Footlite makes ‘Rotten’ a sweet show

By John Lyle Belden

Once upon a time, and what a time it was! It was the Renaissance, and in England there were many people you know well – if you are a scholar of the Renaissance in England. But for the rest of us there was one superstar, who was actually quite famous in his own day.

William Shakespeare!

But the hit Broadway musical “Something Rotten!” is not about him (though, being himself, he butts in). It concerns one of his many theatrical rivals, who is so unknown he’s downright fictional (this is a musical, not a documentary), Nick Bottom! And we see the lengths Bottom went to be on top.

Written by Kary Kirkpatrick, Wayne Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell – with some lines by the Bard which are public domain anyway – this show is brought to the stage by Footlite Musicals, directed by Ed Trout, through this weekend.

Nick hates Shakespeare – a feeling borne of jealousy because he kicked Will out of his acting troupe, telling him to try something else, like writing, and he did. Now Nick (Kayvon Emtiaz) and his brother, genius poet Nigel (Roy Bridges) are struggling to get a play produced. It was going to be about Richard II, but you-know-who is getting one on stage first, and the patron Lord Clapham (Joshua Cox) is going to pull funding unless the Bottoms come up with a sure-fire original show.

And what is worse, now Nick’s wife Beatrice (Jessica Hawkins) is disguising herself as a man to find work to feed them.

Desperate, Nick seeks out a soothsayer (Darrin Gowan), calling himself Nostradamus (the famous one’s nephew), to find out what the future of theatre will be. Surprisingly, the mage is not a fraud, and he forsees – musicals!

Meanwhile, Nigel encounters Portia (Ellen Vander Missen), daughter of strict Puritan pastor Brother Jeremiah (Dennis Jones). Nigel discovers Portia secretly enjoys poetry and plays, beginning their secret though chaste affair. She inspires him so much, he even shows some verses to Shakespeare (Rick Barber), but Nick warns his brother off dealing with the Bard, as they have their own show to create.

With past monarchs off the table, what well-known aspect of history could our playwrights use for their first musical? “The Black Death” is dying in rehearsals, so Nick gets more desperate, and paying his last farthing, asks Nostradamus what Shakespeare’s greatest work will be, so that he may copy it in musical form.

The visions are cloudy, but the answer seems to be “Omelette.”

So, songs about eggs it is.

Yes, this comedy with singing is just as silly as it sounds, and even more funny. While an homage to everything Shakespeare — as well as parodying his superstar status (both then and now) — practically every modern musical hit gets skewered in the process. We even get the Jewish producer, Shylock (Dan Miller). Ervin Gainer is the Minstrel who gets the whole thing started off.

Could we all use a good laugh now? This is a great laugh. All performances are spot-on and hilarious, especially Emtiaz as our frustrated hero, Barber as the jaded icon (secretly stuck for a new idea as well), Hawkins as the take-it-in-stride spouse, and especially Gowan as the seer who barely believes the bits that are in focus – “a bunch of cats, on stage, singing… no, wait… no, it’s actually a bunch of cats on stage singing.”

If you like Shakespeare or musicals at all, you must see this almost-Shakespeare musical. Performances are Thursday through Sunday at the Hedback Theatre, 1847 N. Alabama St., Indianapolis. Info and tickets at footlite.org.

Hilarious ‘Gentleman’s Guide’ at Footlite

By John Lyle Belden

As Monty Navarro discovers he is related to the noble D’ysquith family, we become fully aware of two things: first, that him having eight people between himself and the wealth and position of being an Earl means we have the idea behind at least half of the title, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder;” and secondly, that we are in for quite the old English style farce with its skewering of Edwardian-era class structure and manners, as well as other kinds of violence happening to numerous D’ysquiths, all played by the same game actor.

This Broadway hit by Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak, on stage at Footlite Musicals, stars handsome devil Troy Bridges as Monty. He is our narrator (this play is his confession) and exudes enough charm to somehow seem the story’s hero – especially considering how boorish and slimy that Daniel Draves portrays each D’ysquith whom our aspiring gentleman has to dispatch.

As for the “love,” Ellen Vander Missen plays Sibella, with whom Monty is smitten, with an interesting mix of sweet and shallow. A girl can’t marry below her station, after all, but who she loves is her business. However, during his ascent, Monty encounters D’ysquith cousin Phoebe (not directly in the succession line, thank goodness) who is a very good girl, and good to marry. Sydney Norwalk plays this role with the right degree of grace – a bit naive, but never the fool.

Our other notable role is the mysterious Miss Shingle, ably portrayed by Claire Slaven. Other parts (aside from nearly half the cast in Draves’s award-worthy effort) are filled by Heather Hansen, Leigh Query, Kelsey McDaniel, Matthew Blandford, Josh Vander Missen, and Footlite favorite Jerry Beasley.

Director Kayvon Emtiaz conducts this macabre mix of music and mayhem as effectively as Jill Stewart leads the orchestra. Each comic beat hits to hilarious effect, making for a surprisingly upbeat dark comedy complete with jaunty tunes like, “I’ve Decided to Marry You,” and “Why Are All the D’ysquiths Dying?”

Avoid all the death and mayhem of the real world at the entertaining mayhem of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” running through Oct. 3 at 1847 N. Alabama in downtown Indy. Get tickets and info at footlite.org.

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.