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LOU'S VIEWS: Rate expectations ... reviewing without stars

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Lou Harry
You may have noticed that in this column I never give shortcut ratings. No "three and a half stars." No "thumbs up."

While I appreciate ratings when it comes to buying vacuum cleaners, I don't find them useful in talking about arts and entertainment. I'd rather discuss the work, give some context, and clearly and honestly share my experience with it. And any such rating tacked on would be misleading—especially in a city where some of the avocational companies have nearly as high a profile as the pros.

Take, for example, the current shows from Footlite Musicals and Indianapolis Civic Theatre, two home-grown community theaters with loyal followings and long histories in Indy.

Should a show be praised for its resourcefulness, its exceeding of any reasonable expectations, and its incredible spunk? Then Footlite's "Miss Saigon" would deserve four of those stars. Triple-hatted director/set designer/lighting designer R. Brian Noffke has done a nothing-short-of-amazing job of creating a solidly professional look for the piece, avoiding the clunkiness often plaguing multi-set, low-budget productions. He and the show's vocal directors also coax some lovely and powerful sounds from the volunteer actors, who shine in the first half, where limited acting and maximum vocal power is required. And their relative ordinary-ness (no offense intended) adds to the impact.

My memories of two "Miss Saigon" national tours include some very buff soldiers and prostitutes (most of the cast plays one or the other). The performers here are in fine shape, but the fact that they aren't professional dancers lends an average Joe-ness that really works with the material. When Natalie Cruz sings "The Music in My Mind" ("Saigon's" answer to "Les Miz's" "I Dreamed a Dream") as the rest of the cast sadly, emptily grinds away at one another, there's a powerful, melancholy reality to these desperate and confused people. And I went into intermission with something resembling awe for what these folks had achieved.

Unfortunately, the show has a second act, where the company can't overcome the overblown and under-thought-out mess created by its original writing team.

The famed helicopter landing/take-off is better presented here than in the last national tour to come through town, but it's still in the wrong narrative place. The loyalty-free Engineer's numbers stops the action dead with repetition and simply anti-America bashing (Nothing against protest, just be creative and less smug about it). And (spoiler alert) the show's emotionally muddy ending kills any sympathy for the adults, who stand by and allow a child to see the bloody corpse of his mother.

Four stars to Act One and two stars to Act Two? A three-star average? What's a reviewer to do? And how could Footlite's "Miss Saigon" carry the same three stars I might give to the IRT's "Rabbit Hole" or the touring "Avenue Q"?

Another star problem arises in Civic's "Twentieth Century," where James O. Schumacher's handsome art deco sliding train car set offers a promising playing field for farce. But that's the best that can be said for this woefully unfunny season-closer.

Part of the blame falls on Ken Ludwig's adaptation, which didn't go over well on Broadway, where it played with Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche in the leads. But surely, even at the community theater level, there should be some laughs to be mined from the oft-told tale of Oscar Jaffe, an egotistical director, attempting to woo his former love—now big star Lilly Garland—into his latest production.

The cast, though, doesn't even skim the surface—you'd never know, for instance, that Lilly is barely able to suppress her commoner roots. Yet that's a key source of the comedy. And no clear reason is given for us to suffer the insufferably boorish Oscar. (Note: As a matter of policy, I'm hesitant to name names in reviews when it comes to volunteer workers. Why should the dental hygienist cast in a community theater "My Fair Lady" have to see my negative review pop up whenever she Googles her name?)

As much of a train wreck as it is, though, how could I justify giving the same low score to "Twentieth Century" that I would give to such greater-means productions as the recent tour of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang"?
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