Sunday, May 20, 2018

Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra mounts a semi-staged production of "Kiss Me, Kate" to end season

The sparkle of late-period Cole Porter glitters throughout "Kiss Me, Kate," the 1949 musical comedy being presented by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra to end its 2017-18 season. Dimmed though his output was by the enduring pain of a horseriding injury as well as by shifting cultural tastes, Porter sustains his wit and typically sly erotic charge in this mash-up of a romantically challenged star couple's spats and Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew."

The show opened Saturday and concludes with a matinee today.  The stage of the Schrott Fine Arts Center at Butler University is occupied for the most part by the ICO, conducted by Matthew Kraemer, nearing the end of three years as its music director. In front of the ensemble, the action takes place in a vigorously realized form as directed by James Brennan.

The set-up ensures that the spirit and foundation of Porter's music is firmly established, and yet the face-miked singers are not overwhelmed by the accompaniment. At times the amplification was too robust, but on the whole the songs came out well-balanced. The need for one of the two Gangsters to keep adjusting his device detracted somewhat from their second-act duet, "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," however.

Petruchio tames two shrews at once: Kate and Lilli.
The production's success depends, as it should, upon the energy and charisma emanating from the two principals. That was more than abundant Saturday night. Hometown boy Ben Davis, having gone on from here to assemble a wide-ranging resume in musical theater, shone as the vain star Fred Graham. The rakish matinee idol accidentally ramps up the Shakespeare play's classic Petruchio-vs.-Katherine battle of the sexes after misleading  his co-star, Lilli Vanessi, into thinking he was after a post-divorce reconciliation. Lilli's rediscovery of his waywardness lends authentic hostility to her portrayal of Shakespeare's shrew. The prima donna's on- and offstage persona melded across a delectable spectrum in Michele Ragusa's performance. The physical scrapping between them had an almost alarming realism.

The show's secondary love interest, and a device for filling out the plot with a threatening underworld debt attributed to Graham, was represented by Vandi Enzor's portrayal of the flirtatious Lois and Matt Branic as the comprimario Bill, who can't bear to take responsibility for his gambling habit. Enzor captured Lois' calculating side in two of the show's more seductive solos — "Why Can't You Behave?" and "Always True to You in My Fashion" — but in dialogue she came across as too much of an airhead to make the characterization consistent. Branic displayed a splendid lyric tenor in the tossed-off ode to the character Lois plays, "Bianca," backed by women of the chorus, able singers who were not up to the song's required whistling. (Does anyone whistle anymore?)

Ben Davis holds aloft one of Petruchio's little black books ("Where Is the Life that Late I Led").
Brennan managed the choral numbers about as well as could be expected, given that the singers are forced to make circuitous entrances and exits and must often be arranged in lines that keep them from looking natural.   There were some triumphs, however: Petruchio's solo with the men, "I've Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua," was well-designed. Just before that, and on a smaller scale, Katherine's
Bianca unleashes a charm offensive.
solo with her suitors, "Tom, Dick or Harry," also moved adroitly. And, led with distinction by Keith Potts, the male complaint about the wilting of desire, "Too Darn Hot," was something even today's air-conditioned libidos might well identify with. Near the end, the guys withdraw from moving in on the gals.

Giving variety to the lengthy solos, so that all their charm doesn't rest upon Porter's endless inventiveness as a lyricist, is a challenge in this genre. It was met by the inspired staging, and its whole-hearted execution, in Katherine's "I Hate Men," Petruchio's "Where Is the Life that Late I Led?" (both with the cameo involvement of the maestro), and Lois's "Always True to You in my Fashion."

Dance mastery took a while to jell in the first-act ensemble "We Open in Venice," and choral projection of Porter's intricate lyrics lacked the requisite crystal clarity. After the ICO's sparkling account of the overture, the solo start of "Another Op'nin', Another Show" betrayed some nerves, quickly swept away by the choral entrance, fortunately.

The finales of both acts managed pretty well the illusion of spectacle and flourish, despite the need to be largely linear. Such sacrifices were understandable, given the advantage of having the orchestra so prominent in its own show. What was less understandable was for a large portion of the second act not to be "off book," when the non-singing role of General Harrison Howell (Adam O. Crowe) is introduced at a point where the plot twist involving him has to feel natural. Holding scripts and turning pages works against that. Happily, elsewhere in the performance, there was plenty of naturalness to make up for this slippage from professionalism.

[Photos by Rich Clark]

Saturday, May 19, 2018

400th production: Favorite-literary-son Vonnegut gets milestone position at the new Phoenix Theatre

Humble benefactor Eliot Rosewater
Catching up with "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" at the start of its second weekend, I found the new Phoenix Theatre's Russell Stage comfortable in all respects. It was just the feeling to have while taking in the musical stage adaptation of the Kurt Vonnegut novel of the same title.

