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.

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.