Sunday, May 29, 2016

Violin-piano duo offers a scintillating hour of new music, including a Frank Felice premiere

Frank Felice composed a sonata out of his faith to an Ascending commission.
Musical groups that make their way into the classical-music world gain more than points for boldness if they specialize in new music.  They also form connections with living composers and the people who follow them while honing their performing partnership in ways not available to adherents of traditional repertoire.

Ascending is a local violin-piano duo providing a case in point. Formed in 2014, it has collaborated in multimedia events and played in unconventional venues in addition to commissioning new music.

An hourlong recital Saturday afternoon at IUPUI introduced me to Ascending in a program of works by five composers, all of them very much alive and creating, with the exception of Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). The rapturously played eighth movement of the French composer's Quartet for the End of Time was well-placed near the concert's end, just after the longest piece,  "A Liturgy of the Hours" (Violin Sonata No. 1), by Frank Felice of Butler University.

Lasting about 25 minutes, the new work interprets the eight liturgical hours set for periodic daily devotion, three hours apart around the clock. As played Saturday by the commissioning musicians  — Caitlin Foster, piano, and Tricia Frasure, violin — the sonata struck me as quite well focused and evocative in movement after movement. As if homing in on the meaning of each part of the liturgy, Felice has come up with a balanced work that highlights the emotion characteristic of the succession of prayers.

In Matins, for instance, with its plea that the worshipers' lips be opened so that praise can emerge, the violin seems to open up like a bud from an initially closed posture, the piano coaxing it through ringing chords in the treble. Succeeded by Lauds, the piece becomes exuberant, and inside-the-piano notes seem to represent the thrilling realization that "it is good to praise the Lord." Prime focuses on the worshiper's consideration of God's immense creation, so that slow, contemplative music takes over; wonder is uppermost, as the movement subsides into a long diminuendo. wonderfully played at the premiere.

Terse and None, both  prefaced textually by a threefold "Alleluia," adopt contrasting representations of praise. The psalm text to the former emphasizes praise as a Christian's proper response to evil and the wish for divine protection from it. The pianist picks up mallets for tapping darkly on the strings, suggesting the menace that the violinist holds off with a sustained flutter of praise somewhat resembling country fiddling. None, on the other hand, is a piano solo. A differently tuned (scordatura) second violin is brought into play for Vespers, and that movement's theme of rest is extended into the finale, Compline, with the pianist making delicate use of mallets and the violinist exploiting fluty timbres in imitation of the ascent into sleep at day's end.

Felice's raptly centered, cogent composition was preceded by another premiere, Ascending's commission of Alondra Vega-Zaldivar's "Play-date with Robert," a delightfully titled triptych that spins off from elements in Robert Schumann's "Davidsbündlertänze." Modestly described by the composer as "three silly pieces," they are four minutes of succinct fun, each piece suggestive of its title: "Hopscotch," "Tag and Fugue," and "Hide and Seek."

Another caprice closed the program. I look askance at lower-case composition titles, but I quickly got past that habitual objection as Tom Dempster's "seven selected snapshots of a lingering spectre"  ran its 11-minute course. Restless, aggressive, playful, eerie, and pestering by turns, the work is a multifaceted, whimsical evocation of its "lingering spectre." The ghost is fully present at one moment, then maybe not at all in the next. That has got to be the real nature of spectres, whatever one believes about their actuality. In the realm of such fey art, it's worthwhile to suspend disbelief.

The recital's vestibule was occupied by Gabrielle Cerberville's "Messier 83," a largely meditative, five-minute piece with a poised dialogue initiated by the violin. It provided an apt introduction to this expert duo and its metier — the product of genuine rapport achieved according to the partnership's   bold prospectus of investing in new music. 

Saturday, May 28, 2016

First Folio Indy presents a hyper-'Hamlet' for our edgy times

Revenge in mind, Hamlet bends over the anguished Claudius.
The belatedly conscience-stricken King Claudius kneels in an attempt to pray for forgiveness. His nephew Hamlet, on the way to meet his mother the Queen in her bedchamber, steps behind the usurping monarch and raises his dagger high in both hands, like an executioner. Blackout. End Act 1.

It's probably the most striking coup de theatre in First Folio Productions' "Hamlet," which opened Friday night in the auditorium of Ben Davis High School, under the aegis of Wayne Township Community Theatre.

Much of this production's script-tweaking involves shortening the tragedy, the longest of Shakespeare's plays. But this is something different.

Though it's likely that just about everyone who attends the show in its two-weekend run is familiar with "Hamlet," director Glenn Dobbs has designed the break like a cliffhanger, as if to hold the audience in suspense during intermission. What will happen next?

Given that we know Hamlet is not about to fulfill the charge to avenge his father's murder, the production's structure amounts to a witty perspective on the play's theme: What is Hamlet's freedom of action in a situation that hems him in, that "puzzles the will" (to quote a phrase from his most famous soliloquy)? Despite the energy and intelligence of Shakespeare's most enthralling character, he fights in vain to assert a degree of personal freedom over the destiny imposed upon him. (Two years ago this month, I focused on issues of determinism and free will in "Hamlet" and "The Tempest" here, one of six essays on the topic — probably a violation of blogging etiquette.)

Carey Shea's performance in the title role had all the pathos of that situation one could want.  In every moment he's onstage, he seems to proclaim: "I am the hero of a revenge tragedy!" The genre "revenge tragedy," briefly fashionable in the Elizabethan era, runs in a narrow course of death-dealing retributive action. Shea's Hamlet is on edge from the start, as if he can't wait to find an overwhelming purpose in life, a way to overcome his deep unease, under which his father's ghost lays a foundation.

In taking up a story compounded of legend and a lost predecessor version, Shakespeare sought to broaden the hero's perspective, so that he "could count [himself] the king of infinite space," even though he's fated never to assume his rightful place as the king of a small peninsular nation.

There are glimpses of this broader perspective in this show, but there has also been a large sacrifice: much of the trimming removes the dangerous political situation Denmark finds itself in during the time Prince Hamlet is caught up in his personal struggle.

Utterly deranged, Ophelia (Devan Matthias) regards the plants she's brought to court.
Dobbs' trimming of "Hamlet" is consistent and smoothly accomplished, but the result has been to bend the play toward domestic family tragedy — like Tennessee Williams, but with swordplay and iambic pentameter.

The threat from Norway is missing, so the character of the Norwegian prince Fortinbras is gone. No loss there, except as chessman, perhaps. Hamlet's final soliloquy, meditating the difference between his small world and the fate of thousands of soldiers, is lopped. True, in Claudius' scheme to have Hamlet executed after he reaches England, we see how Realpolitik intersects with the play's action, but the view is fitful.

"Hamlet" is so capacious a play that only this aspect is lost, along with part of the hero's sense that it's difficult to trust appearances, confirmed by the behavior of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern — who are gone. Very well, then. We have a lot left, and this production delivers. The imposing, angular unit set suggests the irrelevance of anything much outside the conflicts at court, while the steampunk costuming lends a loose, time-traveling sparkle to the dismal action.

