Once upon a time, at Footlite…

By John Lyle Belden

Off to the blog
To post a review;
The show was great,
You should see it, too…

Footlite Musicals adds to this summer’s entertainment with its young adult production of Stephen Sondhiem’s “Into the Woods.”

As many know, thanks to the recent film, this musical mashes up several popular fairy tales, which all happen in or near a particularly enchanted forest – The Woods. To this mix of Red Riding Hood, Jack (of Beanstalk fame), Cinderella and Rapunzel are added the fairytale-adjacent Baker and his Wife. A Witch, the Baker’s neighbor, offers to reverse her curse that made them childless, but it will require items possessed by characters in other stories.

So, it’s “off to the Woods” for lots of wacky interactions as each person’s narrative winds toward its well-known conclusion. But then comes the Second Act, when we find that “happily ever after” is the true myth – and you didn’t think that killing a giant would come without consequences, did you?

This is the part
Where John heaps praise
Upon the folks
Who walked the stage…

Given the production values and level of talent in high school and college theater programs across the state, it’s not a detriment to note this is a “student” production, but rather sets the bar higher given the cast’s young energy and dedication. In fact, I’ve seen some of these faces on stage before, and look forward to seeing many on the boards again.

Notables include: Tara Sorg, whose look and delivery as the Baker’s wife reminded me of Broadway’s Joanna Gleason. Kyle Cherry as the Baker was like the movie’s James Cordon, but more talented. I’d note that Paige Brown – our Witch – reminded me of Lady Gaga at her fiercest, but in the future I might compare stars to her. If this play were just the Red Riding Hood story, it would still be worth the ticket as Hannah Bullock as Red has great stage charisma, and, well, we had to kill the Wolf, Christian Condra (recently seen in “Priscilla”), as he was not only eating people but stealing the show. As for Jack, Noah Fields plays that impulsive little brother you want to smack some sense into, but love anyway.

Erin Elliott and Halle Catlow shine as Cinderella and Rapunzel. Zachary Hoover and Joseph Massingale are charmingly haughty as their Princes – providing great comic moments in their “Agony.” Shout-outs for the maternal madness of Ellen Vander Missen as Jack’s Mother, Alyssa Klingstein as Granny, and Olivia Ash as Cinderella’s stepmom. And then there’s Josh Vander Missen as a leaf-covered Mysterious Man, an interesting character to be sure.

The “older kids” involved are director Kathleen Clarke Horrigan, who has a knack for these summer shows, and her assistant Ed Mobley, who filled in as the musical’s Narrator on opening night.

The young crew, which include some cast members, built an excellent stage set, which even gets graced by live horse (a beautiful Arabian, Inshal Amir).

While I suspect there’s a backstage bet on which of the Witch’s finger-sparks misfire, and – sorry Disney happy-ending fans – the show does get a bit dark, this is overall a fun production and perhaps the best staging of “Into the Woods” I’ve seen. Even my partner Wendy – who doesn’t really like Sondheim’s ode to Grimm stories – admits this is a great show.

The show was good,
This post is done,
Now get a ticket
And join the fun…

Two weekends remain, July 5-8 and July 12-15, at Footlite, 1847 N. Alabama St. near downtown Indy; call 317-926-6630 or visit www.Footlite.org.

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Review: Complex killer musical at BCP

By John Lyle Belden

For about a year now, it has been the unofficial Year of Sondheim around central Indiana stages. And now it appears to be Buck Creek Players’ turn, with its production of the musical, “Assassins.”

This play brings together in a dark-humored fantasia various men and women who killed – or tried to kill – the President of the United States. The genius of this piece by Sondheim and James Weidman is that it compellingly presents these individuals’ point of view without glorifying their acts.

The Proprietor (Steven R. Linville) in this room outside of time and space is offering guns to the various frustrated characters seeking – something. Perhaps it’s personal relief; perhaps it’s attention; perhaps it’s to change the world. The solution? Shoot the President.

The characters represent people who actually existed (a couple are even still alive), who you may or may not have heard of, but they all look up to the one we all know: Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth (Mark Meyer). Charles Guiteau (David Wood) would be shocked that we don’t know his name as readily, as he expected his shooting of President James Garfield (briefly played by chorus member W. Michael Davidson) to boost sales of his book and lead to him becoming President himself – rather than be hanged, which happened instead.

We also hear of the irrational motivations behind Leon Czolgosz (Jake McDuffee) shooting William McKinley, Guiseppe Zangara (Scott Fleshood) shooting at Franklin Roosevelt, John Hinckley Jr. (Trenton Baker) shooting Ronald Reagan, and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Stacia Ann Hulen) and Sara Jane Moore (Cathy Tolzmann) taking shots at Gerald Ford (played, complete with pratfall, by Bryan D. Padgett).

Most intriguing are the ramblings of Samuel Byck (Daniel Draves), taken from the actual tape recordings he made and sent to journalists, before attempting his plan to crash a passenger jet into the White House to kill Richard Nixon (his gun was used on others as he tried to take over the plane).

To let us know these assassins’ stories, we hear from a Balladeer (Luke McConnell), who eventually finds his own dark and infamous purpose.