That's because Vonnegut's work tends to disturb as well as amuse. Most aspects of his pervasive wry humor are as likely to ruffle your feathers as soothe you. "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" meets the mark, with the particular benefit of the opportunity to appreciate the burgeoning partnership of Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman. They would go on to become a worthy successor to the Sherman Brothers as songwriters for Disney films.

The show has a book by Ashman, and additional lyrics by Dennis Green. Bryan Fonseca directs the Phoenix production, which inaugurates the new facility's main stage, and Tim Brickley makes a crucial contribution as musical director, getting the songs in apple-pie order. Among other design credits, the versatility and flair in Bernie Killian's set and Ben Dobler's projections must not go unmentioned.
Eliot (in helmet) joins into the part-time bravado of a volunteer fire company.

Particularly helping the performance make a good first impression is Mariel Greenlee's choreography, with its flip-book-style stop, jerk, and flow sequences in "The Rosewater Foundation."

That ensemble number introduces us to the freewheeling style of Eliot Rosewater, scion of a deep-rooted, deep-pocketed Indiana family. His foundation dispenses largesse with loosey-goosey benevolence, and the plot soon rests upon an ambitious young lawyer's scheme for wresting control of the family fortune from Eliot. If he can be found certifiably crazy, the golden goose may be compelled to lay eggs for a feckless Rhode Island cousin, incidentally enriching their attorney.

The Rosewater Foundation staff and clients stiffen under the wayward leadership of Eliot.
Critical to the production's success is the fey appeal of Patrick Goss as the title character. With his unruly mop of hair and silly-putty facial expressions, Goss' Eliot represents the right wing's notion of liberal snowflakery avant le lettre. He is peripatetically obsessed with volunteer firefighting units, the reason for which is rooted in a traumatic war incident.

The time of the action is 1963, before the epochal Kennedy assassination; but the parameters of today's political climate were already taking shape. And Eliot represents the viewpoint that everyone deserves respect and dignity, and that "the money river" shouldn't flow along channels accessible only to those already wealthy. Feeling trapped within the station in life one was born into should not deprive anyone of a chance to thrive, he feels.

Typically, however, Vonnegut doesn't spare the poor people of the Rosewater hometown satirical
Kilgore Trout expounds under the skeptical appraisals of McAllister (left) and Sen. Rosewater.
thrusts. Indianapolis' most famous native son in literature saw the seeds of corruption at all levels of society. In the show, the low taste and self-centered values of provincial folks are barriers as firm as the self-satisfaction and narrow-mindedness of the well-off, such as Eliot's father, Senator Rosewater (Charles Goad), and his attorney, McAllister (Mark Goetzinger). Among the several roles he plays with gusto, Rob Johansen, as Vonnegut alter ego Kilgore Trout, makes that outlook explicit in a second-act ensemble number.

Townspeople celebrate their good fortune unto the next generation.
Vonnegut's fiction shows an even-handed waspishness and threads it through the lives of shallow people. Large themes are presented in a thought-provoking way, and when cast on the musical stage as they are here, characters without much depth are perfectly suited for Broadway pizazz when they sing and dance. Although Ashman and Menken haven't really hit their stride in this show, the elements of a brilliant partnership are becoming evident. The ensemble numbers show especially well the range of relevant rhymes Ashman could be master of: "The Rosewater Foundation" and "Plain Clean Average Americans" — though not every word was clear Friday night — are chock full of period references. The cleverness of these requires a glossary (which the program provides) and recalls the topical nimbleness of Cole Porter's "You're the Top."

For me, Menken's music is more merely serviceable here than it later became when the partnership flowered in "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin," and "Beauty and the Beast." And, of course, "Little Shop of Horrors," which put their names on the map, had already showed their aptitude for the stage musical. In this show, "Look Who's Here" has a catchy tune to match Ashman's gratitude-rich text; otherwise, the melodies mainly do just what they're required to do. One of them, "Thank God for the Volunteer Fire Brigade," is a great male chorus of rousing charm.

Also impressive, and suited to represent the underlying sentimentality of much Vonnegut, is the uneasy love duet between Eliot and his wife, Sylvia. It was staged brilliantly, with its basis in a phone call prompting the couple's gradual entanglement in those long curly telephone cords we were all familiar with years ago. As the pair's wistfulness moved toward renewed ardor, the cords and the couple suggested a game of cat's cradle (perhaps a deliberate Vonnegut allusion). Emily Ristine caught the stressed patience and increased emotional fragility of Mrs. Rosewater heartbreakingly.

Norman Mushari peruses the file that feeds his avaricious dreams.
Ike Wellhausen, like Goss appearing in his Phoenix Theatre debut, made a great villain from the first time his left eyebrow shot up in an aside to the audience. His spot-on performance of the underhanded lawyer Mushari brings up one of the production's disadvantages, however. In the long run, I'm sure, Phoenix musicals will include a band rather than recorded tracks. Everyone in "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," knew the timing of the instrumental accompaniment, and the blend between live voices and the band was almost perfect. But a recorded accompaniment never breathes, of course, and "Mushari's Waltz" needs a pianist forging vivid duo spontaneity with the actor-singer. As firmly as Wellhausen knew the song and the timing of phrases, his performance of this solo Friday exposed the inevitable, though slight, mismatch of live versus "dead." The sound system in the new room, by the way, is great.