As a character, Hamlet is charismatic, but hard to like. Shea plays this aspect to the hilt. Hamlet's feigned madness — part stratagem, part self-therapy — is limitless in its energy and disregard for others. His love for his mother and disdain for her behavior has an Oedipal twist in this production. There are some stunning indications that his love for Ophelia is genuine, making his cruelty toward her all the more gut-wrenching. At the end of the play scene, where Claudius' guilt rises into view, this production has Hamlet repeat his earlier advice to her: "Get thee to a nunnery." It's as if to say, "Now that you've seen what a moral cesspool you're drowning in, get out while you can." But it's more a dismissal than friendly advice.

Devan Matthias was mesmerizing as the most wronged girlfriend in world theater. When Ophelia slips into madness in this show, it dwarfs the insanity Hamlet is suspected to suffer from. This Ophelia is clearly victimized already by her brother Laertes' and father Polonius' supercilious moralizing, but she doesn't drift into derangement as wispily as some Ophelias.

The ferocity of Matthias' performance in Ophelia's last two appearances complicates our responses to Hamlet's situation. The relationship of the two lovers underlines what seems to me a signal that Shakespeare sends us early on, that nothing good can come of this. The scene that opens with Ophelia attempting to return Hamlet's love notes and ends with her alone, distractedly picking them off the floor, was triumphantly moving.

Hamlet and Laertes grapple in the climactic duel.
Other performances made strong impressions Friday night. Ericka Barker's Gertrude was a tense study in practiced repression of guilt. Though he's too much addicted to finger-wagging, Tom Weingartner's Polonius gave a nice, fussy portrait of superfluous self-importance. As his son Laertes, John Mortell hardly seemed under paternal control.

That willfulness became entirely fitting as Laertes returns late in the show, poised to take his grievances to the point of insurrection. Instead, he is smoothly cajoled by Claudius (Matt Anderson, in one of his best-modulated scenes) to take part in a fixed duel with the Prince. The swordfight, choreographed by Scott Russell, was the equal in unstinted fierceness and rapid coordination of any I've seen in many years.

Among the few things I'm still trying to understand is why the visiting players' presentation of "The Murder of Gonzago" is staged with the comic ineptitude of the "rude mechanicals" show in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Maybe the idea is to present a mismatch between Hamlet's shrewdness and the awful situation that finally defeats him.

No one in "Hamlet" is in a position to rescue a situation that's beyond hope.  In imploring his mother not to share Claudius' bed any longer, Hamlet says, "Lay not compost on the weeds to make them ranker."

But this in fact is the kind of garden everyone in "Hamlet" is tending. If there are times the words aren't savored adequately, the meaning behind them is relentlessly forced upon us in this fervent production. The compost is rich, and we're down in the weeds with these doomed people.

[Photos by Joe Konz]

Friday, May 27, 2016

A song filched from "Pinocchio": Kenneth Starr runs afoul of the male sexual predation that first brought him into public view

The wish-fulfillment fantasy of Jiminy Cricket is here adapted to apply to the phenomenon of the unsinkable Kenneth Starr in the aftermath of his demotion from the presidency of Baylor University. And you may remember what anatomical peculiarity Pinocchio was subject to when he couldn't adhere to the truth.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

An unnerving development celebrated (?) in song: Absolute identity between America's best-selling beer and America itself

Though owned by a Belgian company since 2008, the all-American beer brand nurtured in St. Louis and known the world over as Budweiser has recently been redubbed "America." Here's "America the Beautiful" repurposed as a drinking song. To evoke another "America" classic: From the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with beer foam, God bless America!

Monday, May 23, 2016

'Gettin' Into Mischief Now': A singing Republican explains how he intends to reconcile past opposition to Trump with his present attitude

Here it comes — not your 19th nervous breakdown, but the Republicans': They are falling into line behind the apparent nominee, Donald Trump, no matter how repugnant they may have found him a few short months ago. Here's one of them explaining his political shape-shifting in song, a number based on Fats Waller's "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now."

Sunday, May 22, 2016

In a lively Romantic survey, Matthew Kraemer completes his first season as Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra music director

Matthew Kraemer is an Indiana native and Butler alumnus.
The silly clip art heading Matthew Kraemer's column in the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra program booklet was perhaps chosen as a sign — always useful in our pop-culture milieu — that "we're not taking ourselves too seriously, folks."

OK, I get that, but really: A wild-maned clownish figure, his coattails improbably flapping behind him, goggle-eyed, arms raised (baton in the LEFT hand), standing on what looks like the sort of cylindrical box the big cats in the circus used to be trained to wait upon, twitching, between tricks.

But there are no tricks beyond good preparation and musical insight as the ICO extends its 31-year  viability as the city's other professional orchestra, newly under Kraemer's leadership. With an acoustically friendly home in Butler University's Schrott Center for the Arts, the chamber orchestra showed itself poised for further growth as the new maestro concluded his first season as music director Saturday night.

The ICO welcomed a Juilliard School student, 19-year-old Angie Zhang, as guest soloist. She's thus about the age Frederic Chopin was when he composed his E minor piano concerto, which Zhang performed with ingratiating panache to open the program. Overstating nothing, but never too reticent to bring some depth to the music's sparkle, Zhang was effectively partnered by the orchestra.
Angie Zhang studies at Juilliard.

The accompaniment is well-known for its relative superficiality: In the first-movement tutti introduction, however, Kraemer elicited all the short-breathed counterpoint the fledgling composer wrote — a reminder of Chopin's admiration for J.S. Bach.

It's undeniable, however, that once the piano gets involved, the orchestra gathers around just to support the solo instrument, like Orpheus charming all the woodland creatures into rapt pleasure. Carrying out that function, the ICO matched dynamics and tempo shifts perfectly to the soloist, with a particularly deft diminuendo at the end of the second movement.

Kraemer chose a late romantic miniature for just after intermission. The delicate sonorities of the gently contrasted pair of movements in Edward Elgar's "Dream Children" were right at home in the responsive hall. The piece, a rare local example (since Raymond Leppard left the music directorship of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra)  of Elgar in his lesser-known works, was kind of a palate cleanser between main courses.

What followed was a meaty performance of Robert Schumann's Symphony No. 4 in D minor. Heard in the earlier of the composer's two versions — a score with more sharply etched timbres and, in the last movement particularly, a kind of angularity that points up its rhythmic energy — the work made for a fine season finale.

There were a few evident disadvantages in the relative smallness of the string sections: A characteristic rhythmic figure in  the first movement lost definition almost every time it was passed to the strings. The second-movement "Romanza" featured a characterless violin solo and a thankfully warmer oboe-cello duet.

The best-balanced movement was the Scherzo, where the predominance of wind-band evocations suited the music perfectly. The suspenseful transition to the finale was mesmerizing and precisely governed. Though some lack of strength in the strings — a matter of numbers, not of participant vigor — continued to tilt the balance toward the winds, the stepped-up tempo at the start of the coda showed those sections, particularly the cellos, to be capable of flexing coordinated muscles.

A sturdily performed, abundantly satisfying concert over all — even if I still have a hard time getting that conductor caricature out of my head.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

With Duruflé and Beethoven, ISO probes the sublimity of divine and natural worlds

ISO guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero
Quite influential in its day, Friedrich Schiller's 1795 essay "On Naive and Sentimental Poetry" has been eclipsed by scads of subsequent fashions in literary criticism. But its imaginative, if reductive, division of poetry into the kind that springs from an unsophisticated vision of reality ("naive") and the kind that is generated by nostalgia or self-consciousness ("sentimental") is still powerful.

