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A&E: Survival in bronze at IAC

November 5, 2007

I had hoped for more when I stopped into the Indianapolis Art Center to see "Freedom's Struggle: The Underground Railroad along the Ohio River in Kentucky and Indiana." The photos by Willie Johnson-featuring, real-life locations with, occasionally, models portraying slaves-are accomplished, up to a point, but evoke little beyond what is presented. Where, I found myself asking, is the artist?

More powerful by far are the sculption just down the hall. "Fresh from Julieanne's Garden: Bronzes from Preston Jackson" offers two galleries of work, each piece of which is both representational and ambiguous. There are commonalities running through many of them-including strong women and, yes, alligators-but what they share beyond that is an emphasis on survival.

Jackson, a Chicago artist whose work ranges from an Ernie Banks sculpture at the ESPN Zone to Bronzeville, featuring 30 buildings and 300 figures in a celebration of the Harlem Renaissance, knows how to pull viewers into his work. Each of the pieces in "Julieanne's Garden" seems to have a rich, harrowing story-although I'm uncertain about how much the lengthy texts help or hurt the overall impact. There is a fine line between filling in the blanks and supplying too much information. And although Jackson sometimes crosses it, that doesn't diminish the power of the work itself. You'll feel generations of pain whether you read the artist's stories or create your own.

When I say that the Beef & Boards production of "Oklahoma!" (running through Nov. 18) is dust-free, I mean that in two senses.

The frontier portrayed is one where dirt is non-existent-except on farmhand Judd Fry's face. This kind of whitewashed treatment seems to be the norm for Rodgers & Hammerstein's groundbreaking musical and I wasn't surprised that the rest of the characters and sets had a freshly scrubbed look. Still, I yearn for a production that really feels like these people, as they sing, "belong to the land."

In another sense, this "Oklahoma!" avoids the dust that seems to settle on "classics." There's a freshness to the acting and the singing, to the humor and the conflicts that doesn't make it feel like an old warhorse at all but, rather, a fresh musical comedy/drama with real emotional stakes.

That's due in no small part to Jayson Elliott, last seen here in "Smoke on the Mountain, who plays the aforementioned Judd Fry with real pain and loneliness in his eyes. He gives the show gravitas-a real threat. And a terrific voice certainly helps.

It's also great to see a fun, sexy Ado Annie (Jessica Kademenos) not overplayed into cartoonery and an Ali Hackim (Andrew Kindig) who actually seems like a rival for her affections with Will Parker (a high-stepping Doug King). And while the dream ballet is relatively non-existent, the "Farmer and the Cowman" woefully short of farmers, and there is never doubt where Laurie's affections lie, this is still a production that supports rather than diminishes the case for continued revivals of this musical milestone.

In short, the state of "Oklahoma!," in the hands of Beef & Boards, is more than OK.
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