LOU'S VIEWS: Alas, poor patrons

February 19, 2011
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If intent were all that mattered, I would be writing in praise of Hoosier Bard’s production of “Young Hamlet”—the earliest known draft of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

The new company, built from a core of IUPUI scholars, aims to “make classic plays new and exciting for 21st century audiences.” An ambitious idea. Truth is, we don’t really have a theater here in central Indiana with a consistent drive to breathe life into plays of yesteryear. Although, to be fair, others—including the Indiana Repertory Theatre and Butler University Theatre—cycle Shakespeare’s work onto their stages on a reasonably regular basis. (FYI: Butler is offering “As You Like It” in early March.) Plus, there’s the annual summer production from Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre at White River State Park, the audience for which is growing.

In a pre-show speech offered before the Feb. 11 performance of “Young Hamlet” at the IndyFringe Building, Gary Taylor, general editor of The New Oxford Shakespeare and a driving force in Hoosier Bard, stated additional ambitious goals for the company. He wants Hoosier Bard to be a theater that speaks to young people. He sees it as a means of testing the theories of scholars with shows that aren’t necessarily “safe.” And he wants to do shows on the scale intended by the author, labeling reduced shows—such as the touring Actors from the London Stage’s five-actor versions—as “not Shakespeare.”

“Really doing Shakespeare,” said Taylor, “means a large cast” since Shakespeare created entire social worlds.

But how much should intentions play a part when the execution

is below even the level expected of amateur companies? And what to make of the grueling 2-1/2 hours that followed that noble speech?

I’ve seen a “Hamlet” with a nude Polonius. I’ve seen “The Tempest” where kitchen utensils fell out of the sky. I’ve seen “Taming of the Shrew” in the old west, “Julius Caesar” in a South American dictatorship, and various Shakespeare works turned into the equivalent of Classics Illustrated comics by severely truncated running times. But I’ve never seen a Shakespeare play as deadly dull as “Young Hamlet”—one with as many actors falling this far short of the skills required.

In a nutshell, “Young Hamlet” is “Hamlet” with some name and word changes, a bit more sympathy toward Gertrude, a younger prince who behaves even worse in his feigned madness, and no off-stage pirate ship action that you probably forgot was even in the show.

Lifelessly staged, inconsistently accented, awkwardly lit and without regard for coherent motivations, “Young Hamlet” (which ran Feb. 4-12 and received polite notices elsewhere) wasn’t just a failed experiment. It was an effort to create something so beyond the reach of its creators that I’m tempted to question their hubris.

It’s akin to your deciding to stage a grand opera in your office break room with folks from the IT department providing the music and the HR crew singing leads. Ambitious: yes. Chance of actually being artistically satisfying: nil.

I suppose there may be some interest in the show among scholars, but that aim would have been better served by a script-in-hand reading with actors that weren’t in desperate need of the services of Geoffrey Rush’s character from “The King’s Speech.” Only Lauren Briggeman, as Horatio, emerged relatively unscathed. The rest, by no fault of their own, were just in over their heads.

As for the desire to be more “youthful,” Hoosier Bard’s “Young Hamlet” seemed no more appealing to teens and twentysomethings than the IRT’s “Romeo and Juliet” last year or Butler’s staged-in-the-dirt “Hamlet” from a few seasons back.

I strongly believe in both the edification and the entertainment to be found in the works of Shakespeare. I’m second to none in my desire to see more quality Shakespeare in Indy.

But the key word there is quality.
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Seeing “Hairspray” (at Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre through March 27), I was again amazed at the musical equivalent of a series of three-point shots landed right at the top of the game by the composer/lyricist team of March Shaiman and Scott Wittman.

First they swish with a charming, fun, here-I-am song, “Good Morning Baltimore,” introducing us to their optimistic teen heroine. Then, swish, they switch up and sink another with “The Nicest Kids in Town,” establishing the world of the TV studio and its teen dance show.

Then, boom, it’s the delightful “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now,” with three sets of mothers/daughters and their respective generation gaps. And then, already in musical theater heaven, we get “I Can Hear the Bells,” one of the most fun, character-specific love songs in recent musical theater.

No musical, of course, can sustain that for the whole game. But Shaiman and Wittman make a remarkable go of it. And Beef & Boards offers a respectable production that misses some of the big laughs but nails the sweetness. I particularly liked the way Jill Sullivan’s Tracy always seemed to be hungry to learn the dance moves of those around her by watching their feet.

Unfortunately, Carly Vernon was made to play sidekick Penny Pingleton as more of a stereotypical nerd than an original goofball—which, in addition to being less interesting, made it difficult to believe the interest the liquid-legged Seaweed of Jarvis B. Manning Jr. developed in her.
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For Ashley Brown’s pops program with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, Jack Everly once again put together an entertaining program that showed off both the musicians and their talented guest.

I caught the truncated Friday afternoon version of the show (which ran Feb. 11-13) and was pleased that some initial awkward banter from Brown and a few good enough attempts to show other sides to her (“La Jazz Hot” from “Victor/Victoria,” for instance), soon gave way to tunes that better played to her many strengths.

“Feed the Birds,” from “Mary Poppins” showed clearly what time spent with a song can do to its clarity and richness (Brown played the lead on Broadway). A Disney medley followed. It had a fun “name-that-tune” quality, with Brown adept at everything from “Part of Your World” to “When You Wish Upon a Star.” It was a reminder of the great songs that no longer seem to have a place on the pre-teen-focused RadioDisney.

Brown, who had her professional orchestra debut with the ISO in 2005 as the female singer on a “Broadway Leading Men” program, was supported by three gents who brought their talents to a duet medley, including “People Will Say We’re in Love,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and “My Heart is So Full of You” (oh, to hear the ISO do the entire “Most Happy Fella” score—with Brown singing the female lead).

Ending the set with “Defying Gravity” was an odd move, given that the song’s “owner,” Idina Menzel, will be appearing with the ISO next month and, no doubt, doing the same song. Brown delivered it well, though, and was charmingly herself for a weekend-appropriate encore of “My Funny Valentine” sung to her dog who, yes, opened his mouth to speak at just the right time.•

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This column appears weekly. Send information on upcoming arts and entertainment events to lharry@ibj.com. Twitter: IBJArts and follow Lou Harry’s A&E blog at www.ibj.com/arts.

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