And it applies to the program the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra is presenting this weekend. The program's repetition this evening at Hilbert Circle Theatre is worth special attention. The yoking of Maurice Duruflés Requiem (the first in ISO history) and Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 in F major ("Pastoral") is unusual. Both works are under the expert,  impassioned control of Giancarlo Guerrero, music director of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.

And each, in its own way, reflects a consistent yearning for an unself-conscious relationship to reality — whether in the divine (Duruflé) or natural (Beethoven) realms. Schiller's essay takes seriously the drive to revisit a golden age, a paradise: "So long as we were mere children of nature, we were both happy and perfect; we have become free, and have lost both."
Friedrich Schiller contrasted art's eternal tensions.

Catholic theology, particularly as reflected in the Mass for the Dead, does not overprivilege nature, of course. But in his reverence for Gregorian chant and the pervasive flow of emotional outpourings spread over nine liturgical Latin texts, the French composer plants his flag on the side of "naive" poetry. The composition's occasional outbursts of choral and orchestral sound — its ringing "Hosanna in excelsis" and unsettling "Dies irae" — never shift to the quasi-operatic scenarios of Berlioz or Verdi. They are affirmations of chaste devotion to what the Church proclaims as truth that are meant to be part of an integrated statement on the same level as the pleas on behalf of the deceased.

In true German synthesizing fashion, by the way, Schiller didn't advocate a return to naive poetry. He
only recognized that the yearning for it would be inescapable. What he was after was progress toward an ideal unity of humankind's divided consciousness: a third stage, a higher and conclusive resolution of the perpetual conflict between naive and sentimental values.

And that's the direction in which both Durufle's Requiem and Beethoven's "Pastoral" head without reservation:  Beethoven's nature is a settled countryside; his embrace of nature is hearty in the first and second movements, but turns to human society in the third, which he titled "Merry assembly of the country folk." The foot-stomping Trio never stinted on exuberance Friday evening.

Nature interrupts the frivolity with a violent thunderstorm, which in this performance was everything one could hope for — a menacing cataclysm capable of frightening the horses and small children, partly unmanning men, and causing women to clutch their aprons and skirts as they run for cover. As the storm recedes, the folk resassemble to offer a hymn of thanksgiving to the loving God who has spared them: The natural disturbance has subsided in order to allow natural gratitude to take its expansive course. The way Guerrero conducted the finale made every variation of the theme an aspect of that gratitude, with a particular emphasis on brass punctuation to achieve a chorale effect. Similarly, every swirl and eddy of the second movement's flowing brook was observed, as if glinting in sunlight.

In the Requiem, Eric Stark's mastery of the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir he directs burned with a steady flame. Each section sang its often lengthy phrases with a burnished glow, right through the final one of the "Libera me" — "and Thou shalt come to judge the world by fire" — and on to "In Paradisum"'s conclusive prayer for the dead to have eternal rest. Dynamics were sculpted with care.

The choir held up splendidly in thin-textured passages, which Guerrero coordinated well with the orchestra — the kind of writing that confirms my sense that Duruflé consistently intends "naive" faith to be sustained in a "sentimental" setting. A bunch of such episodes come up in the Offertory, "Domine Jesu Christe," first with oboe and sopranos, then organ and altos, succeeded by English horn and string tremolos accompanying the men on the reminder "whom we this day commemorate," finally resuming with organ and the women as they evoke the promise made to Abraham. There was also, memorably, the "Pie Jesu," which showcased the women's pristine pitch and breath control, with Austin Huntington playing the cello solo with fervent restraint.

For Duruflé, Gregorian chant amounted to a precious naivete in Christian faith that he sought to keep fresh while acknowledging the influence of post-Impressionist choral and orchestral variety. For Beethoven, who declared "I love a tree more than a man," nature represented irreducible solace for someone cut off from society by deafness. So he sought to recover the simple pleasures of unself-consciousness celebrated by Schiller (whose "An die Freude" provided text that the composer adapted for his Ninth Symphony). But he pursued that project as one of the most painfully self-conscious artists ever.

Despite the pull both composers felt to be exerted by a simpler past, they would doubtless have approved of Schiller's idealistic caveat: "The goal toward which man strives by means of culture, however, is infinitely higher than that which he reaches by means of nature." The works on this weekend's ISO program endorse that difficult outlook magnificently.

Friday, May 20, 2016

"Nevada" repurposes "Granada" to comment upon the debacle at the Nevada state Democratic convention

Though straying occasionally from true pitch and getting out of sync with the accompaniment offends my critical side, such flaws in the performance of this song parody represent my desperate feeling, as one who voted for Bernie Sanders in the Indiana primary, that his campaign has gone off the rails. I predict that last weekend's Nevada convention will come to be seen as the point that the Sanders fantasy effectively collapsed. Everything the senator generates or inspires from now on amounts to presidential Brooklyn-Vermont kabuki theater.

Monday, May 16, 2016

New on CD: Small-group jazz with first-class percussionist sidemen

Warren Wolf: master of mallets.
A couple of jazz releases that have brightened the 2016 scene so far  stand out because, in addition to the excellence of the leaders, the choice of sidemen is heartening — particularly in the percussion section.

"Pomponio" by Jemal Ramirez, a San Francisco drummer, features the vibraphone and marimba of Warren Wolf. (True, those are melodic instruments that in jazz often have a front-of-the-band position, but are still in the percussion family.) Wolf is a young master of his  instruments, and properly gets a prominent role in all 11 tracks.

Jemal Ramirez heads a peppy, unified septet on "Pomponio."
Ramirez leads a first-class septet in a program of one classic pop standard, "But Beautiful," two originals (by Wolf and trumpeter Joel Behrman) and eight pieces by a range of jazz stars, from Donald Brown to Bobby Watson. I like the unfailing inventiveness of Wolf's playing, whether in accompaniment or in solos. He makes the most of little ideas — sequences and melodic motifs — to construct a presence in the busy ensemble texture that is always arresting, while maintaining a collegial spirit.

The drummer, sometimes supplemented on Latin percussion by John Santos, is a busy player. And Ramirez's sound is high in the mix. But his busyness always comes across as productive — a driver of the high energy characteristic of the band. Other prominent voices include the tart saxophones of Howard Wiley and the trenchant piano, lyrical or  hard-charging as needed, of Matthew Clark.

The other CD hails from Canada. It's called "Fundamental" by Toronto guitarist Trevor Giancola, and is among the best jazz trio recordings without piano to come my way in several years.  Giancola has a traditional, pure, pinging guitar sound, phrased elegantly. It's applied to a couple of pieces by Elmo Hope, among other inspired borrowings. The disc ends strongly with a succession of three standards: "Just One of Those Things," Bill Evans' "Turn Out the Stars," and "You Go to My Head."
Trevor Giancola leads a first-rate trio.

The trio is notable for the smooth transitions it makes between solo and ensemble work. The veteran bassist Neil Swainson lends gravitas and tuneful heft to the band. In addition to becoming acquainted with Giancola's work (three of the pieces, including the title track, are by him), I found it exciting to make the recorded acquaintance of the 26-year-old drummer, Adam Arruda, for the first time. The three have years of experience in Canada under their belt, and that rapport is evident.

