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Weekend roundup: Reviews of Brian Stokes Mitchell and Dance Kaleidoscope's 'Divas'

February 12, 2017

The Cabaret (formerly at the Columbia Club after an initial stint at the Connoisseur Room) has made a smooth transition to temporary digs at the Indiana Landmarks Center, where it hosted Feb. 11 shows by Brian Stokes Mitchell.

Mitchell is best known from his leading roles in Broadway’s “Ragtime” and “Kiss Me, Kate,” neither of which he tapped into during his early set. Instead, he elected for dramatic renditions of such staples as “If I Were a Rich Man” from “Fiddler on the Roof” and “C’est Moi” from “Camelot.” Most of these self-contained segment could have fit comfortable in the guest musical slot of a 1970s talk shows hosted by Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, or Dinah Shore.

As  someone whose initial exposure to such show music came from those shows, I mean that in a very positive way. Mitchell’s combo of old-school charm, glorious baritone, and unquestionable acting chops turned these segments into polished gems, bringing dramatic arcs to each while never alienating those with fond memories of the originals.

Highlights included opening a capella with “Feeling Good” from “The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd,” an audience call and response to “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from “Porgy and Bess” (including a bit of spirited dance), and a crystal clear, intensely focused rendition of “Stars” from “Les Miserables” that made clear what a cinematic crime it was to cast Russell Crowe as Javert in the film version.  

The Indiana Landmarks Center will house the rest of the summer season--a strong lineup that include LaChanze, Billy Porter, Judy Kuhn and more. Where the Cabaret migrates to after that has yet to be announced. Wherever it goes, it’s comforting to see that its commitment to both outstanding entertainment and elegant surroundings remain clearly focused.

Meanwhile, "Divas,” Dance Kaleidoscope’s Feb. 9-12 program at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, offered choreography set to the music of leading ladies of song.

The first-half of the program offered further-honed versions of pieces created by the dancers themselves and first presented at the 2016 Indy Fringe Festival. Sweetly--but without much insight--introduced by the dancers themselves, the individual pieces in the forward-thinking set offered a range of visions that seemed to spark the company.

Through Marte Osiris Madera’s “Fragmented Dreams,” set to “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” I overcame my resistance to Celine Dion and found myself caught up in the graceful resistance of the piece, one in which contact--body or eye--was achingly held off until the final moments. At the other end of the energy spectrum, TImothy June’s “Enlightenment” offered an audibly audience-pleasing celebration of coming out at your own pace, set to Shirley Bassey’s rendition of “I Am What I Am.” And Brandom Comer’s “Over the Rainbow” took Patti LaBelle’s spiritual take on the song literally, imagining that way up high place as a heaven with the singer yearning for such a place to welcome a loved one (here performed with gravitas by former company anchor Liberty Harris, now DK’s rehearsal director/education coordinator).  

After intermission, the company returned in force for David Hochoy’s quartet of pieces set to the song of Janis Joplin and Nicholas A. Owens’ linked five-parter with an Aretha Franklin score. While both were a bit overcrowded, they each made smart use of the music, with Jillian Godwin’s multifaceted “Me and Bobby McGee” solo and a surprisingly low-key “First Snow in Kokomo” proving the most memorable.

Not only did the piece work on stage, but I’m now indebted to Owens for introducing me to this low-key treasure, penned by Franklin herself for her 1972 album “Young, Gifted and Black.”    


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