LOU'S VIEWS: Conner Prairie balloon ride marred by corporate logos

June 15, 2009

This week, balloons take visitors into Conner Prairie airspace, a wizard to and from Oz, and a grieving curmudgeon to animated adventures.

The journey from here to there (wherever there may be) has inspired many an artist and adventurer. And flight--the soaring kind, not the running away kind--is often a key component.

Over the course of 24 hours, I recently experienced three very literal flight adventures, one physical, one theatrical and one cinematic.

As of last week, visitors to Conner Prairie no longer need to stay earthbound. The living history museum opened a new attraction, an 1859 Balloon Voyage that (for an extra fee), takes a ring of passengers about 350 feet above Fishers.

The view from there is as spectacular as any view of central Indiana can possibly be. And on a clear day you can see downtown, the Pyramids, and more.

The problem is the view from the rest of Conner Prairie.

If you aren't on the balloon ride and, instead, are losing yourself in the meticulously detailed past that is Conner Prairie's forte, you can't help but notice a giant balloon above you--one bedecked with prominent anachronistic logos for AM/PM markets and BP service stations.

Now, I fully understand the economic need for corporate sponsorships. I've long since given up calling Verizon Wireless Music Centre by its former name and I can live comfortably with Lucas Oil Stadium and Hilbert Circle Theatre.

But none of those monikers get in the way of the experiences themselves. The orchestra doesn't work Steve Hilbert's name into the music and Peyton Manning doesn't sneakily dip the opposing team's football in Lucas Oil.

The Conner Prairie experience, however, is marred by the names on the balloon. The AM/PM-ing of such an impossible-to-avoid visual component is a violation of the integrity of the place. What's next? A Coke machine in the blacksmith's shop?


By now you know that "Wicked," the touring musical blockbuster in the midst of a month-long nearly-sold-out run at the Murat Theatre, offers an alternative take on the "Wizard of Oz." This was my second time going down this particular yellow brick road, and I was pleased to see that the show arrived here in strong shape, anchored by two terrific leads.

Like many youthful musicals from "Oklahoma!" to "West Side Story," "Wicked" works best if the actors play it at the appropriate maturity level. Marcia Dodd, as the allegedly wicked witch Elphaba, anchors the character as a teen, which makes her challenges and decisions all the more understandable and moving. When the round-faced outcast sings of her yearning for a life change by meeting the Wizard--and when she rebels at the end of the first act after her naive hopes are shattered--she's equally moving. Even after she reaches that understanding, Dodd holds onto a spark of that hurt child, which helps considerably in the less-magical second half.

And as her enemy/mentor/pal, Helene Yorke glows as Glinda, particularly when she lets her over-the-top silliness come out in the "Popular" number.

The musical itself still feels a few productions away from its ideal form. The clockwork setting is as muddy and beside-the-point as ever, the score's dirges are wearying, and the Wizard himself never comes to life (perhaps explaining why other "Wicked" casts have included such familiar faces as Joel Grey and Ben Vereen in the role).

I'm second to few in my admiration for composer Stephen Schwartz. He also penned the songs for "Pippin" and "Godspell" as well as such lesser-known shows as "Children of Eden" and "The Baker's Wife." In the latter cases, unsuccessful high-profile stagings in London and on the road in the United States led to realization of work yet to be done. Because of those painful lessons, higher-quality musicals emerged.

The out-of-the-box success of "Wicked" would suggest that rewrites aren't going to happen. Which is a bit of a shame. "Wicked," as it stands, is a deserved blockbuster. Given a little more time to develop, it could be a musical for the ages.


Everybody, it seems, loves "Up," the latest animated film from the magicmakers at Pixar.

And I'd add myself to that chorus if the film had continued with the promise of its impeccable first half. After that, though, the gentle tale of an elderly man finding adventure after the death of his beloved forgets the beauty of its fantasy and the humanity of its main character.

The poetic image of a house uprooted by thousands of balloons is muddied by talking dogs and a pointless villain. And our reluctant hero starts performing superhuman feats that undermine the carefully crafty, quirky reality the film worked so hard to set up.

When a film achieves greatness early on, it's crushing when it resorts to being just OK.

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