Reviews: Phoenix, Civic, ATI

September 18, 2008
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Space is limited in this week's print IBJ, so instead of cutting down the week's reviews, I thought I'd share my thoughts here on three recent theater production openings. (FYI: You can find A&E reviews every week in IBJ's Not Strictly Business section. You can also find them at www.ibj.com/arts).

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When it comes to the Phoenix Theatre, a first-class set usually indicates a first-class show. On its stages, I’ve seen everything from seemingly thrown-together raggedy to impeccably pro. But the strongest, most satisfying work I’ve seen there—including “The Goat,” “Proof,” “Three Viewings” and, now, “November” (running through Oct. 11)—has been presented dressed for success.

Now, I’m not sure about the chicken-or-the-egg-ness of this. It could be that, when the powers that be have the strongest belief in a project, more attention (and money) is paid to design. Or it could be that an impressive, highly functional set helps the rest of the talent from taking shortcuts.

Whatever the case, my first look at James Gross' Oval Office set for “November” let me know that I was in good hands.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing gimmicky about it. It just works. And it gives the ensuing craziness the playing field on which to work its wonders.

In David Mamet’s play, a U.S. president (Charles Goad) and his emotion-free lawyer (Tom Beeler) deal with three people who have three distinct agendas: a turkey lobbyist (Stephen Hunt) with cash to spend, an irate Native American (Doug Johnson) with vengeance on his mind, and a flu-infected lesbian speechwriter (Diane Timmerman) with thoughts of a high-profile wedding. Laughs—and f-bombs—fly, and while the satire doesn’t run deep, it runs entertainingly broad.

The production is the first one outside of New York, thanks to director Bryan Fonseca’s deftness in snagging rights and adjusting his theater’s schedule. In this case—and with a solid design team—his effort was worth the trouble.
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Over at Indianapolis Civic Theatre, the sets for “Little Shop of Horrors” (through Sept. 28) pose a different challenge. That’s because the work of scenic and lighting designer Ryan Koharchik is, as usual, of such a high level that good-enough actors and fine-for-community-theater singers can often seem to be in the wrong arena (think Harry Chapin’s Mr. Tanner, the cleaner with talent who takes a shot at Carnegie Hall and winds up out of his league).

Thankfully, Scot Greenwell, as plant geek Seymour, is the prime resident of Koharchik’s terrific “Little Shop of Horrors” set. Actor-about-town Greenwell (Buck Creek’s “Parade,” Otto Frank at the Children’s Museum, one of the ensemble of the Phoenix’s “Some Men”) doesn’t do anything particularly new or different with the role, but he shines nonetheless thanks not just to a terrific theatrical singing voice, but also to his ability to give a potentially cartooned character a moment-to-moment humanity. Often in community theater, an actor finds the one bit of shtick that works and keeps pounding that one note. Greenwell, instead, let’s us believe in Seymour. And when we believe in him, it’s much easier to believe in a killer plant bent on taking over the earth.

Credit should also go to composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman (their names are in the program but, unlike the actors and crew, they aren't given bios), who gave theater fans three major gifts with their songs “Somewhere That’s Green,” “Suddenly, Seymour” and “Skid Row.” The latter—wonderfully delivered here by the company under Brent E. Marty’s direction—proves once again to be one of the best opening songs ever written for a comedy (OK, so technically it isn’t the first song, but it feels like it). The ending of “Little Shop” still doesn’t quite work—the larger the venue the harder it is to pull off its tongue-in-cheek fatality—but that doesn’t negate the pleasures that come before.

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When you go to a bedroom farce, you know the set is going to consist largely of slammable doors. There’s no shortage of them in Actors Theatre of Indiana’s “Perfect Wedding” (through Sept. 21 at Pike Performing Arts Center). And while the doors seem slightly underused—the plot turns talky late in Act II when things should be running at their fastest clip—the game cast earns its laughs.
Onstage, a night-before-the-wedding groom wakes up from a drunken bachelor party evening to find a strange woman in his bed. Of course, when bride-to-be shows up, stranger has to pretend to be the chambermaid. But what to do with the real chambermaid? And so on.