But a guitar-bass-drums trio wouldn't be very interesting without being musically as sturdy as a strong three-legged stool. And Arruda is compulsively listenable throughout: lots of ideas, including the kind that are best when tucked in while one of his bandmates occupies the spotlight. The good thoughts, well executed, never quit.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Tabloid family values struggle to overcome fear in TOTS' "Bat Boy The Musical"

"How's that hopey-changey thing working out for you?" the execrable Sarah Palin once taunted President Obama in the 2012 campaign.

In Hope Falls, W. Va., the fictional hamlet that's the setting of "Bat Boy: The Musical," none too well is the answer. Change is not anything the townsfolk ever seem to want, and when it is visited upon them in the form of the hybrid creature of the title, the very name of the town signals a general plunge into panic. Change without hope equals despair. And that's easy to stew in when the level of civic intelligence is low.

Dr. Parker turns his back on his anxious adopted son, Edgar.
The Theatre on the Square production hits hard on hillbilly stereotypes, a tiresome entertainment target that is refreshed with weirdness in the off-Broadway hit created by Laurence O'Keefe (songs) and Keithe Farley and Brian Flemming (book). That some viable combination of winged mammal and human being is possible was a belief fed by a notorious tabloid feature many years ago. So maybe the real target is our credulity, a flaw that not even hyper-educated urban liberals easily avoid.

TOTS' show, a well-integrated product of the Zack Neiditch-Zach Rosing partnership, will conclude next weekend. Not surprisingly, it was well-honed when I caught up with it Friday night.

At times, the amplification of the singing voices was overwhelming, obscuring passages in the often witty text. Otherwise, there seemed to be nothing amiss about "Bat Boy"; this is hearty entertainment that dances on the brink of grossness and always lands on its feet. In this production, songs smoothly burst out of the dialogue, with a behind-the-scenes band accompanying briskly.

The Taylors gather around the bedside of the bat-bitten Ruthie.
The pathos of being grotesquely different — sentimentalized in "Wicked," proved upon our pulses in "The Elephant Man" — is the message behind the mirth. Always ready to provide justification for intolerance, old-time religion moves into place as the chief threat to the survival of a bat-boy discovered in a cave by dumb-as-rocks members of the Taylor family. (I have to question why the likely Protestants of Hope Falls cross themselves later, but the gesture at least confirms their pious smugness.)

The creature, named Edgar by the family it's delivered to, is nurtured by the village veterinarian and his highly focused wife, played to perfection by Dave Ruark and Mindy Morton. The fault lines in the Parker marriage, explained in a late scene, soon open up a wide path to chaos. The ridiculous Taylors are victims, but others engage our sympathies by the end of the melodrama.

The superficially attractive result of Parker home-schooling, aided by BBC language tapes that make Edgar even more unusual, is undercut by Bat Boy's fondness for warm blood. Food issues are the bane of many of us, so of course we root for Edgar's weaning.

The show's main astonishment emanated from this near-complete transformation, as portrayed with consistent appeal by Justin Klein, progressing from an inarticulate, grunting, flapping, crouched and curled animal to an elaborately polite, multitalented young man who just happens to have fangs and large pointy ears. Costuming and makeup design triumph with Bat Boy, but throughout the production the show's demands for cross-dressing amid multiple roles were well met. The set is a feast for the eyes in its oddly unified, weather-beaten detail, like a Louise Nevelson sculpture designed by a rural scrapyard proprietor.

Reverend Hightower warms up on the way toward healing Edgar.
Daniel Klingler's outsized representation of a caped and white-hatted evangelist made for a mesmerizing start to the second act. Bat Boy's attendance, which the doctor had promised to prevent, tests the revivalist's healing powers and the town's skimpy tolerance, forcing Edgar to plead for acceptance in the show's most moving song, "Let Me Walk Among You."

For staging if not for total vocal security, the woodland ensemble "Children, Children" was another highlight, as Edgar and the Parker daughter Shelley (played with wide-eyed gusto by Devan Mathias) confirm their dangerous mutual love with the approval of a lusty faun and cute hand puppets in well-beyond-Disney canoodling. It's the only milieu of acceptance open to Bat Boy, and it's short-lived. The inevitability of that is what's most believable about this amusing, blood-curdling show.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Phoenix Theatre's Basile Stage lends its cozy confines to "The Book of Merman"

Songwriters as different as Cole Porter and Irving Berlin loved Ethel Merman. It's significant that among the giants of the Great American Songbook, these two contrasting creative figures wrote both words and music. Merman was powerfully faithful to each, leaving nuance to others.

Jolene Mentink Moffatt conveys the amplitude of Ethel Merman.
She nailed tunes and text alike to the back wall (perhaps even to the theater across the street, as Jo Stafford once observed) in a host of starring roles from "Girl Crazy" to "Gypsy" in the middle decades of the past century. "The Book of Merman" revives the Broadway diva in a set-up borrowed from the recent hit musical, "The Book of Mormon."

Is she a fantasized Ethel, an Ethel viewed through a Mormonized version of Alice's looking-glass world, or perhaps just an impenetrable Merman "tribute artist"?

Does it matter, particularly as the realistic set of tidy row houses Glen Bucy has designed for Phoenix Theatre's new Basile Stage production makes Leo Schwartz's sweet story seem true? Star worship is deathless, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints takes a famously dim view of death.

Culture shock encountered by a couple of well-scrubbed Mormon missionaries is the premise here as in the hit musical, whose "South Park" edginess goes a few steps beyond "The Book of Merman." Elder Braithwaite (Lincoln Slentz) and Elder Shumway (Tyler Ostrander) make their entrances from the back hall, displaying their persistence in the face of slammed doors and other difficulties before they ring a doorbell with "E.M. Welcome" inscribed on the plate. Braithwaite naively interprets that to mean "Every Mormon Welcome."

Mesmerized by Merman: The boys eventually sing from the same page.
On opening night Thursday, Slentz and Ostrander made their characters so lovable, despite their adherence to a religion many of us find bizarre, that it was no stretch to imagine them charming the retired (but never shy) Ethel Merman, who persists too long in taking the missionaries for magazine salesmen. She's focused on getting to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles so she can drive legally again, a mundane task that a missed bus delays, allowing her to become acquainted with the peripatetic lads in their white shirts and narrow black ties.

Jolene Mentink Moffatt had the pizazz needed to convey the diva's warmheartedness and enduring self-regard. Her singing voice couldn't be said to approach Merman's, but whose can? What is wanted here is not mimicry, but credible, full-bodied impersonation, complete with aura, of a Broadway icon. And that's what Moffatt and the production, directed by Emily Ristine, give us.

Elder Shumway drives the missionaries' involvement with Merman, as he is an established fan who carries her autobiography around with him in his backpack. Elder Braithwaite hasn't heard of her, and comes through in Slentz's performance as single-minded about the mission and annoyed by his companion's distracting infatuation.

His petulance as it bursts out unsurprisingly masks romantic jealousy, something Slentz can't be blamed for signaling too early, as Schwartz wants to make that clear. In the same way, the message Merman conveys in Scene 2 of this compact piece is that self-assurance — a committed embrace of who you really are — is the key to happiness. Schwartz has more signals than a third-base coach.

From a keyboard aloft at one side of the stage, music director Jay Schwandt played zestful accompaniments to the singing. The songs are beguiling; the matter of rights to perform a few Merman hits is skirted by Schwartz's concoction of shirttail cousins to "You're the Top," "Anything You Can Do," and "Everything's Coming Up Roses." All are quite clever, as is a derivative rap, ingeniously staged with choreography by Mariel Greenlee, thought up by Shumway as a vehicle for a Merman comeback — something to redeem the embarrassment of her 1979 disco album.

