “Agony.” Shout-outs for the maternal madness of Ellen Vander Missen as Jack’s Mother, Alyssa Klingstein as Granny, and Olivia Ash as Cinderella’s stepmom. And then there’s Josh Vander Missen as a leaf-covered Mysterious Man, an interesting character to be sure.

The “older kids” involved are director Kathleen Clarke Horrigan, who has a knack for these summer shows, and her assistant Ed Mobley, who filled in as the musical’s Narrator on opening night.

The young crew, which include some cast members, built an excellent stage set, which even gets graced by live horse (a beautiful Arabian, Inshal Amir).

While I suspect there’s a backstage bet on which of the Witch’s finger-sparks misfire, and – sorry Disney happy-ending fans – the show does get a bit dark, this is overall a fun production and perhaps the best staging of “Into the Woods” I’ve seen. Even my partner Wendy – who doesn’t really like Sondheim’s ode to Grimm stories – admits this is a great show.

The show was good,
This post is done,
Now get a ticket
And join the fun…

Two weekends remain, July 5-8 and July 12-15, at Footlite, 1847 N. Alabama St. near downtown Indy; call 317-926-6630 or visit www.Footlite.org.

Footlite presents a class ‘Act’

By John Lyle Belden

I only have a vague memory of seeing the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg film, “Sister Act.” But you don’t have to have seen it at all to appreciate the Broadway musical version, presented by local talent at Footlite Musicals. Goldberg’s only connection to the stage edition was as producer, otherwise the show was stripped down to the general plot and rebuilt with original songs (by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater) and its own sense of fun.

Set in 1970s Philadelphia, aspiring singer Deloris Van Cartier (Morgan Webster) witnesses her manager and boyfriend, Curtis (Ollice Aurelius Nickson), commit murder. With the help of Eddie (Donald Marter), a cop with a crush on Deloris, she is hidden with a cloister of nuns at a church with its own problems. Attendance at services has been falling, and the choir is horrible – apparently each sister sings in a different key. Mother Superior (Karen Frye Knotts) prays fervently for help, but can this spoiled foul-mouthed lounge entertainer be the answer?

Webster seems a bit over the top at first, but that’s just Deloris being herself. As she, in disguise as a fellow nun, wins over the sisters, she grows on us as well. Knotts is maternally likable as the one old-fashioned resister to the choir’s new soulful style. The rest are mostly reminiscent of the quietly hip sisters of “Nunsense,” especially Sister Mary Patrick (Nina Stilabower) and shy postulant Sister Mary Robert (Bailey Jane Williams), who it’s fun to watch come out of her shell. Nickson is equal parts charming and menacing as he hunts for the woman whose testimony could put him away, accompanied by a goofy trio of henchmen, played by Daniel Draves, Josh Vander Missen and Jonathan Studdard. Marter makes the unlikely romantic hero “Sweaty” Eddie a character to root for. And W. Michael Davidson is a blessing as the church pastor, Monsignor O’Hara.

It’s all good music and good times, with a little drama, as this “Sister Act” makes a joyful noise and “Spreads the Love Around.” Performances are weekends through Oct. 8 at 1847 N. Alabama St., near downtown Indy. Call 317-926-6630 or visit Footlite.org.