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LOU'S VIEWS: IMA's artbabble.org offers visual art videos

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Lou Harry

This week, an online visit with a new Indianapolis Museum of Art, plus a local take on "Forbidden Broadway."

Impressive in its ambition, slick in its design, and savvy in its possible side effects, the new Indianapolis Museum of Art-birthed Web site, www.artbabble. com, should be on the Favorites list of anyone interested in visual art—anyone who believes that there's more to Web videos than babbling Novocained kids, petulant spelling-bee champs, and unfortunate cheerleader accidents.

While you won't find anything on Artbabble quite as funny as those viral videos (at least, not yet), you will find a wide and interesting assortment of videos from the IMA and its current Web partners, Art:21, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the New York Public Library.

The mission of Artbabble is to "showcase video art content in high-quality format from a variety of sources and perspectives" and, having just launched on April 7, it seems to already be heading in the right direction.

Since IMA gatekeepers are regulating content, the quality is high. And there are other pluses that keep this from being just YouTube for the arts. The videos pop up with remarkable speed. Each is sided by easily clickable "more info" buttons that can be accessed without losing your place in the video being watched.

If you don't know exactly what you are searching for, you can click on an "Artists" button that takes you to an alphabetical listing—which I hope will multiply in the near future. A press release announcing the site said that full-text transcriptions are offered for all videos, but I couldn't find how to access that function. And I'm still figuring out how to use the "Notes" gizmo, which embeds comments at key points, which should be helpful with longer videos.

Right now, most of the arts babble is coming from the IMA. Click on the "series" tab and more than half of the choices come from no further than 38th Street and Michigan Road. At this early stage in the game, it not only isn't exhaustive, it's minimal and seemingly random (two videos about Hoosier Emily Kennerk, for instance, but nothing about, say, Marc Chagall). The only commercial filmmaker I found was Spike Lee discussing his critical and commercial flop film "The Miracle at St. Anna" (courtesy of the New York Public Library). And I'm still not sure how and why I ended up watching a Wii bowling 7-10 split conversion.

Still, for every oddity, there's plenty more that's fascinating. The short Museum of Modern Art installation video focuses primarily on process rather than intent, which helps avoid the curse of excess artspeak. The Art:21 pieces are slicker and more self-consciously produced, but that's part of their pleasure. For those more interested in straight-up informative content, the IMA's own Director's Conversation Series installments are offered in their hour-long entirety. Sure, you could go to the events in person, but it's nice to have a backup.

Ultimately, the usefulness of Artbabble will depend on its expansion. Here's hoping that by this time next year the site has multiplied in scale and that it opens a window for those without ready access to art and inspires those who do to visit the real stuff in person more often.

"Forbidden Broadway," New York's long-running, theater-spoofing revue, has always tried to have it both ways. On the one hand, it spoofs the conceits of Broadway with material that true fans of the form believe only they can truly appreciate. On the other hand, it attempts to create an entertaining show for even the tourists who don't get all the jokes.

For the first half of its production, Actors Theatre of Indiana manages to stay firmly rooted on that line. With the ability to select a "greatest hits" program from over two decades of shows—and with an appropriately intimate setup in a banquet hall at The Mansion at Oak Hill in Carmel—big laughs are earned by "Chicago" dancers mocking Bob Fosse moves, an aged Annie lamenting her lack of post-puberty roles, and producer Cameron Mackintosh singing the praises of souvenirs over show content. Numbers featuring Carol Channing in yet another tour of "Hello, Dolly!" the downsizing of "Beauty and the Beast," and the Chita Rivera/Rita Moreno rivalry (to the tune of "West Side Story's" "America") are dated, but the impressions are fine and the chuckles still there. Best of all is the multisong "Les Miserables" bit, showcasing the quartet of actors as the show's writers at their sharpest and funniest.

The second act, feels more scattershot. Given the recent Indy stop of "The Lion King" tour, the takeoff—with its actors in neck braces from the weighty costumes—hits the mark. But time spent on Mary Martin, Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand grows tiring. For all its creativity, "Forbidden Broadway" hit the same notes over and over. Jokes about how Broadway "ain't what it used to be" aren't as funny the second or third or fourth time in the same show. And surely there's something on the "Les Miz" order that could anchor the second act.

Still, the talented four-person company—including, for the first few performances, director Billy Kimmel, who also appeared in the New York version—delivers the goods, with nary a weak link. Credit should also go to Kurt Perry, who helps keep things lively at the piano.

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