Search for understanding takes author back to ‘Fun Home’

By John Lyle Belden

Before Alison Bechdel was a “test” — the means the graphic novelist proposed to check a popular work for how it treats women — she was a girl growing up in Pennsylvania in a home with perfect antiques and a perfectionist father who was a teacher and a funeral director, and she had feelings she didn’t understand. Later, when the girl discovered herself, she lost her father. The woman she has become now wants to understand why.

This is the Tony-winning musical “Fun Home,” based on Bechdel’s graphic novel, adapted by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, on stage at Footlite Musicals, directed by Maria Matters.

We meet the mature Alison (Kristin Cutler) looking back at her child self (Sadie Cohen) and her typical-but-unusual family: father Bruce (Tim Spradlin), mother Helen (Emily Gaddy), and brothers Christian (Lincoln Everitt) and John (Evan Cohen). The kids are so used to the funeral home (the “Fun Home” of the title) that they even compose a silly commercial jingle for it.

Only visible to Alison in hindsight, we find that Bruce was having secret gay affairs and Helen was under constant stress maintaining their perfect facade.

Alison goes to college (played by Elly Burke) where some library research and soul-searching lead her to realize she’s a lesbian. Fellow student Joan (Emma Socey) awakens all that that entails. After coming out to her parents, Alison makes a home visit for what turns out to be her final moments with Bruce. Helen has clued her in on his double-life, and she wants to understand better this thing they now have in common. But days later, he walks into the path of a truck — distracted, suicidal, or both?

Cast and crew do an excellent job with this powerful musical, on a set designed by Matters that places the orchestra, led by Ainsley Paton, visibly at the back of the stage. The three Alisons each acquit themselves well. Gaddy wears Helen’s pain like part of her costume. Spradlin effectively keeps Bruce a cypher, neither entirely good nor bad, while enticing us to look closer; Job Willman and Dustin Branum complete the cast as the young men in his life.

A wonderful and touching theatrical experience that is sure to be mentioned when local awards are given, performances run through March 22 at Footlite, 1847 N. Alabama St., near downtown Indy. Call 317-926-6630 or visit 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.