The double-entendre of the missionaries' first song in Scene 2, "If It's Not Hard, I Don't Like It," was likewise underscored by vivid staging. The men's songs were handled well Thursday, though Scene 1's "My Heart's Someplace Else" didn't seem quite ready.

I'm pleased that Moffatt's last solo turn played up the star's egocentricity. "Everything's Coming Up Merman" can also be processed as a command to be the star of your own life. But it helped cut the sugar content of the piece by evoking the real Ethel Merman, who saw herself as deserving undisputed stardom. Her mania for the limelight is captured by the story behind this photo I've borrowed from the book accompanying "You're The Top: Cole Porter in the 1930s" (Indiana Historical Society).

Eighty years ago, she tussled with Jimmy Durante (through their representatives) over top billing for a show called "Red, Hot and Blue!" Porter himself is credited with the mutually acceptable compromise, presenting the stars' names in an "X" above the title, so both appear "on top." Merman would always insist on "Ridin' High!" (her hit song in the show).

"The Book of Merman" preaches that gospel with inviting charm. The ethical, if not the Ethel, trick is to ride high without insisting that everybody else cling to the undercarriage while the one on top enjoys the ride. The new Phoenix show endearingly makes the point.

[Production photos by Zach Rosing]

Wisdom Tooth's "Merry Wives of Windsor": Adding style to the questionable substance of a weak Shakespeare comedy

Adam Crowe as Falstaff: Spruced up and ready to seduce.
In the "Henry IV" history plays (parts one and two), William Shakespeare created a larger-than-life challenge to the progress of a kingly soul in the form of Sir John Falstaff, charismatic companion of the wayward Prince Hal.

In "The Merry Wives of Windsor," where the focus is much narrower than the fate of a nation under monarchy in peril, the corpulent Falstaff is much reduced (pun unavoidable), with only a few flights of rascally eloquence to spout, just a little cleverness, and next to no control over his circumstances.

Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project's production of the comedy, which opens Friday at IndyFringe Theatre, properly emphasizes the dissolute knight as a victim of comical tricks engineered by the title characters. Though in Adam Crowe's full-bore portrayal he speaks in the vigorous, robust tones of his aristocratic heritage, Falstaff has almost nothing to show for the raffishly influential stature he claims in the "Henry IV" plays. (I saw the performance in a media preview Wednesday evening.)

While more than one commentator has deplored the playwright's diminishment in "Merry Wives" of one of his most vivid characters, a wise perspective comes from Anne Barton (in her preface to the play in "The Riverside Shakespeare"). Basically, she makes the case that plot and genre traditionally were more important to playwrights and their audiences than character, which Shakespeare in his greatest plays elevates to a level we have become accustomed to ever since. Here, however, he is true to the conventions he inherited, and Falstaff is merely instrumental.

In both the updating to the early 1950s and the frothy spirit of this production, Wisdom Tooth recognizes that a contemporary audience might well take in "Merry Wives" as a classic TV sit-com, with the elementary motivations and manic complications of (as Wisdom Tooth publicity has it) the "I Love Lucy" show. Sara White's set, bright and slightly cartoonish under Christian McKinney's lighting, could have been imported from television's cozy golden age. I almost expected to hear the dreaded laugh track.

In such a setting, Falstaff plays his role as an inept suitor on a level just as ridiculous as the French doctor Caius or the Welsh pastor/schoolmaster Hugh Evans — individualized only insofar as plot and genre require.

The kind of fun that Shakespeare has with Evans' and Caius' unidiomatic English signals immediately their unsuitability for the hand of the nubile Anne Page, despite the preference of her parents for one or some other. Similarly, Falstaff, "well nigh worn to pieces with age" as Mistress Page describes him, is out of his league as a plausible lover for her or her fellow middle-class wife, Mistress Ford, to whom he has sent identically worded propositions. Never deaf to puns, Shakespeare hints how impotent the knight's pretensions are in his very name.

Moreover, both ladies are almost priggish in their fidelity to their husbands. Bill Simmons' direction is to be commended for highlighting the friskiness of the wives over their moral uprightness. The text underlines their inviolability to adulterous overtures, but the show is a lot more fun if their merry pranks are emphasized, as they are here in the spirited performances of Claire Wilcher as Mistress Page and Amy Hayes as Mistress Ford.

The ladies' plotting is energetic and their rapport was absolutely delectable in Wednesday's show. I felt somewhat in the company of Lucy and Ethel, however vast the difference in language. Even though Falstaff's comeuppance seems crueler than necessary, we are invited to share the wives' delight in it. (In a heightened yet similar manner, Verdi's great opera "Falstaff" also redeems the knight's double humiliation.)

Mistress Ford and Mistress Page compare Falstaff's suggestive missives.
Their husbands were starkly counterpointed — Josh Ramsey's insouciant Page set against the insanely jealous Ford of Rob Johansen. And as the adopter of a ridiculous disguise as Master Brook, Johansen's  hyperbolic style was well suited to Shakespeare's fondness for barely plausible disguises.

Carrie Schlatter is the resourceful general factotum Mistress Quickly, incorporating the Host of the Garter Inn in her role. She was a seductive as well as an inveterately wily Quickly, stuffing bills into her bodice as eagerly as the show's motley schemers could convey them. Her come-hither manner served to highlight the risible cluelessness of Falstaff in his unavailing lust.

She's so much her own person that it's hard to believe Quickly serves anybody, though she's supposed to be the servant of Dr. Caius, who was played with peppery energy by a croquet-mallet-wielding Gari Williams. Caius' antagonist Evans (at least until they reach a truce that allows them, like just about everyone, to target Falstaff) was done to a turn as a sputtering, pedantic ninny by Michael Hosp.

The bashful suitor Slender was taken up expressively by Kelsey VanVoorst, urged on by the youngster's aging cousin Shallow (Zack Joyce). Ben Schuetz sported an apt degree of oafishness as the successful suitor Fenton; even heroes in this kind of comedy have to seem a little bit ridiculous, as did Chelsea Anderson as the ingenue Anne, happy to project subliminal allure through her hula-hoop habit. Servants and hangers-on did their essential bits in performances by Adam Tran (Pistol) and Frankie Bolda (Rugby), with several cast members sharing the role of the dimwit Simple.

At three well-considered moments, the cast assembles to provide a live supplement to the recorded Rosemary Clooney anthology played when the stage is empty. The ensemble delightfully sings and dances "Hernando's Hideaway," "Whatever Lola Wants," and "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe."

The course of true love never did run smooth, the Bard says elsewhere, but false love trips over obstacles as well, in this case including burial in a laundry basket and swift disposal into the Thames.

The promise of "Hernando's Hideaway," that "if we go to the spot that I am thinking of, you will be free to gaze at me, and talk of love" is often destined to be broken in life and art alike. But it's more fun in art, as this production boisterously demonstrates.

