Spinning a story with a bit of Broadway

By John Lyle Belden

These are unusual times, so here is an unusual show.

While advising all who feel unwell or uncomfortable to sit this one out, Fat Turtle Theatre is, last we heard, continuing with its production of “This is Us: An Inspirational Steampunk Broadway Cabaret.”

This is a little out of the comfort zone for Fat Turtle, a company that typically does plays, as well as founder Aaron Cleveland, who as the show’s Narrator is called upon to sing. But it does fit within the mission of presenting Indiana works, as the revue of Broadway songs are hung like ornaments on an original story by local playwright Nicole Amsler.

The setting and aesthetic, as noted in the title, are the alternate-history dystopia of Steampunk, with its corsets and clockworks. This helps give the whole production a familiar, yet otherworldly feel. 

Cleveland recites Amsler’s fable about a grieving father who devises “a machine to take all the pain of the world” and how his children strive to save him from it. Honestly, it sounds like the seed from which a great original musical could be grown.

But for now, we get an interesting selection of songs that loosely fit the theme, taken from a wide variety of Broadway shows. While some are easily recognizable, like a tune from “Wicked,” and include current hits like one from “Dear Evan Hansen,” there are also numbers from shows such as “Newsies,” “The Color Purple,” “Kinky Boots,” “Jekyll & Hyde,” “Mean Girls,” and even a beautifully appropriate song from the underappreciated “Pirate Queen.” 

To deliver these song-and-dance bits, we have area talents Tessa Gibbons, Jessica Hawkins, Kaitlin Holden, Jenn Kaufmann, Richelle Lutz, Jennifer Poytner, Brad Root and Jackson Stollings. Direction and choreography are by Andrea Odle, and there is a small band of musicians, led by Linda Parr. 

The result is an entertaining distraction — for a couple of hours — from current events, and the opportunity to enjoy songs even fans of showtunes don’t hear every day. This gang puts their hearts into their performances — as well as a bit of humor, when Hawkins and Stollings take on a fun old standard. Actually, every individual gets a chance to stand center and shine. 

The costumes, by Shannon Rice, include inventive use of blue LED wires to enhance the retro-sci-fi feel and add necessary emphasis when the circuits resemble the human heart. 

There is one scheduled weekend left, March 20-21 at The Switch, 10029 E. 126th St., Suite D, Fishers (in Ji-Eun Lee Music Academy), and as this cabaret is also a company fundraiser, all who are interested, and feel up to it, are encouraged to attend, or at least consider Fat Turtle in your charitable giving.

Details are at FatTurtleTheatre.com.

‘First Date’ jitters take form of advice-giving friends in Footlite musical

By Wendy Carson

Dating — the stress, vulnerability, tension, sheer terror, and coping with it all. Is all of this worth it, to possibly find “the One”? This is the subject the Broadway musical, appropriately titled “First Date,” playing at Footlite Musicals.

The show focuses on Aaron (Zach Hoover) and Casey (Halle Catlow) as they undergo a blind date, and we experience it with them, while seeing their inner thoughts portrayed by others in the cast.

Starting with drinks at the bar, it is obvious that these two have nothing in common except shared geography and a couple of friends who feel they might be a good fit for each other. Still, they are curious enough to overlook their first impressions — and Casey ignores the “bailout calls” of Reggie (Austin Stodgill), her gay bestie — to get to know each other more.

Religious differences, past relationship horrors, and even the embarrassment of their internet history are broached, yet they keep feeling out the possibility of their compatibility. Each constantly teeters on the verge of leaving, yet in their minds, Casey’s sister Lauren (Hannah Janowicz) and Aaron’s best friend Gabe (Ben Fraley) keep showing up to convince them to stick it out.

So, will these two make it to dinner — or maybe breakfast? Will Casey actually let Reggie’s calls give her an out? Will Aaron overcome his feelings for ex-fiance Allison (DonaMarie Kelley)? Can the head Waiter (Darrin Gowan) inspire them to actually fall in love? Honestly, is any of this actually worth it?

Margaret Smith and Adam Gardner complete the cast as waitstaff and part of the mental chorus.