At a Sunday matinee, another drama happened off stage. There, 60 or so 60-and-overs turned from pin-drop silence in the first 20 minutes to minor giggles to outright prolonged laughter by the end of the first act. It was a pleasure watching the onstage professionals from ATI win over this difficult crowd not by desperately overplaying or awkwardly speeding things along. Instead, they pulled it off by staying committed to delivering the material. By the end of the show, I overheard at least three audience members deeming chambermaid Cynthia Collins heir apparent to Carol Burnett, and applause across the board was abundant.

Overall, a good start to a promising theater season.

Your thoughts?
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  • Lou, I loved being able to read your full reviews on these three pieces! I'm sorry there wasn't room in the print version of the IBJ, but I'm delighted that you decided to make room here.

    Two things from your post that I'm going to percolate on for the rest of the day:

    1) the chicken-egg relationship between actors and designers (and shows that I've seen where the balance of quality was off) and

    2) the (often overlooked) importance of a well-done (complete, accurate) paper program for a show.

    Thanks for the good food for thought!

    Hope Baugh
    www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

    PS - I already saw and wrote about November and Kitty! Kitty! Kitty! I'm looking forward to seeing Perfect Wedding with a friend tonight and Little Shop with a group, I think, next week. And Sherlock Holmes at the IRT, and Dracula at the Asylum House in Greenwood. Bliss! I'm in theatre heaven this month!

    2PS - Will you be covering Oranje? I'm not even really sure what that is, but I remember you saying that it conflicted with this weekend's Mass Hysteria on Mass Ave and that you were going to try to do both, maybe.
  • I saw ATI's Perfect Wedding last Thursday. It was hilarious! Even my husband (who just goes to the theater for my sake) was laughing out loud.
  • 3PS - I asked about Oranje because I will not be able to attend it, myself. I wish I could be two or three places at once!

    IndyCat - I was glad to read what you wrote. The friend who is going with me to see Perfect Wedding does not often go to live theatre.

    Hope Baugh
    www.IndyTheatreHabit.com
  • Hope,
    Keep in mind that Oranje goes until 2 a.m.--and probably won't really get rocking until after 11.
    Lou
  • Thanks for the review but James Gross did the set design for Phoenix's production
    of NOVEMBER. Scott Pask did the Broadway set design but you're right James' set
    is fantastic.
  • Oh and Doug Johnson plays Dwight Grackle. I think the confusion comes from the
    Phoenix program listing the NY credits in addtion to our own.
  • Corrections made.
    Thanks.
  • And FYI, James Gross also designed the sets for the Phoenix's The Goat, Stuff Happens, and The Lieutenant of Inishmore. He teaches at Wabash College.

    Doug Johnson has appeared in Stuff Happens, Fat Pig, and Urinetown and has guest starred on Married With Children and Doogie Howser MD.
  • Thanks for the kind and honest words, Lou, and for getting out and covering theatre in the community! To quote Mr. Mushnik, What a blessing...!
  • I agree with Brent and Mr. Mushnik! Thank you Lou for all you do! Hey, that could be the Art's community's new cheer!!
  • I agree! We could have cheer pyramids and everything, take our team to Nationals, and get a mention on the IBJ's sports blog when we come back with the trophy.

    :-)

    (I seriously do appreciate everything you do, Lou, including being a role model for me.)

    Hope Baugh
    www.IndyTheatreHabit.com
  • Thanks Hope, This could be the start of something big!

    Judy Fitzgerald
    www.actorstheatreofindiana.org
  • Thank you for the kind words.
    Lou
    FYI: past reviews can be found at www.ibj.com/arts
  • Lou,
    Just wanted to give a plug for Phoenix extending David Mamet's NOVEMBER
    thru Oct 18th!

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