[Photos by Ronn Johnstone]

Thursday, May 12, 2016

"Most Communists Don't Like Marx, They Just Like to Kick Him Around": A song in observance of the apparently permanent decline of an ideology

With Communism, where it is still officially a government ideology, now subject to more and more features of capitalism, the contributions of Karl Marx seem to be increasingly marginalized. I reflect on this situation, as Cuba starts to be opened up to Yankee business and China becomes more entrenched in winner-take-all state capitalism, with an adaptation of Cole Porter's 1938 song, "Most Gentlemen Don't Like Love. Thanks to Susan Raccoli for her assistance at the piano.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Bronze medalist in 2014 IVCI returns to Indiana History Center in the Laureate Series

Ji Young Lim displayed an al fresco quality.
The romantic violin is in good hands with a crowd of top violinists active currently, the tradition having been notably sustained and energized by Hoosier native Joshua Bell.

Ji Young Lim showed Tuesday night in a Laureate Series recital with pianist Chih-Yi Chen that she is in the top tier of those claiming a part of that revival.  The four works she and Chen played for the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis in the Basile Theater of the Indiana History Center provided the opportunity to focus on the seductive appeal of the romantic approach applied to the core repertoire.

The main focus illustrated by Lim's approach is a flexible, intuitive manner with dynamics and tempo that enlivens the music. A case in point: A recording I own by a recently deceased violinist of considerable fame convinced me as I prepared for this recital that Franz Schubert's Rondo for Violin and Piano in B minor is a kind of potboiler — all about the "wow" factor with not much of musical substance to offer.

The performance that Lim and Chen delivered Tuesday changed my mind. As the opening work of the Laureate Series concert, the Rondo performance thrust the main theme forward in a sprightly, buoyant fashion. There was a lot of subtlety in how Lim managed her tone. There was superior coordination with the pianist in making dynamic variety the key to pushing to the fore question-and-answer passages. The duo lifted the work in my estimation, in that they made sure the music would not seem to be all about display.

The substantial middle of the recital — a piece on each side of intermission — consisted of sonatas by near-contemporaries Edvard Grieg and Johannes Brahms. The Grieg's expansive first movement (Sonata in C minor, op. 45) made the most of the way the work repeatedly gathers its forces after brief lulls. The renewed charges always had something fresh to say. Among the the well-judged movement endings characteristic of the recital was the hushed, placid conclusion of the "Allegretto espressivo alla Romanza."

In Brahms' Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Lim and Chen made common cause with warmth and flexibility in the first movement. The middle two were fully characterized; nothing was offhand, nor did it err in the other direction of inflexible competence.  As exciting as the finale was, as the movement progressed, the wildness became a little woolly. But this was the only time the performance almost verged out of control.

It was refreshing to have Jeno Hubay's version of a showpiece on Bizet's Carmen to end the recital. It largely chooses much different themes to emphasize in a different order from what Pablo Sarasate and Franz Waxman came up with. The dire consequences of the gypsy's unfaithfulness are soulfully put forth at the start, with the fate motive uppermost. After the habanera, music associated with Escamillo, the toreador, provides the climactic material. Figuration for the violin was tossed off by Lim, as the pianist stated the Toreador Song melody. Harmonics and trills are quite prominent in Hubay's setting, and Lim was fully up to the task of making these technical flourishes shine.

Called back for an encore, Lim and Chen presented an old-fashioned bit of virtuoso Americana, William Kroll's "Banjo and Fiddle," an evocation of homegrown popular music from long before its excessive commercialization. It was a treat to hear a brief, lighthearted showpiece after a recital so rewardingly loaded with substantial repertoire.

Monday, May 9, 2016

On the third anniversary of jayharveyupstage, I extend the same appeal to readers I made in 2013 — with a sentimental song adapted from "Mary Poppins"

I see myself thriving on this blog, responding to the arts scene around me, making it clear that I'm not in love with my opinions (I hope), but that my perspective after so much practice of cultural journalism in central Indiana might contribute fruitfully to the arts conversation. I like to think I can encourage people to develop their own thoughtful responses to the arts just by modeling that behavior. I'm dreaming that ever more significant numbers of people will join me.

-- from 'Leaving the Star," May 10, 2013.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Guest conductor saves an ISO concert marred by a substandard Mozart concerto performance

I think I have lived long enough to be no respecter of great age, particularly when venerability alone puts forth a claim on the public's attention that is otherwise undeserved.

Thus, I stood up with the rest of the audience at the conclusion of Menahem Pressler's performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major, K. 595, Saturday to get a better view of the stage and attempt to bask in the occasion of his solo appearance with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

The 92-year-old Distinguished Professor of Music at Indiana University had just given a fitfully entertaining but largely excruciating performance. I will not belittle the physical challenges of old age, which I myself am approaching faster than I would like. What's at issue here is the propriety of an artist's counting on an audience's recognition of past excellence so that his ancient brow can be
Menahem Pressler: Thanks for the memories, but not the latest one.
crowned with fresh sprigs of laurel.

Pressler is steeped in the Classical style: As the founder of the Beaux Arts Trio and keeper of its flame up to the end, he made recordings of Mozart and Haydn piano trios that will always be worth cherishing. On Saturday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre, there were aspects of his tone and phrasing (though some bordered on affectation) that recalled well-nurtured understanding, executive flair, and patrician delight in the music.

But soon after the opening orchestral tutti, the weight of many years made itself felt in the solo part. Pressler's playing was poky and sometimes off-balance. Guest conductor Roberto Abbado showed amazing flexibility keeping the orchestra in synchronization with the soloist. Pressler displayed a narrow but attractive range of color, but there is so much more in this masterpiece's spectrum. Abbado and the ISO gamely supplied it.

Speaking of spectra, the conventional range of tempo, on the slow end, puts Larghetto a step above Largo and just below Adagio. The second movement of this concerto is headed Larghetto, but Pressler's choice was almost inertly slow. This was absolute Largo — Largo assoluto. If you take a slow movement slower than anybody, does that make it more beautiful? I don't think so.

The pianist's  draggy manner in fast tempos returned in the finale. Any notion of playfulness in the Allegro scherzando seemed gingerly. There were flashes of temperament in the first cadenza, though the left hand was muddy. On the plus side, suggestions of sparkling conversation in the second were welcome. But sustained animation was a factor only when the orchestra dominated, as in the last few measures. After the reflexive acclaim that followed, Pressler was guided back onstage to offer some labored Chopin as an encore.

I wouldn't presume to disparage anyone's pleasures, especially those that don't hurt or annoy others or degrade the environment. Many concertgoers Saturday certainly felt that they had just witnessed greatness. At intermission, a respected member of Indianapolis' music community said to me: "That was like looking upon Michelangelo's David." Yes, I thought, if one imagines that glorious nude without the same center of virility that vandals keep lopping off a French statue of Hercules, forcing the city fathers to come up with a removable substitute.

Roberto Abbado: Guest game player and concert savior.
For me, the Pressler/Mozart experience made me wonder why "retirement" has become the "r-word" for so many distinguished performing artists. It may have been the worst concerto performance I've heard in nearly 30 years of attending ISO concerts, though Harvey Phillips' effortful, sputtering traversal of the Vaughan Williams tuba concerto years ago comes close. I'd be forced to wonder if Indiana University music faculty sign on to not knowing when to quit if not for the example of Janos Starker, who left the concert stage when he felt he could no longer live up to his own high standards.

The rest of the concert had plenty of vitality, the kind that didn't have to be summoned by nostalgia. The sober curtain-raiser was Brahms' Tragic Overture, op. 81, stitched together smoothly in a sturdy manner befitting the composer. Having staved off depression during intermission, I was grateful to take in a confident, cohesive performance of Schumann's Symphony No. 2 in C major, op. 61. After an unsteady initial trumpet call, just about everything went right.