These are not heroes; most are arguably insane, but it’s hard to say they are entirely bad people. These facts add depth to performances throughout the cast. Guiteau’s delusions make Wood’s portrayal one of the more entertaining. Hulen as a loopy-hippie Fromme and Tolzmann’s Kathy-Bates-esque turn as Moore provide much of the dark humor, especially in Moore’s total incompetence with a firearm. Mary Hayes Tuttle boldly portrays famed anarchist Emma Goldman, an influence on Czolgosz, who McDuffie infuses with desperation. Fleshood plays Zangara earnestly, an appropriate approach for someone whose pain was real but actions made little sense. And Draves is like an obscenity-spewing force of nature as Byck – the dirty Santa suit he wears to protest Nixon making him look even more unhinged. Baker’s Hinckley is a lost, confused boy with a gun.

Above all, Meyer exudes a charisma befitting Booth, a renowned actor before committing the one act his is known for, as he takes charge of this macabre exclusive club. Linville and McConnell ably represent American Culture and History, respectively, as tangible beings with genuine influence on the stories we see, making it feel inevitable when McConnell’s young man picks up the rifle.

(Note: This production doesn’t hold back on language. But then, the topic already makes this not a show for children.)

With sharp direction by D. Scott Robinson with Christine Schaefer, and interesting set design by Aaron B. Bailey, this is worth taking a shot at seeing down at the Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74), through June 12. Just kindly leave your firearms outside.

No actual Presidents were harmed in the making of this musical. Find info at www.buckcreekplayers.com or call 317-862-2270.

(Also published at The Word)

Review: ‘Passion’ on TOTS stage

By John Lyle Belden

“Beauty is power,” we are told. But what if one is not beautiful; how does she get what she desires?

This question is at the heart of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, “Passion,” playing through March 26 at Theatre on the Square.

In a past era, Italian army officer Giorgio (Scott Russell) has found love with Clara (Jessica Hawkins), who is inconveniently married. He is assigned to a new post, where, while meeting the other officers, he learns that a woman, Fosca (Lori Ecker), lives in the quarters of the commanding Colonel (Norman Brandenstein), her cousin.

Fosca suffers from unspecified mental and physical ailments, leaving her weak and enhancing her unattractiveness. Giorgio takes pity on her, and being the only man to show her true kindness, she falls in love with him. His heart is with Clara, but Fosca’s persistence starts to affect him.

Is Fosca manipulative and cruel, or misunderstood and seeking affection the only way she knows how? Do Giorgio’s acts and reactions show weakness, or tested inner strength? The answers audiences must decide for themselves, and Ecker and Russell don’t make it easy with their nuanced performances.

Fosca is more plain than ugly, in a long, black, shapeless dress with minimal makeup and hair severely pulled back; but in her era as in ours, to look so ordinary is enough, coupled with her odd demeanor and an attitude that hints at a lack of inner beauty as well. Still, Ecker can’t help but shine and makes us feel for her, even when other characters can’t or won’t.

Clara, on the other hand, has bright dresses, colorful makeup and an angelic demeanor (she even knows Giorgio is friends with Fosca) that lets you forget she’s an adulteress; and Hawkins gives her a clear, charming voice and easy smile.

Russell plays Giorgio as the eager, loyal hound who rests easy at Clara’s feet and is devoted to the troops he serves with and over. Such qualities are easily misunderstood and abused by Fosca, who drives him to physical illness that seems to mirror her own.

This musical is not known for its catchy showtunes, but for possibly being Sondheim’s most complex romantic story, a show he counted among his favorites in interviews for “Sondheim on Sondheim.” To judge for yourself, see “Passion” at TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave. in downtown Indy. Call 317-685-8687 or see www.tots.org.

(Review also posted on The Word.)

 

Review: An entertaining and enlightening Sondheim salute

By John Lyle Belden

Did you know that it took three tries before “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” had an opening song that worked?

You get lots of behind-the-scenes glimpses like this in “Sondheim on Sondheim,” Thursday through Sunday at Footlite Musicals. This hybrid of documentary and revue has Stephen Sondheim himself projected on a big screen, talking about his life and career, while live performers – Lauren Bowers, Graham Brinklow, Onis Dean, Laura Duvall-Whitson, Karen Frye, Jeff Fuller, Sarah Marone and Larry Sommers – sing songs from his stage shows. The numbers range from choruses and medleys to full performances of songs like “Gun Song,” “Finishing the Hat” and “Send in the Clowns.”

If you don’t like Sondheim – then, really, why are you reading this? – but if you do like the man or his musicals at all, you’ll find this show charming and insightful. The singers are well up to the task, with some, like director Bill Hale, having worked on the Footlite production of “Follies” a couple of years back. However, the orchestra on stage does threaten to sonically overwhelm them. Fortunately, the audience is also on the Footlite stage, an intimate arrangement that gives the vocalists the freedom and challenge of working un-mic’ed.

Circumstances limited the show’s run, so see it this weekend at the Hedback Theater, 1847 N. Alabama St. Call 317-926-6630 or see footlite.org.