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.

‘Hosanna’ to the Mud Creek ‘Superstar’

By John Lyle Belden

“Jesus Christ Superstar,” Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera passion play, opened, appropriately, on Good Friday at Mud Creek Players.

The production, directed by Michelle Moore, embraced its setting within the cozy confines of the MCP “barn,” with rough-wood sets and a punk aesthetic, backed by a five-piece rock band. Cast members filled the aisles at times, lending a feeling more immersive than crowded. The costumes appeared to be raided from “Hair” or “American Idiot,” but still worked in the overall look, making our two male leads better stand out — the disciple Judas (Michael Lipphardt) all business in a leather jacket, and Jesus (Onis Dean) dressed casual like a man who, naturally, would fit in anywhere.

For those unfamiliar with this telling of the last week of Christ’s life, these are the main two perspectives — Judas fearing what could happen, and Jesus frustrated that only he can see what must happen — followed by the points of view of Mary Magdalene (Pearl Scott), a woman in love with the man as much as what he stands for; and Caiaphas (Lot Turner), the High Priest who sees a threat not only to his own personal power, but also to the safety of Jews in occupied Roman Palestine.

Dean and Lipphardt sing their hearts out — and I worry for their throats. Scott is pure sweetness. Turner just oozes corruption, ably accompanied by Kata Ewigleben as Annas. We also get good vocals from Eli Robinson as Simon the Zealot and Austin Stodghill as the Apostle Peter. Jeremy Crouch is regal as Pilate, and Rick Barber absolutely fabulous as King Herod.

“Don’t get me wrong, now,” I won’t say this production is flawless, but taken as a whole, in the spirit of this time of year, it is an incredible experience and celebration of a foundational event of Christianity.

Performances run through May 4. Mud Creek Players is at 9740 E. 86th St. in northeast Indianapolis, near Geist. Call 317-290-5343 or visit mudcreekplayers.com.

Footlite brings simple complexity of ‘Bridges’

By John Lyle Belden

“The Bridges of Madison County” is an unusual love story, its surprising depth reaching beyond the plot of a lonely housewife having an affair with a traveling photographer. That made it successful as a novel, movie, and finally as “The Bridges of Madison County: The Broadway Musical,” presented by Footlite Musicals through March 18.

It is 1965, and Francesca (Lori Ecker), an Italian war bride, is alone at her husband`s Iowa farm while he and their children are two states away for a national 4-H livestock show, when a strange but handsome and charming man arrives in the driveway. He is Robert Kinkaid (Rick Barber), a photographer for National Geographic Magazine, sent to get shots of the famous local covered bridges. As the rural roads aren’t clearly marked, he has gotten lost looking for the last bridge on his list.

With Francesca’s help, Robert finds the bridge, but they start to lose their way in a manner that will affect them both for the rest of their lives.

What comes to pass seems as inevitable as it is wrong, so we see this couple in how they help each other more than how they are likely to hurt the others they love. But actions have consequences, and force hard choices.

Ecker is outstanding, and Barber has a voice as strong as his muscular body. Though they are committing the sin, you can’t help but feel for them – maybe even root for them.

Darrin Gowan is rock-steady as Francesca’s husband Bud. He could have been played as a victim, a sucker, or one whose behavior pushed his wife into another man’s arms, but we get no such cliché. Just as Francesca acts of her own free will, Bud is constantly true to his obligations and those he loves, even if there’s something about them he frustratingly can’t control. Their son, Michael (Joseph Massingale), and daughter, Carolyn (Elly Burne), are also interesting three-dimensional characters. In each we see both the practical nature of their father and the free spirit of their mother.

Jeanne Chandler as neighbor Marge is a wonderful surprise, her character a bit nosy but out of honest concern for the family next door she has come to love. And Chandler’s solo song allows her to steal the scene in style. Kudos to Bob Chandler for taking the role of Marge’s husband Charlie on short notice after the injury of original cast member Daniel Scharbrough in a fall (according to Dan’s Facebook posts, he is recovering).

The set, designed by Jerry Beasley, is beautiful in its simplicity – especially the covered bridge – giving just enough pieces to let your imagination complete the scene, while the actors (including a large but well coordinated chorus) are free to move and help the setpieces flow in and out as needed.

If you have any liking for a romantic musical – particularly if you enjoyed the James Waller novel or Clint Eastwood/Meryl Streep film of “Bridges” – this nicely put together community production, under the direction of Tim Spradlin, is well worth your time.

Find this charming little piece of Madison County, Iowa, at the Hedback Theatre, 1847 N. Alabama, Indianapolis; call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.