‘Hunchback’ musical at Footlite

By John Lyle Belden

Footlite Musicals had chosen for its young adults (high school/college student) production Disney Theatricals’ “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” long before the historic cathedral suffered from a recent fire. But with that reminder of the building’s central place in French culture in mind, this performance takes on even more resonance.

Like the Disney animated film, the musical is based loosely on the Victor Hugo novel, but retains much of the original story’s air of tragedy. Its grounding in a sacred place is reinforced by a well-voiced choir that adds atmosphere and exposition throughout the show. Stained-glass windows are projected on the theatre walls and actors frequently work the aisles, giving the production an immersive, intimate feel.

The Archdeacon Frollo (Markell Pipkins) is not a two-dimensional villain; his backstory is shown to give him motivations, but not justification, as he is not entirely the righteous figure he believes he is. Kyle Cherry shows great talent and charisma in embodying Quasimodo, our titular Hunchback, providing the man within the disfigured face (under heavy makeup) and body.

Director Kathleen Clarke Horrigan had so much talent to choose from that any of the dancing Gypsies could have flying-kicked their way into the lead role, but Adrian Daeger was wisely chosen for lovely Esmeralda. Though highly regarded among Gypsies, the character is not a part of the Parisian band led by Clopin (Jim Melton), so she doesn’t notice their cruelty to Quasimodo until it is nearly too late. Her kindness then distinguishes her from the other characters, all cruel and selfish except perhaps for the soldier Phoebus (Jacob Hardin), who has become Captain of the Notre Dame cathedral guard.

Melton is superb in what turns out to be more than just a supporting character, as Clopin provides much of the narration. Fortunately, Hardin acts and sings as good as he looks. Pipkins was aptly cast in a central role, as he is fascinating to watch and listen to.

Supporting characters are also excellent, particularly the statues that are our hunchback’s only friends: Gargoyles (Olivia Ash, William Cisneros and Noah Fields) and statues of The Madonna (Tayler Seymour) and a female warrior Saint (Megan Delucanay), possibly Joan of Arc (though a French Catholic hero, not officially a saint at the time). Not wasted as comic relief, these five are Quasimodo’s advisors in the moments he is alone, each from their carved-in-stone perspective.

While the ending is not happy-shiny (potentially a relief or a shock to you, depending on if you preferred the book or the animation), it is quite appropriate and heroic in its own way. I found it satisfying, as it adheres to the musical’s central question, “What makes a monster, and what makes a man?”

And as is typical of “student” productions on central Indiana stages, these actors are no mere kids, having walked – and danced – the boards for maybe a decade in various youth productions. They provide another quality show at Footlite, and a good excuse to go inside from the summer heat. Performances are July 4-7 and 11-14 at 1847 N. Alabama St., near downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-926-6630 or visit www.footlite.org.

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Musical of Dahl novel ‘Matilda’ gets brief Indy premiere

By John Lyle Belden and Wendy Carson

If you want to see the hit musical “Matilda” before the Civic Theatre stages it next year, you have just three chances this weekend.

McDuffee Music Studio bursts onto the theatrical scene with its ambitious all-youth production. Note this London and Broadway hit is by two of the most devious minds to write material safe for children: the late author Roald Dahl and comic songwriter Tim Minchin. While the story is dark at times, the sheer absurdity of all the characters and situations keeps it light.

In this musical, with book by Dennis Kelly, the Wormwoods – a Latin dance-obsessed wife and proudly unethical used-car dealer husband – prefer their children to be like their son, Michael, comically ignorant and male. Surprise-baby Mathilda is definitely neither. She insists on reading books, visiting the library and telling stories. And when she’s had enough mistreatment, she tends to be “a little bit naughty.” Perhaps some abuse at the local school, led by wicked Mrs. Trunchbull, will cure her of that.

Having an all-student cast is easy for this show, as most of the roles are children, but some local teens ably step up to fill the “adult” shoes.

William Baartz as the viciously imposing Trunchbull manages to fully embrace the extreme silliness of the role. The teen-boy musculature stuffed into an Olympic women’s hammer-thrower form only adds to the look – equal parts threatening and cartoonish.

