A&E: Crowds make good stuff even better

While I try not to be swayed by an enthusiastic crowd, this week it was difficult not to be influenced by my fellow audience members. Their passion, their support and their we’re-with-you-ness seemed to boost performers to greater heights everywhere I looked.

And while a passionate crowd won’t ever convince me that a play or concert is a satisfying one, if I’m already enjoying a show, it’s that much better when everyone else seems to be too.

This weekend of enthusiasm started at the Phoenix Theatre’s local premiere of the play “Some Men.”

More patchwork than play, “Some Men” looks at the last 80 years in gay American life, ricocheting around the years and touching down into the lives of a wide range of characters.

I can understand how the show could feel like the emptying of a notebook-the loose connecting of scenes playwright Terrence McNally couldn’t or didn’t choose to finish. After its opening scene-set during a gay wedding-I found myself wanting McNally to stay with these interesting, engaging characters rather than jumpcutting to another time.

What McNally chose to do here doesn’t seem clear at first. But after a few well-played but fairly obvious scenes that lead us to believe we are heading into familiar territory (an encounter between a never-did-this married man and a male prostitute, a don’t-ask-don’ttell lover at his lover’s funeral), McNally suddenly seems liberated.

“Some Men” doesn’t quite come together as a fully realized play. But it satisfies as a collection of short stories, some more original than others, but all filled with moving, graceful, heartening moments.

And laughs. McNally has always been great with a character-driven punch line.

Elegantly designed (set by James Gross, lighting by Laura Glover) and with direction by Bryan Fonseca that lets each piece breathe, the show quietly offers some of the best work I’ve seen from some familiar Indy faces. Forgive me for using actors’ names instead of characters’ (just about all play multiple roles) when I say that I won’t soon shake Jon Lindley’s reaction to Scot Greenwell’s confession of love at a group-therapy meeting-or Greenwell’s dance when he believes no one else is in the room.

When Kurt Owens dares to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to a room full of self-proclaimed theater queens, what could be a cultural cliché takes on remarkable resonance. The riveted silence from the crowd spoke volumes.

Afterward, I was thankful I saw this production rather than the one in New York. Some shows are better-more moving-writ small. And while I had mixed feelings about the Phoenix’s “L! V! C!,” I have no reservations about recommending its version of “Some Men.” In this case, a lesser play is more.

I only made it to an afternoon of the Indy Jazz Fest this year, but I did catch Chicago singer Stephanie Blanchard and the ad hoc quartet she put together for the occasion. She and her cohorts deliciously worked their way from “Lazy Afternoon” and “Honeysuckle Rose” to a tentshaking version of “That Old Black Magic.”

Prior to that standard, she offered apologies to Irving Berlin for “what I’m about to do to his song,” but there were no apologies necessary-made evident by the hold she had on the crowd through her set.

Which illustrated one of the beauties of the festival format. Big names such as Dave Koz and John Legend may pull you in, but often the greatest pleasures come from the discoveries.

My reason for leaving the Jazz Fest early was to catch Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre’s “Hooray for Bollywood” (June 13-14 at Pike Performing Arts Center). And a few minutes spent in Hancock’s world erased any regret at having walked away from potentially great music.

Bollywood refers to the bright, vibrant, over-the-top musicals of the Hindi-language Bombay film industry, and someone must have warned Hancock that a few missteps or a misguided notion could result in an offensive embarrassment. There’s a minefield of challenges for a relatively mainstream dance company adapting a style identified with a particular ethnic group.

But Hancock-who choreographed the evening’s four pieces-did exactly the opposite of insult. He celebrated. And not by being excessively reverential. Instead, he found a riveting balance between his own modern dance style and the playfulness, the melodrama and the heart of Bollywood excess.

If the opening piece, “Devdas,” had a convoluted plot impossible to follow without the program notes, so be it. It also had forward motion that smoothly pulled dancers Autumn Kentrick, Martin Casanova and Rachel Tuland Maryanovskaya from one magical sequence to the next (with an assist from Ryan Koharchik’s expert lighting design).

Act 2 featured three shorter pieces, with the second, “The Sari,” proving the simplest and the most powerful. In it, Sarah Collister, in white, danced her own way while rows of sari-clad dancers followed structured movements. I don’t think it surprised anyone when she pulled down the material that stretched from the floor to high above the stage and wrapped herself in it. Her eventually joining the others could be interpreted as a celebration of the embracing of tradition or the sad story of the compromise of individuality. Take your pick. Either way, it worked.

The audience embraced Hancock and his dancers wholeheartedly-especially during the final piece, “Tollywood,” which took the energy level up a few notches. It caused a near frenzy with the five men in front of me. To see dance evoke such a genuine, joyful outpouring was something special. And only added to my pleasure.

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