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A&E: On stage, the kids are alright

August 4, 2008

Last year, American Cabaret Theatre's young adult production of "High School Musical" was, well, a very good high school musical. If you happened to be talked into going because your niece was in the cast, you would have had a surprisingly good time.

This year ACT's young adult "The Wiz" (running through Aug. 17) is similar. If this were a high school show, you'd be amazed at the vocal talent. If you approached it as children's theater, you'd be impressed by the scale (although you might question the bottle of beer that the Lion imbibes for courage). And no matter what got you in the door, you'd be knocked out by the voice of Jessica Murphy, who I've mentioned here before for her work in "High School Musical" and "Songs for a New World."

In dialogue scenes, she doesn't bring anything particularly new or interesting to the table (in turning "The Wiz" from its roots as an all-black show to a rainbow coalition affair, some of the funk is lost). But when she lets loose on "Soon As I Get Home," "Be a Lion," and "Home," she's riveting.

A do-rag-topped, four-man yellow brick road crew, spirited munchkins, and strong singing from witches good and bad help overcome some expected clunkiness.

Yes, "A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant" (through Aug. 16 at Theatre on the Square) has a cast of children. Yes, it is only about an hour long. Yes, it is a semi-musical with sets that seem made out of cardboard and costumes that are mostly purple jumpsuits.

And, yes, it is one of the funniest, strangest, most joyful and creepiest productions that I've ever seen in Indianapolis.

The show takes so many risks that it makes theater productions that pride themselves on being experimental seem like pikers. In a world where it's become increasingly difficult to surprise and shock, the fauxinnocent "Scientology Pageant," has a seemingly endless parade of jaw-dropping moments.

I was ready to applaud TOTS just for having the guts to stage it. Now having seen it, though, I also have to applaud the company for what it does with the already out-there material.

The show recounts the life of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard as if it were being performed by kids (who hilariously fight over who gets the plum role). The show has the tech credits of an elementary school nativity play and, as an audience member, you experience the same "I hope they remember their lines" tension that parents go through when their kid is in a school multi-purpose room playing a shepherd. The only thing is, here the kids are telling us about e-meters, auditors and Prince Xenu and his volcanoes (Are these unfamiliar? Then consider this show educational as well.)

While much of what happens transcends performance, director Ron Spencer should get credit for finding kids who never overstay their welcome. Two standouts are Claire Cassidy-who gets to be Hubbard-who has an exquisite, clear voice and never misses a moment, and impossibly-sweet-without-everbeing-cloying Morgan Patrick-Roof, whose mere presence highlights the craziness of the festivities.

For me, the only misstep came in the jabs at Scientology celebs. The Kirstie Alley weight joke seemed unnecessarily cruel and out of character for the show-although I have to confess to loving the Katie Holmes puppet. And there's an enormous kick in finding a program credit that reads: "Zachary Earls (Father, Buddhist monk, Second Reader, Prince Xenu, John Travolta)."

With huge laughs throughout-and a remarkably staged moment late in the show where a very powerful, confessional song isn't what it initially seems-"Scientology Pageant" is a must-see for anyone who bemoans how conventional Indiana theater can be.

Trust me, you've never seen anything like this.

At Wheeler Art Center at Fountain Square, newcomer Allalike Productions didn't bother dipping its toe into local theater. Instead, the new theater company leaped in head-first with an ambitious one-weekend-only (July 24-27) staging of the musical "bare."

Despite the title, the only thing laid bare in this show is the emotions. The largecast show tells of a group of high school seniors at a boarding school. It focuses on a young gay man whose roommate/partner ditches him for a fling with a gal-withreputation who becomes pregnant.

The problem with the material is that, while individual moments are heartfelt and moving, it ultimately asks us to care as much about the pivotal guy as the involved characters do. Yet his cruel behavior to both his partners makes it difficult to mourn his fate.

That being said, the production managed to overcome its meandering script and brutal sound problems. (In this small space, couldn't the microphones have been ditched? At times, I couldn't figure out who was actually singing.)

Helping considerably were multifaceted performances by, among others, Kagiso Alicia Paynter as "easy" Ivy and April Armstrong, who grounded the show early with the self-effacing "Plain Jane Fat Ass." While the writers of the show (which premiered in L.A. and has been recorded) seem to think the tormented men are the center of the drama, the real interest happens around the fringe. I'd love to see the show again-if the focus were on the two complex young women.

After the aforementioned three shows, it seemed a little odd to be in a theater with actual grown-ups on stage. But the adults of ShadowApe Theatre Co. (supplemented by a pair of college students) brought the expected range of polish, innovation and commitment to their latest show, "Tranformations" (which ran July 17-27).

Based on a 37-year-old book of poetry by Anne Sexton-who drew the pieces from Grimm's fairy tales-the companycreated show asked "Do you remember being read to as a child?" It then drew us into the already twisted world of Grimm (where stepsisters cut off chunks of their feet to fit into slippers, a prince is blinded by thorns, etc.) and the troubled vision of Sexton (who committed suicide in 1974).

Although powerful in individual moments-Robert Johansen's difficult to watch/difficult to look away Iron Hans proved a highlight-the piece didn't build or reach a catharsis. Instead, it presented, in a fascinating way, a series of variations on familiar themes. It was impeccably designed and acted but ultimately cold and not as revelatory as I'd hoped about Sexton's poetry, Grimm's tales or our own connection to either.
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