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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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  1. So much for Eric Holder's conversation about race. If white people have got something to say, they get sued over it. Bottom line: white people have un-freer speech than others as a consequence of the misnamed "Civil rights laws."

  2. I agree, having seen three shows, that I was less than wowed. Disappointing!!

  3. Start drilling, start fracking, and start using our own energy. Other states have enriched their citizens and nearly elminated unemployment by using these resources that are on private land. If you are against the 'low prices' of discount stores, the best way to allow shoppers more choice is to empower them with better earnings. NOT through manipulated gov mandated min wage hikes, but better jobs and higher competitive pay. This would be direct result of using our own energy resources, yet Obama knows that Americans who arent dependent of gov welfare are much less likely to vote Dem, so he looks for ways to ensure America's decline and keep its citizens dependent of gov.

  4. Say It Loud, I'm Black and Ashamed: It's too bad that with certain "black" entertainment events, it seems violence and thuggery follows and the collateral damage that it leaves behinds continues to be a strain on the city in terms of people getting hurt, killed or becoming victims of crimes and/or stretching city resources. I remember shopping in the Meadows area years ago until violence and crime ended make most of the business pack you and leave as did with Lafayette Square and Washington Square. Over the past 10 to 12 years, I remember going to the Indiana Black Expo Soul Picnic in Washington Park. Violence, gang fights and homicides ended that. My great grandmother still bears the scares on her leg from when she was trampled by a group of thugs running from gun fire from a rival gang. With hundreds of police offices downtown still multiple shootings, people getting shot downtown during Black Expo. A number of people getting shots or murdered at black clubs around the city like Club Six on the west side, The Industry downtown, Jamal Tinsley's shot out in front of the Conrad, multiple fights and shootings at the skating rinks, shootings at Circle Center Mall and shooting and robberies and car jackings at Lafayette Mall. Shootings and gang violence and the State Fair. I can go on and on and on. Now Broad Ripple. (Shaking head side to side) Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Ashamed.

  5. Ballard Administration. Too funny. This is the least fiscally responsive administration I have ever seen. One thing this article failed to mention, is that the Hoosier State line delivers rail cars to the Amtrak Beech Grove maintenance facility for refurbishment. That's an economic development issue. And the jobs there are high-paying. That alone is worth the City's investment.

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