The large cast amounts to a celebration of the Phoenix's durability and artistic stature over several decades: Besides those already mentioned, we had welcome three-dimensional portrayals of two-dimensional characters by Suzanne Fleenor, Scot Greenwell, Devan Mathias, Deb Sargent, Diane Boehm Tsao, Jean Childers Arnold, Peter Scarbrough, and Josiah McCruiston to revel in. They range from Phoenix founders to relative newcomers. The gathering of such a wealth of diverse talents and energies merits a sustained "Bravo!" and is a fine harbinger of many more decades of Phoenix success. Who could wish this excellent organization anything less?

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Friday, May 18, 2018

Our President wants to do a small favor for China, saving some Chinese jobs, but there's some quid pro quo involved

Tom Horan's 'The Pill' inaugurates the new Phoenix Theatre's versatile black box

The women of "The Pill" triumphantly salute the play's title character.
This morning's public-radio news comes with two disturbances updating the war on medical science: deadly hostility to vaccination in Pakistan stalling the elimination of polio there and of the Trump Administration's move to cut public funding to any American organization breathing a word about reproductive rights, including the option of abortion.

There is no doubt that Margaret Sanger's struggles are alive in today's world. "The Pill," the first production on the new Phoenix Theatre's Basile "black box" stage, focuses on the health pioneer's  role in spurring the development of oral birth-control medication for women. The innovation was shrouded in political controversy from its gestation onward, as Tom Horan's new play makes clear. Sex and politics continue their age-old brouhaha.

Horan, Phoenix playwright-in-residence, thankfully does not take a "biopic" approach to his subject. There's precious little name-dropping or rehashing of ancient battles. Of course there was a long foreground to Sanger's involvement with the Pill, and patrons of "The Pill" can get plentiful details in the useful program essay. After World War II, the aging radical nurse already had several decades of agitation behind her, involving recurrent brushes with the law for her crusading journalism as well as her clinical activities.

The play displays Sanger's difficulty quelling repeated discouragement: the fires that blazed in her young adulthood are still burning brightly. And the crusader's sometimes feisty relationships with a team committed to her vision of medical progress in controlling fertility tend to stoke her commitment, regardless of sometimes overwhelming fatigue and stress.
Battle-weary Margaret fortifies herself with a large martini.

At the preview performance Thursday, Constance Macy vividly embodied both competing
tendencies. The physical and mental toll of Sanger's work was palpable, as was her determination. Whether laughing uproariously, ranting or collapsing, this Margaret Sanger at such extremes finds balance in a clear, steady vision and steely compassion for women, most of them poor and lacking basic rights to health care and family planning.

Her compassion is triggered by one of them, Sadie Sachs, who stands for all the women Sanger treated and advocated for. Played with plaintive intensity by Jenni White, Sadie makes the composite pleas for help of those facing repeated pregnancies without many resources or much practical support, including doctors who advise that a poor wife's only escape from dangerous exploitation as a baby-maker may be to "sleep on the roof."

Bill Simmons' direction is fully in the spirit of Horan's concept. The story, heart-tugging though it certainly is, is given a sprightly style. The movement is energetic and beautifully coordinated, flowing along the room's four aisles with a luminous playing space at the center. Cast members bring and take away props, and the short scenes are consistently focused dramatically, with the enhancement of Laura Glover's lighting design.

Dr. Rock subjects Margaret to withering scrutiny.
The dialogue distantly evokes everything from the moral earnestness and pathos of Arthur Miller to the witty paradoxes and existential jokery of Oscar Wilde and Tom Stoppard. The all-woman cast has the virtue of underlining the irreducibly female significance of the liberation that the Pill offered.

The controversies outlined are not exclusively on a progress-vs.-prejudice scale: Science is often threatened by scientism — a faith that uses science as an excuse for blinkered practices and beliefs like the eugenics that shadowed Sanger's endorsement of the Pill's testing on ill-informed and vulnerable Puerto Rican women.

Sanger's diverse team of supporters is given spiky individuality in the performances of Jen Johansen as the dashing, ideologically skeptical Dr. John Rock, Arianne Villareal as the gabby, insightful, high-strung researcher Dr. Pincus, and Jan Lucas as Katherine McCormick, a salty cosmopolite, veteran Sanger ally and heiress to the International Harvester fortune.

We have generally moved from believing in the pharmutopia promised in the 1950s, and Horan's play subtly acknowledges the difference. But we still seem to lack certainty about what kind of restraints are proper to put upon individual potential and freedom, and how much to allow traditional biases the right to control the lives of others.

"The Pill" addresses such issues seriously and delightfully — which may seem an odd approach, but it works in a production this buoyant and well-honed. It's good medicine for several of society's perpetual ills, and the prescription is renewable.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]