LOU’S VIEWS: Best in shows for 2011

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The end of the year is here, and that means a look back on outstanding 2011 arts events in Indy. As in the past, I’m not pretending this is an objective best list (are any?). Instead, it’s a celebration of the work that reminded me I have the best job in Indiana.

Like many music lovers, I eagerly anticipated the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s new maestro taking the podium. What I didn’t expect was an ISO Opening Night Gala that holistically—and very engagingly—embraced everything the ISO can do. It showed off Krzysztof Urbanski, of course, but it also celebrated pops conductor Jack Everly, acknowledged Raymond Leppard, and rocked the house with Time for Three, all the while showing off the company of musicians who make the ISO the artistic entertainment organization it has become.

ae-iso2-15col.jpg Krzysztof Urbanski at the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. (Photo courtesy Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra)

Besides Urbanski, the other big A&E topic this time last year was the soon-to-open Palladium and whether its acoustics would be perfect, as its marketing campaign insisted.

While I admired the desire for flawless audio (and I certainly don’t expect to hear chamber music in a better-sounding venue than I did at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center/Miro Quartet concert), sound doesn’t matter as much as programming does. I wasn’t overwhelmed by the first half season, but the full one we’re in the middle of is packed with possibilities.

Truth is, with so much to cover in the region, I didn’t get to see a 10th of the shows I wanted to in the Palladium. And that’s certainly better than not having choices. I look forward to hearing—and attending much of—what’s next, not just from the big-name headliners but also from such unexpected shows as singer Christine Ebersole, the extreme improv group 500 Clown, and the return of the Great American Songbook Competition.

Except for top-notch sets, you never quite know what you are going to get from a production by Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre (the former Indianapolis Civic Theatre now anchored at the CPA’s Tarkington Theatre). Sometimes, Civic’s shows are exactly what you would expect from a community theater. Sometimes they transcend. Occasionally, they’re better than a Broadway tour. Such was the case with the “The Drowsy Chaperone,” which got the Civic season off to a great start in its new home at the Tarkington.

ae-drowsychaperone-15col.jpg A period musical comedy fills the apartment of a contemporary man in Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre’s “The Drowsy Chaperone.” (Photo courtesy Civic Theatre)

The local pros, too, were capable of surprises. The show on last season’s IRT schedule that seemed the most middle-of-the-road safe turned out to be the most compelling. Audiences might have known the story of “The

Diary of Anne Frank” before they took their seats, but Director Janet Allen understood that the power of the play comes from the opportunity to see the title young woman not as an icon but as a human being whose fate was not a foregone conclusion. In the IRT’s hands, “Diary” was fresh and direct and painfully human.

Heartfelt performances, fine singing and smart directing all kept the Phoenix Theatre’s “Avenue Q” from falling into the “good enough if you didn’t see the original” category (see the Phoenix’s “Spring Awakening”). On this satiric avenue, Director Bryan Fonseca and company found an intimacy the piece lost in larger venues. Its success spawned a return engagement coming up in April. Get tickets now.

There’s something uniquely exciting about being in the first audience for a show and knowing it’s going to be a runaway hit. Such was the case with $3 Bill’s smart/wacky “School House Wrong,” the must-see show of the 2011 Indy Fringe festival. The title alone earned knowing chuckles and the show itself delivered big laughs accentuated by giddy pacing, a jovial (if too large) cast, and simple but effective staging. The show has been revived twice since and will migrate north in January for the Chicago Sketchfest.

Another hit that’s likely to build an even bigger following on return visits is “Night of the Living Dead,” a live production by newcomer Acting Up Production. Smart use of the Indy Fringe Building was certainly a plus, as was the choice of having the actors play the gore fest with a straight face.

Even smarter was No Exit Performance’s difficult and accomplished “4.48 Psychosis,” a painful trip into a damaged woman’s psyche that made just about everything else put on stage this season seem mainstream.

ae-secondary-bt-15col.jpg Thornton Dial’s “All the Cats in Town” was part of the “Hard Truths” exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. (Photo Courtesy Indianapolis Museum of Art)

The national press didn’t pay much attention to the Palladium. But it did light up when a jewel in Columbus Indiana’s architectural crown opened to the public. The Miller House is widely acknowledged to be a masterpiece of mid-century modern design and it’s been given its due thanks to curatorial work by the Indianapolis Museum of Art that lets the home largely speak for itself. The IMA also deserves praises for bringing together the remarkable work of Thornton Dial in “Hard Truths,” an exhibition of depth, breadth and international import.

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis created a winner with “Treasures of the Earth,” which interactively focuses kids on the rediscovery of the lost, specifically an Egyptian tomb, a shipwreck and ancient Chinese terra cotta warriors. A nifty elevator ride gets things started at this permanent exhibition. And the Indiana History Center blazed a fascinating trail with the moving, hologram-anchored exhibition “You Are There 1968: Robert F. Kennedy Speaks.”

ae-treas-childmuseum-15col.jpg Children explore the tomb of Seti I at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. (Photo/Sandro Vannini)

Vocal pleasures were commonplace at the Cabaret at the Columbia Club, which continued to bring in some of the best vocal talent in the country. In 2011, that included outstanding shows from composer Jason Robert Brown and crooner Tony DeSare. The Indianapolis Opera made strong use of its own smaller performing space, particularly when Robert Orth made magic out of Dominick Argento’s “A Water Bird Talk.”

And at the risk of being redundant, I have to add the Indianapolis City Ballet annual “Evening with the Stars” benefit performance to my list. Once again, it featured my favorite performance of the year. This time, it was San Francisco Ballet’s Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith performing Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain.” Steady, elegant and achingly sad from its initial slow sway to its precise, seemingly friction-free lifts, through its single gentle kiss to its heart-stoppingly simple final moment, it captured an emotional, wordless, stunningly beautiful journey. I didn’t want it to end.

ae-indyballet15col.jpg Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith perform during “Evening with the Stars” at the Indianapolis City Ballet. (Photo courtesy Indianapolis City Ballet/Gene Schiavone)

Then again, if it didn’t, 2012 would never come. And I’ve got a lot that I’m already looking forward to.

Happy New Year.•


This column appears weekly. Send information on upcoming arts and entertainment events to lharry@ibj.com.

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