Tuesday, May 14, 2019

'Indy! The Musical' celebrates the Race and the triumph of true love

The timing of a musical comedy revealingly subtitled "A Hoosier Fantasy" could hardly be better. The month of May here, out of which legends have been made for more than a century, is the focus in the run-up to the Indianapolis 500.  The collaboration by Louis Chenette (music) and Tom Roberts (book and lyrics) opened and closed over the weekend at Phoenix Theatre. A Roberts father-son team created the production, marketed as a benefit for WFYI public radio.

"Indy! The Musical" locks into the annual buzz of the internationally celebrated motorsports extravaganza that's essential to the Indianapolis brand. But more than that, according to Chenette's program note, the show is a metaphor for the importance of home, where events of significance beyond the ordinary make hometowns special.

Ingenuous dance teacher and racy mechanic celebrate their bond in song.
So "Indy! The Musical" comes across as boosterism, carried mainly by the ensembles that end each of the two acts. This positive message is the sturdy thread along which three love affairs are strung. In the time-tested tradition of stage comedy, the course of true love — unlike the racetrack — never did run smooth: Obstacles to each of the couples' happiness crop up, only to be removed at the end with somewhat obvious ease. The people set up to be together turn out to belong together in a way that seems destined.

One couple is hampered by the woman's resistance to her beau's ordinariness. Another is blocked by a conflict between a naive dance teacher's true love (locked in by her one-night-stand pregnancy) and her mechanic lover's footloose and fancy-free habits. The older generation's discovery of love's perpetual appeal brings together a widowed man and woman of high status. (A fourth romance, between a flirtatious 500 Festival Queen and a conceited German driver, figures tangentially in the action, and serves to reinforce the multiple bliss at the end.)

The music and aspects of the dialogue and song lyrics allow for some gentle satire on both romantic and Indianapolis 500 illusions. These help to mitigate the show's tendency to shout an effusive correction to "India-noplace" and "Naptown," pejorative names for the city. (I continue to hold the minority position that the Naptown moniker, historically associated with jazz musicians, has been mainly an affectionate nickname — the way a man is often familiarly known according to where the accents fall in his last name.)

Front and center: "Indy! The Musical" trumpets hometown virtues.
The acting sometimes distorted the balance between poking fun and waving the banner. The major role of Mayor Orville Harroun is written to satirize some politicians' tendency to be windbags, but John Vessels Jr. inhabited the role so broadly that Indianapolis' mayor in the early 1950s becomes a country bumpkin who might have embarrassed even the citizens of TV's Mayberry. His florid, buffoonish performance undercut the message that Indianapolis deserves the world's respect as something more than the home of a one-day racing spectacle.

Joanne Kehoe's direction either encouraged or permitted other overacting. The comic intentions of Roberts' script were perhaps excessively underlined in Sunday's performance. There were some problems in balance as to where the songs fell and how their prominence reinforced the story arc. The second-act duet for Vessels and Miki Mathioudakis as Ida Norris, his partner in golden-age romance, was brightly executed (thanks in part to Mariel Greenlee's choreography) but too long. Their song, "They Say We're Too Old for Romance," left me wondering "who says that?" insofar as the story line doesn't support any general disapproval of senior liaisons. Was there some sort of Indianapolis prejudice 60-odd years ago against old people being struck by Cupid's arrow?

Other songs made their points briefly, but sometimes more compactly than their prominence in developing the story ought to have allowed. "Dan's Song," a second-act showcase for the indecisive mechanic, was a well-proportioned exception. Picking up on ragtime for "Shaking the Sheets," a peppy, slightly ribald women's
Following the left turns: Broadcast team captures race excitement.
number, Chenette's music draws elsewhere on Kurt Weill-esque cabaret style, especially with the staging of the "Pro/Con Chorus," a point-counterpoint representation of contrasting opinions about drivers. "Pole Day" was an intricate presentation of several characters' feelings in succession, with some evidence that Chenette had in mind famous opera ensembles with simultaneous outpourings of individual viewpoints brought together in a unified musical whole. His muse was prolific, with the offstage band, in underscoring mode, even getting in the way of a hyper radio-broadcast team (Adam Crowe and Joe Steiner).

Yet the evident meeting of minds between longtime friends Roberts and Chenette paid off frequently. As they poured their discrete specialties into a unanimous theatrical cause, "Indy! The Musical" made its intended effect, especially given the generally high quality of production values, such as lighting (Laura Glover), projections (Zach Rosing) and technical/sound direction (Michael Moffatt).

The subtitle must be remembered, however; it's just that there may be more fantasy to "Indy! The Musical" than its creators intended.

1 comment:

  1. Brought a tear to Fonseca's eye, no doubt.
    Why are you posting this at 3:27 a.m.