During the ovation at the end, Abbado had the first violins take a bow for their dashing work in the Scherzo. It was well-deserved, as were solo bows by oboist Jennifer Christen, clarinetist David Bellman, and bassoonist Mark Ortwein. Also meriting kudos, by the way, is timpanist Jack Brennan, for his definitive work in the first and fourth movements.

That finale, which is Schumann at his sunniest and most ingratiating, went a long way toward lifting my mood. Even the achingly tender slow movement cheered me: I always get chills, from my eyeballs down to my socks, those two times the violins take a brief soaring phrase into the empyrean. As a physical effect, that was much preferable to the gut-wrenching uneasiness the concerto performance had inflicted on me.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Longest-running stage show ever ends the Indiana Repertory Theatre season

Critics of movies and theater are usually scrupulous about avoiding spoilers that tell how what they're reviewing turns out. Why give people any more ammunition against critics than they already have?

"The Mousetrap," an A-list murder mystery by Agatha Christie, is unusual on two counts: It's well-known as the longest-running stage drama ever; at the same time, there's a convention of warning every audience not to reveal "whodunit." That's what Charles Pasternak does at the curtain call of Indiana Repertory Theatre's season-ending production, his cast mates adding some admonitory finger-pointing.

Chances are the revelation has been made from time to time since the 1952 premiere. But it won't be here. And my assessment of the performances by Courtney Sale's excellent cast will have to skirt explanations that would explain too much.

Ryan Artzberger and Cassandra Bissell as the host Ralstons.
There's something fishy about all the red herrings the playwright tosses into our path. I'm still trying to figure out if I should make anything out of the fact that Giles Ralston, married just a year to Mollie and setting up shop with her as proprietor of a country guest house, misspells the name of the place on the sign he's painted. I've concluded that's merely a part of the slightly Fawlty Towers aspect of the fledgling hosts that makes the first part of the show a comedy of manners.

False leads and cunning deceptions are part of the genre Christie so durably represents. In "The Mousetrap," everyone who descends upon Monkswell Manor and becomes snowbound on a winter evening near an English village in the early 1950s has something to hide. The recent disruptions in  life caused by the Second World War have turned normal British reserve into a web of secretiveness spun by each person. Christie makes the most of this setting and keeps audience identification of the murderer far out of reach.

Detective Sergeant Trotter makes a firm point to Christopher Wren.
The production puts a virtuoso cap to the 2015-16 IRT season. Robert M. Korharchik's set looks as if it had been imported piece by piece from England. It's gorgeous in its dark-wood splendor, suggesting both the trappings of leisure and of the mystery that's about to unfold. Its majestic staircases are used with dizzying abandon, with frequent references to back stairs we never see. The music of David Dabbon, keyed to "Three Blind Mice" and distortions of the nursery tune, is tucked ominously into Todd Mack Reischman's sound design. Michelle Habeck's lighting design manages to make the environment feel both cozy and sepulchral.

I have just one quibble: At the start we hear the wall-dampened sound of howling wind and see through large windows at the rear of the set the essential falling snow. It falls straight down, not in any kind of gust-driven slant. This seems nitpicky, I know, but with this sort of show, you start to wonder: What might that mean? I've concluded that getting the snow to blow about would not have been worth the trouble. Maybe there should have been no wind sound, so that the discrepancy wouldn't arise in anyone's mind. (My sub-quibble is that hardly any actors nowadays — blessedly for their health's sake — can smoke cigarettes convincingly.)

"The Mousetrap" is Sale's swan song as IRT's associate artistic director. She has the marvelous cast continually on the move, with respites where needed. Her direction is positively symphonic. The tension embedded in the drama is consistently expressed with flair and purpose. As the plot thickens,
everyone is on edge, and the action impresses itself on our very nerve ends.

Even those characters accustomed to masking uneasiness show the effects, such as the debonair
Henry Woronicz as an Italian whose car slid off the road nearby
unregistered guest, Mr. Paravicini, played suavely by Henry Woronicz. Pasternak, as Detective Sergeant Trotter, orchestrates his relentless sleuthing with large gestures and a booming, accent-perfect voice. His command is absolute, and every probing maneuver strikes home among the recalcitrant suspects. They respond as if a sore tooth had been struck with a hammer.

As Giles and Mollie Ralston, Ryan Artzberger and Cassandra Bissell projected the naivete of young marrieds embarked on a business venture they are not thoroughly prepared for. But, as seen Friday evening, they too betray subtly their need to keep secrets. Robert Neal brings his capacity for conveying outsize bluster and self-assurance to the role of Major Metcalf, who in some ways remains the drama's most mysterious character.

Jürgen Hooper rewards the audience's heightened attention to detail with his flamboyance and flutter as the young architect Christopher Wren. Thrown more conspicuously than the others into suspicion as the guilty party by his sylphlike mannerisms, he achieves a firm rapport with Mollie Ralston that adds to the suspense.

Mrs. Boyle and Miss Casewell get acquainted, to a degree.
In an arresting voice of grating, precise tone, Jan Lucas portrayed the hypercritical Mrs. Boyle. As Christie doubtless intended, the performance made her fate by the end of the first act seem both plausible and deserved.

Brusque, manipulative and guarded to a fare-thee-well, the rolling-stone character of Miss Casewell was accurately well-cased in Jennifer Johansen's performance.

'The Mousetrap" is captivating and haunting. Just as you probably never thought of "Singin' in the Rain" the same way after seeing "A Clockwork Orange,"  you will be newly alert to a less innocent song called "Three Blind Mice" after "The Mousetrap." Did you ever see such a sight in your life, indeed!

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Thursday, May 5, 2016

"(That's Why) the Nominee Will Be Trump": an adaptation of a famous Rodgers & Hart song to explain how the GOP got into its present fix

Actors Theatre Indiana romps through a farce — unusually, without a founder in the cast

"Don't you love farce?" runs a memorable rhetorical question in Stephen Sondheim's "Send In the Clowns."

There's lots to watch on the screen for characters in "Unnecessary Farce."
Desiree's bitter song points to the conditions that underlie farce: Misunderstandings, false assumptions, confused or deceptive identities, upsets, personal disasters.

None of that is any fun when you're  living it. If relatively minor, the conditions of farce may seem risible shortly after the dust has settled. If more serious, they will be permanently unsettling.

As a literary or dramatic genre, however, most people do indeed love farce. But, frankly, the whole bag may seem unnecessary —  and not just as part of the pun in the last line of Paul Slade Smith's "Unnecessary Farce."  Actors Theatre Indiana opened the show Wednesday night in the Studio Theater at the Center for the Performing Arts.

The premise is a police sting operation, with video recording in an attempt to catch a small-town mayor believed to be an embezzler. P. Bernard Killian's set design says "farce" from the moment you enter the theater: Lots of slammable doors, given the cozy layout of two adjacent motel rooms.

In one of them, two bumbling cops are charged with observing on the monitor an incriminating conversation between the mayor and an in-on-the-sting accountant; in the next, a camera is none too obscurely set up behind a ficus plant and trained upon the bed, an indispensable piece of furniture in risque farce.

