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Times a-changin’ with DK, nuns a-singin’ at Beef & Boards, and a killer show at TOTS

February 27, 2016

Three reviews that didn't make it into this weeks print edition.

“Voices of a Generation: The Folk/Rock Revolution”

There’s a legendary incident that occurred in 1965 when Bob Dylan allegedly threw fellow folksinger Phil Ochs out of his limo after the two shared words about songwriting. Ochs thought Dylan was losing his focus by straying from overtly topical songs. Dylan thought journalistic songwriting was a dead end.

In the matter of Dylan vs. Ochs, Dylan clearly won (although Ochs’ later, more poetic songs, are among his best). While many equate folk music with protest music, the reality is that most material that fell under the folk label wasn’t overtly political.

And neither is the bulk of the music emphasized in Dance Kaleidoscope’s world premiere “Voices of a Generation: The Folk/Rock Revolution” (through March 6 at the Indiana Repertory Theatre).

Oh, we get a hint of protest in Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” and a few others, but the emphasis here is on the melancholy introspection of Simon & Garfunkel, Carol King and Joni Mitchell.

Teamed-up choreographers Nicholas A. Owens and David Hochoy make clear from the beginning that their dancers are going to be guided more by the music then the lyrics, effectively dodging the clichés that come from taking popular songs too literally.

While that occasionally creates a disconnect between the movement and the song (there are some moments where a dancer’s seeming self-satisfied smile stands in contrast with what we are hearing, for instance), for the most part it frees up the program to be more creative.

The first act is particularly strong, stressing the individuality of the dancers and the tenuousness and importance of human contact. Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” is an inevitable inclusion but feels fresh as the individual dancers capture the searching spirit of the classic tune. Nina Simone’s “The House of the Rising Sun” makes maximum use not just of the stage but of the area around it. And Leonard Cohen’s enigmatic “Suzanne” appropriately eludes specificity while mysteriously maintaining its anchor. These work individually but also build effectively to a gorgeous interpretation of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” that smartly solidified those themes, never cheapening the pain or the comfort of the iconic song.

A bit more variety might have strengthened the second act, which still houses many pleasures, most memorably Mariel Greenlee’s deliberately disheveled solo on Joni Mitchell’s “Twisted.” It reveals the kind of detail work that turns a possible gimmick into a gem.

The program reaches its height of energy and focus with Richie Haven’s hard-driving guitar-fueled “Freedom.” I would have preferred to leave on that high--the two numbers that follow are fine, but not as compelling.

Smart lighting throughout keeps numbers distinct and dramatic. The colorful costumes go out of their way to avoid ‘60s tropes, coming off as inspired more by Mitchell’s “ice cream castles” lyric than anything related to the era. Good luck reconciling their Florida beach party esthetics to the material.

“Sister Act”

Enough with the moaning about movies being turned into Broadway musicals. Like movies adapted from books or sitcoms based on movies, an adaptation either works or it doesn’t.

As I wrote when I reviewed the tour, the stage musical adaptation of the hit Whoopi Goldberg film “Sister Act” (at Beef & Boards through March 26), was never my first choice to see when it played on Broadway. It was never my second or third choice either on theater-intensive trips there.

I was happy to find, though, that the solidly entertaining tour exceeded my expectations. And I’m even happier to report that the production at Beef & Boards reveals a show that earns a comfortable spot in the musical theater catalog, even if it doesn’t break any ground. 

The makers of “Sister Act” know that audiences aren’t coming to it to see the formula tweaked. They’re looking for a feel-good film brought to life on stage with something to compensate for the lack of stars and familiar songs. They get that and more not because of a terribly original story (Think “Some Like It Hot” meets “Nunsense”) or a memorable star turn. Instead, “Sister Act” succeeds through a combination of energetic-but-not-frantic pacing, some fun lyrics, dynamic music (in the Disney musical vein—thanks to composer Alan Menken) and, here, a lively ensemble.

In the lead, Zuri Washington may seem over-the-top at first, but her gradual realization of the power of her newfound sisterhood works and proves surprisingly moving. Suzanne Stark helps keep the tale grounded as the Mother Superior with growth of her own to do. And, in a Beef & Boards debut, Gabrielle Harker is a keeper as the shy Sister Mary Robert. 

I have to admit, though, it was a bit jarring to see a character shot (early in the show) on the Beef & Boards stage. Death, here, is usually relegated to Rodgers & Hammerstein or the "Arsenic & Old Lace" basement. It will be interesting to see how the crowd handles "Into the Woods." 

“Killer Joe”

And finally, forget “The Hateful Eight.” Quentin Tarantino should pay a visit to Theatre on the Square to see how to make edge-of-the-seat entertainment out of a group of violent wildcards in a claustrophobic space.

Tracy Letts gleefully avoids putting anything resembling a moral center in his early play “Killer Joe” (through March 5 at TOTS). And a big part of the pleasure is knowing that each of its five denizens are capable of just about anything within the walls of its expertly crafted and smartly squalid trailer set.  It’s a pleasure to watch a production where all of the design elements rise to the level of the cast and the script and where plot revelations prove both surprising and inevitable.

There’s a discussion to be had about the final moments of the play, but that sort of spoiler talk has no place in a short review. Suffice it to say that these characters behave in particularly ugly ways that will minimize your post-show dining pleasure. Eat first. 

(Disclosure: Theatre on the Square is also home to "Going...Going...Gone," a monthly show I co-produce)

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