This being Footlite’s annual “cabaret” production, audience seating is on the stage at tables of Darrin’s Restaurant, adding an appropriate intimate feel. The show — book by Austin Winsberg, music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner — is laugh-out-loud funny, with memorable tunes including “First Impression,” “The Girl For You,” and “I’d Order Love.” (We’ve heard them occasionally on SiriusXM’s “On Broadway” channel.) Direction is by Kathleen Clarke Horrigan, with choreography by Trish Roberts and music directed by Linda Parr.

So good, you might want to take a date of your own, “First Date” runs through Jan. 19 at 1847 N. Alabama St., near downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-926-6630 or visit http://www.footlite.org.

‘Brooklyn’ comes to Footlite

By John Lyle Belden

As it is often said, context is everything.

“Brooklyn: The Musical” has a backstory that nearly overshadows the show itself. Its creators, Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson, once collaborated decades ago before going seperate ways. More recently, McPherson, who had a comfortable life in New England, came across Schoenfeld, then a homeless street musician in Brooklyn. She took him in, and inspired by his tough life, they wrote what would become this musical.

After opening in Colorado, “Brooklyn” had a nearly full year on Broadway – October 2004 to June 2005. New York critics were not kind, but Kathleen Clarke Horrigan of Indy’s Footlite Musicals saw it during its final month and fell in love. After years of hunting for a way to bring the musical to Indiana, she finally has “Brooklyn” occupying the Footlite stage.

This is Footlite’s traditional January “cabaret” style show, with seating right on the stage, actors and audience sharing a common space. When we arrive to take our seats, we are transported to a grubby street corner by the Brooklyn Bridge, complete with trash, graffiti and discarded humanity. One man, the Street Singer (Stevie Jones) starts to perform with a generous voice and open guitar case. He is joined by four others, hardy “City Weeds” that spring up to help present his “Sidewalk Fairy Tale.”

For the most part, this show is the play-within-the-play about a Parisian girl, “Brooklyn,” named for the home of the American father she never knew. After losing her mother (played by Page Brown), Brooklyn (Shelbi Berry) eventually makes her way to New York as a famous singer, with one unfinished song that only her real dad would know. Local diva Paradice (Kendra Randle) is not amused and wants this French upstart off her turf. Brooklyn accepts Paradice’s challenge for a winner-take-all sing-off in hopes that this will aid her quest. But when she finds her father (Donny Torres) and learns his truth, will a happy ending to this tale be possible?

I’m leaving out a lot of details, of course, so you can discover them yourself. Dwelling on them would ruin the overall fantasia effect of the story, anyway. In the end, we truly learn who this story is about and for, which then sets the “fairy tale” as a whole in a clearer light.

The issue of homelessness permeates this story and production, but – as is true in everyday conversations – it is not directly addressed. This show won’t preach to you, but does present these people’s humanity, the “Heart Behind These Hands,” and clues to what can bring a person down to life under a bridge. This production is also helping raise awareness and funds for the local Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention (www.chipindy.org).

Jones is a wonderful narrator with sweet voice and charisma to spare. Beautiful Berry and sassy Randle make an excellent sweet-sour yin-yang. Brown is angelic (literally) and Torres brings all the layers of his complex character. In other words, these “weeds” are a pitch-perfect bouquet of talent.

Also impressive is the look and atmosphere of the stage set by Stephen Matters, like a gritty set for “Rent” gone to seed, complete with lights and sounds (but thankfully no smells) to make you feel almost a bit unsafe. Costumes (by Curt Pickard) and props are marvels of recycling and improvisation with discarded everyday objects, oddly adding to the whimsy of some scenes.

Combine these elements with backing street people (Rayanna Bibbs, Tristan Bustos, Amy Douglas and Michael Davis) and an on-stage band led by Linda Parr, and you have one of those musicals that is as much an experience as a show. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself humming an “Unfinished Lullaby” or have the words “With our tears, we water roses” tattooed to your memory.

This rare gem of an almost-forgotten musical has performances today through Sunday and Jan. 18-21 at 1847 N. Alabama. Call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.