Call it a small-scale "American Hustle" (derived from the high-level Abscam) caper mashed up with "Lend Me a Tenor" scenic elements and also involving a funny disguise and a mess of hanky-panky.

Forgive me if this seems academic, but I love the concise definition of farce in an old "Glossary of Literary Terms" (M.H. Abrams, editor) I've saved from my English-major days. It applies perfectly to this show, a "comedy in which one-dimensional characters are put into ludicrous situations, while ordinary standards of probability in motivation and event are freely violated in order to evoke the maximum laughter from an audience."

Literalists might say you can't have a one-dimensional character, but everybody knows what that means: In farce, every breathless and breadthless character follows a narrow track of verbal and physical behavior, shoving off fresh insights and revealing intelligence only through desperate attempts to escape traps (some of their own construction) that have been set for them. My complaint about "Unnecessary Farce" is that the characters too quickly tumble into their respective ruts. This may be more the playwright's fault than that of the director, Darrin Murrell.

Murrell's management of his cast is astute and vigorous. Playwright Smith stamps each character indelibly from the first speech; he can't wait to get his farcical engine up and running. To Murrell's credit, he goes along with this. The show was tuned up and roaring Wednesday night.

Tons of revelation in the last few scenes indicate why the playwright was so eager to set our heads spinning at the outset. But making retrospective sense of everything can't hide an unusual degree of flimsiness in the structure, as amusing as it is to watch it in action. "Unnecessary Farce" is part Indycar, part jalopy.

Mayor Meekly walks in on one of several physical entanglements in "Unnecessary Farce."
Scot Greenwell as the better-prepared but still doltish cop was admirably the main focus of the comical and usually unavailing adjustments that farce characters have to make. His Officer Sheridan and the collaborating accountant, Karen Brown, have the hots for each other — which gets in the way of their professionalism; in farce, it's customary for professionalism to get slapped upside the head.

The accountant is eager to get beyond spread sheets and between bed sheets, but like everyone else, encounters one complication after another, which Leah Brenner played with a nicely frazzled quality. Sheridan's professionally eager sidekick, portrayed with frantic zest by Jenny Reber, is a kind of apprentice cop, a sort of sub-Barney Fife in need of remediation in the essentials of her job.

Ken Klingenmeier plays the folksy Mayor Meekly, who turns out to be wiser than anyone suspected. 
The mayor's habit of entering upon the most suggestive tangles of the other characters conveniently delays what he eventually forces to the surface. His controlling wife was etched with a convincing about-face late in the show by Vickie Cornelius Phipps.

As the mayor's security guard, Agent Frank, Scott Russell gets to play the most interesting character, one with a little more to him than the others, yet still fully cast from the farcical mold. He does so in a manner that earns our sympathy.

On the outsize side of the genre struts the menacing Todd, a hitman associated with the town's crime syndicate, a Scottish gang by inspiration and ethnicity alike. Roger Ortman's performance — burred and burly, neatly combining thuggishness and eccentricity — allowed the show to do a Highland fling all its own, aided by Donna Jacobi's idiomatic costuming.

For a while, who pays the piper calls the tune. Finally, the tune changes in a way that can't be revealed here. At length, the point of "Unnecessary Farce" is made with necessary force.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

With a CD release party scheduled for May 6 at the Jazz Kitchen, guitarist Charlie Ballantine takes broad view on his second CD as a leader

Guitarist Charlie Ballantine comes from North Webster, IN.
"Providence" is titled after what Charlie Ballantine believes to be the providential nature of his growing career based in Central Indiana.

The guitarist is well disposed to see the work of providence in his musically cohesive ensemble, a quintet now including Josh Espinoza, organ; Amanda Gardier, alto saxophone; Conner Green, bass, and Josh Roberts, drums.

The new album, self-released and available through, is a journey touched by several musical styles,

Those curious about how the band puts across this material in concert might be interested in the CD release party Friday, May 6, at the Jazz Kitchen.

There's a lot derived from blues and country guitar styles in the course of the nine tracks, most of them originals. The band plays well together. As a composer, Ballantine has a gift for working his way into your attention, and holding it, with simple melodies. Gardier is particularly adept at helping him maintain the music's melodic sheen.

I like the rapport they display in "Eyes Closed," which gathers energy to mount a soaring climax. Taking a ballad and ratcheting up the emotion at length is a popular way to proceed, and can be overdone. I think it works much better here than in the performance (also about eight minutes long) of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." The seductive charm of that song escapes me, but many people who hesitate to buy a recording if they don't see a familiar title in the program are likely to be drawn in by "Hallelujah." Bless their hearts.

The heart of the CD, however, is the title piece, which distantly evokes a hymn sung with gentle fervor on a Sunday morning in a country church, then seems to evolve into a ballad of lost love scratched out and crooned on somebody's front porch later that day.


Outside my blog writing: cover story in Early Music America in celebration of the Indianapolis Early Music Festival

Watch for the issue of the journal Early Music America, coming in the next few weeks, with the cover story I wrote giving a historical overview of the 50-year history of the Indianapolis Early Music Festival.

I'm looking forward to seeing this, as well as to the 2016 season (starting June 17) itself, the society's golden anniversary.

Thanks to artistic director Mark Cudek for recommending me as the writer to EMAg editor Donald Rosenberg.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Chicago percussion group pays 80th-birthday tribute to Steve Reich

Steve Reich appeals to percussionists.
Though they've been brought more to the fore across music of the past century, percussionists get to dip their toes in the mainstream rewardingly in the music of Steve Reich, who long ago moved from outsider to central figure among living American composers. He's not splashy, but the focus and elaboration he has extended to mallet percussion in particular have made him a venerated figure among the bang gang.

The 11-year-old Chicago ensemble called Third Coast Percussion unfolds a full-out tribute on Cedille Records (CDR 900000 161).

The earliest work here, "Music for Pieces of Wood" (1973), shows the Reich process of "phase shifts," rooted in a structure meant to be immediately perceived by the listener, in this case with the expansion of a short figure one note at a time.

The effect is to reshape the dominant pattern subtly, bringing a new balance to it each time it recurs. Five pieces of tuned wood are used; Matthew Duvall of eighth blackbird is credited "for keeping the pulse."

The Reich style had come to full flower by the time of "Mallet Quartet" (2009), which opens the disc in a performance by all four TCP members: Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and David Skidmore. In three linked movements, "Mallet Quartet" ascends toward greater variety of register as it goes along, with more frequent use of accented notes. It makes for a mallet-driven "gradus ad parnassum" as it succeeds the meditative slow movement, with its short, precisely timed pauses.

Reich had shown his expressive reach well before his canonization as an old master in the present century. "Sextet" (1985), with guest artists David Friend and Oliver Hagen on piano, is both captivating and bewildering. It's easy to get lost in its waves of sound, breadth of timbre and dynamics, and the kaleidosopic bursts of accents. It's my favorite of the disc's five works, though I don't pretend to understand it fully. I especially enjoyed the first of two movements headed "Moderate," with the piano contribution meditative, but in a detached way, set against long tones from bowed mallet instruments.

Completing the program is a seductive marimba duo, "Nagoya Marimbas" (1994), whose debt to Japanese pentatonic scales is signaled in the title. It's typical of Reich's ensemble music in the tight rapport required of the players, and is particularly demanding in matters of tempo and dynamics, with the repetitive patterns being played evenly and very softly.