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A&E: Honk if you like community theater

June 16, 2008

As someone interested in contemporary musicals, I'm thrilled that Buck Creek Players annually offers at least one show unlikely to be staged anywhere else in town.

It has given voice, for instance, to such obscurities as "Parade," "Violet," and "Side Show." Next season, it continues the trend with the local premiere of "Grey Gardens."

Could Buck Creek do better at the box office with yet another "Joseph" or "Annie"? Probably. But company Director D. Scott Robinson is more ambitious and creative than that. And the results seem to be paying off with enthusiastic, open-minded crowds willing to ignore the rough spots of each production.

Plus there's the hominess: At Buck Creek, intermission refreshments are free ... although donations are encouraged.

This year's less-familiar musical, "Honk!" is, in a sense, the opposite of "Parade," et al. While those shows risked alienating audiences by addressing controversial or difficult themes, "Honk!" risks having adult audiences ask, "Why am I watching a children's theater show?"

"Honk!"-subtitled "The Ugly Duckling Musical"-is, literally, about barnyard fowl. Alienated from the rest of the animals because he's different, Ugly finds himself lost in the great big world. Only his mother cares enough to venture out to find him.

Kids' stuff? Sure. But as those who saw Actors Theatre of Indiana's production of "A Year with Frog and Toad" know, innocence can make for wonderful theater for all ages. And by many accounts, the original British production of "Honk!" had just such charms, beating out juggernauts "Mamma Mia!" and "The Lion King" for the 2000 Olivier Award, the London equivalent of the Tony Award.

The local production doesn't quite make the case for the show's excellence. On opening night, flubbed lines, erratic lighting, and widely varying voices and performance levels made it impossible for me to completely lose myself in the story. Of course, the glaring rough spots are often what differentiates a professional from a community theater production. And allowing for that is part of the bargain you make when you buy your ticket (a mere $15, by the way).

Yet the show still charmed. Trevor Fanning (recently in Lowbrow Production's "Assassins") made for a just-creepyenough Cat. Aaron B. Bailey's rural set was winningly simplistic. Craig Underwood, as Turkey, could gobble with the best of them.

If you've been reading this column over the past year, you may have noticed that I don't award grades, distribute stars, or raise or lower my thumb in assessing the quality of shows, exhibitions and concerts.

I don't believe in assigning such grades on principle. Would it be fair to use the same scoring for work from volunteer/avocational/non-professional/amateur/whatever-youwant-to-call-people-not-getting-paid-a-dime companies as I would for the product of a fully professional company?

To be specific, would it be fair to rate Buck Creek Players' "Honk!" by the same system as, say, the Indiana Repertory Theatre's "The Fantasticks"?

The obvious answer is no. The IRT has resources at its disposal-including greater flexibility in rehearsal time-that Buck Creek and its community-theater brethren could only dream about.

Without a curve-without blinders of some kind-it would be a rare amateur production that earned more than a star or two from anyone but friends and family of the cast. It's not that the non-pro productions I've seen haven't displayed talent: It's that they've rarely found a consistency of style and quality that adds up to a no-excusesneeded production comparable to that of the pros. (An exception: Indianapolis Civic Theatre's terrific production of "Ragtime" a few seasons back.)

On the other hand, grading each company by a different standard can confuse the reader (who, frankly, I'm more concerned with than the creative folks). Both "Honk!" and "The Fantasticks" each might earn a threestar rating. But in reading that, you would be reasonable in assuming that they are of similar quality. They aren't.

Which doesn't mean that there's not a place-an important one-for community productions. That's why I'll continue to review them-at least those that welcome critical coverage and seem to have excellence as a goal-as often as I can.

I'll just leave the stars to others.
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