On the other end of the scale, Kamdyn Knotts is so very charming as teacher Miss Honey, a mousey woman struggling to find her voice to help Mathilda. Her willingness to show weakness and work to overcome it ironically makes her the most (if not only) mature character in the show. Krissy Brzycki as librarian Mrs. Phelps is another ray of sunshine in Mathilda’s life, practically starving for the girl’s story that may or may not be fiction.

Josh Hoover impressively shows range in dual roles as a vapid dance partner and an “escapologist” in love.

Ayden Cress and Kennedi Bruner are both a hoot as Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, despite their neglectful and somewhat abusive nature. Wesley Olin as Michael shows that rare natural talent at playing an imbecile so entertainingly he can’t help but steal the scene, even just shouting one word.

As for Kate Honaker as Mathilda, to us she looks and sounds straight off the Cast Album. Honaker holds focus and makes us believe in this girl with so many brains (yet they “just fit”) and a little bit “extra” that her stressful journey brings out.

The other children are more than just chorus to Mathilda’s story, as they learn to deal with a cruel yet silly world. Colton Woods as Bruce Bogtrotter gets to revel in being an unlikely hero. Brilynn Knauss as Nicole gets a quick lesson on improvising one’s way out of trouble. And Izzy Napier’s hyper Lavender declares herself Mathilda’s “best friend,” then takes on one of the more notorious pranks on the Headmistress.

We would like to assure you that no newts were harmed in the making of this show, but you can buy (a rubber) one at the concession stand, as well as chocolate cake.

While the production does have its technical flaws, it is energetic and earnest. Remember that one of the main tenets of the story (like most of Dahl’s work) is that not all stories have a happy ending. But it does manage to keep a positive outlook even at the grimmest point.

If you have any children in your care this weekend, especially those of grade-school age, they will be practically falling out of their seat with laughter and delight at the show. Performances of “Mathilda: The Musical” are 2 and 7 p.m. Today, 2 p.m. Sunday (May 25-26) at Lutheran High School, 5555 S. Arlington, Indianapolis. Tickets are $10, $12 for premium seats. Visit www.mcduffeemusic.com.

Can you see the children sing?

By John Lyle Belden

For sheer ambition alone, the children and teens of Agape Performing Arts Company should be commended for their production of the musical “Les Miserables.” And as is often the case with student theatre around Indy, you’ll enjoy this show even if you don’t know the kids involved.

The dozens of youths in cast, crew and orchestra give tremendous energy to the sweeping Victor Hugo saga of redemption, love and revolution in 19th-century France. The production acquired a rotating stage, and made an easily-assembled but stageworthy Barricade that was swiftly put together and disassembled. One death scene utilizes a Hollywood-style stunt fall. Costuming and makeup are excellent.

And while one can forgive the limitations of youth and experience as the actors bravely take on the near-operatic almost non-stop singing, there were some genuine stand-outs, including Samantha Koval as Fantine, Olivia Ortmann as Eponine, Eli Robinson as Javert, Connor Cleary as Marius and Alex Bast as Enjolras. Luan Arnold holds the center of the show as Jean Valjean. Young charismatic Aaron Sickmeier is a Broadway-quality Gavroche. Thomas Tutsie and Hannah Phipps do a gritty good job as the Threnardiers. And as a mild comedy relief character, the drunken member of the student revolutionaries, Christopher Golab is the best Grantaire I’ve seen in any “Les Mis” production.

Agape, a youth arts ministry of Our Lady of the Greenwood Catholic Church, performs the School Edition of the musical, so some language is softened – often cleverly – but not too jarring for those familiar with the original lyrics. Still, the story deals with topics including prostitution, death and war, so it is still “PG” in content. As adult director Kathy Phipps points out in her program Note, the play suits a Christian company as it tells the story of redemption and reaching for goodness, contrasted with a character who thinks he’s serving God by his inflexible adherence to the law.

This production has just one weekend of performances, through Sunday, April 9, at the Knights of Columbus McGowan Hall, 1305 N. Delaware St. in downtown Indianapolis. Tickets are just $10 each, less for students, at www.thelittleboxoffice.com/agape.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.