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Porter tribute and Bernstein homage are weekend star attractions

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Examiner.com had the pleasure of attending two very unique performing arts events over the weekend. Though one was professional and the other an avocational endeavor, what they both had in common was their high entertainment value. On Friday it was “Anything Goes: In Concert” presented by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and on Saturday, a Q Artisty production of “East Side Story.” With both representing vastly different levels of skill and experience, this writer was reminded of the breadth, width and quality of Indy’s performing arts organizations, large and small.

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“Anything Goes: In Concert”

A world premiere symphonic production of “Anything Goes,” led by Principal Pops conductor Jack Everly, with Ty Johnson as its executive producer, the concert version was presented as part of the ISO’s Printing Partners Pops Series at Hilbert Circle Theater. Celebrating the 80th Anniversary of the classic Cole Porter musical, the concert starred Broadway luminaries Rachel York as Reno Sweeney, Gary Beach as Moonface Martin, Judy Kaye as Evangeline Harcourt and Max von Essen as Billy Cocker.

Also featured were Marissa McGowan as Hope Harcourt, Tari Kelly as Emma, Ted Keegan as Lord Evelyn Oakleigh and Dennis Kelly as Elisha J. Whitney.

The setting for the screwball comedy “Anything Goes” is an ocean liner named the S.S. America which is bound from New York to London. Travelling on it is Billy Crocker, a stowaway who’s in love with heiress Hope Harcourt, who’s engaged to Lord Evelyn Oakleigh. Reno Sweeney, a night club singer, and Moonface Martin, a crook, collude with Billy as he schemes to win Hope.

The primary members of the cast, all of whom possess Broadway credits, and, as such, are the best at what they do, were all adept as comedic actors, in tune with the style of the period and equally accomplished at both singing and executing movement. They were superbly guided by stage director David Levy, who also wrote the well-edited adaptation (he cut 20 minutes from the original script), vocal director Greg Sanders and Jennifer Ladner, who oversaw the show’s snappy choreography. And it goes without saying that they also had the great fortune of performing in front of, under Everly’s expert direction, 55 ISO musicians, who provided the lush orchestration and spot on interpretation of Porter’s timeless score.

York, who played the role of Reno Sweeney during the national tour, revealed the depth of her expertise in the part of the man-eating nightclub singer, showing presence and charisma in “I Get a Kick out of You,” “Anything Goes” and “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.”

Tony Award winner Beach as Moonface Martin, a rubber faced actor with a gift for physical comedy, was hilarious in the role of Public Enemy #13. And so much so that the fact that he read his lines from a binder containing his script during a few scenes, though somewhat distracting, did not totally detract from his overall performance. Still, one could not help but wonder why a performer of his stature was the only performer on book on opening night.

Kaye, a two time Tony award winner, also deftly illustrated her Broadway pedigree in a humorous performance as stuffy-yet-kind, fortune-seeking society matron, Evangeline Harcourt.

Ted Keegan, who played the title role in “Phantom of the Opera” for many years, turned in one of the show’s most impressive performances as prissy, ineffectual Lord Evelyn Oakleigh who’s clueless that his fiancée Hope is in love with another man but ends up finding happiness with Reno Sweeney, the last person you’d expect to be his type. Keegan, whose marvelous voice reflected why he was such a great Phantom, was absolutely charming in “The Gypsy in Me.”

Among the ensemble were some well- known local performers which included Ellen Kingston, Claire Wilcher, Joseph Perkins Jr., Danny Kingston, Melissa Schott and members of the Indianapolis Men’s Chorus. Talented singers and dancers all, they and their colleagues acquitted themselves well and held their own alongside the Broadway pros in the cast.

A huge factor in the show’s appeal were ISO costumer extraordinaire Clare Henkel’s smart ‘30s-style clothes, which featured the women in smart dresses, skirts, hats, and Jean Harlow-like slinky evening gowns and men in dapper suits and tuxedos.

Making the evening extra special was the presence of Porter’s cousin Margaret Coles Russell and her husband Steve Russell, the presenting sponsors of the concert who watched from their seats in the Hilbert’s dress circle.

For tickets and information about the remainder of the Indianapolis Sumphony Orchestra’s 2013-2014 season, call (317) 639-4300 or visit www.indianapolissymphony.org.

“East Side Story”

There weren’t any Broadway stars in Q Artistry’s impressive Q Kids production of “East Side Story” but someday some of the young performers in the show may one day find themselves on the Great White Way. That’s how talented they were.

Q Artistry, based in Irvington on Indy’s east side, is making a name for itself for presenting original and adapted works. The theater also seeks to nurture young people through its educational programs, such as Q Kids, which presented “East Side Story.” Making this effort unique was the fact that the cast included 12 young people, ages 7–17, with 12 adults who served as their mentors.

“East Side Story” was presented in the former ballroom at the historic Irvington Lodge, which serves as Q Artistry’s performing space. Wunderkind Ben Asaykwee, Q Artistry’s intrepid, multi-talented artistic director, not only produced and directed the show; he also wrote the script, composed its original music, choreographed its dance numbers and even performed in the show.

The show’s title, “East Side Story,” is a reference to “West Side Story,” the iconic musical with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and choreography by Jerome Robbins, which premiered on Broadway in 1957. Asaykwee’s clever version is not only a parody of the iconic musical but is also an homage. Instead of a commentary about race relations, Asaykwee’s version focuses on the generation gap, with the rival gangs in this case consisting of the adults, who are called the “Tallz,” and the kids, who are named the “Youfs.”

The “Youfs” cast included Madison Adkins, Athan Christopher, Adia Dant, Sam Eichacker, Griffin Lohner, Isaac McCrae, Elsie McNulty, Zane Roberts, Morgan Roof, Katharine Ruggar, Saffron Shore and Lindsey Snow.

The “Tallz” were Ben Asaykwee, Tiffanie Bridges, Matt Campbell, Jaddy Ciucci, Janice Hibbard, Maria Meschi, Carrie Morgan, Ben Schuetz, Amelia Smith, Graig Underwood, Sara Williams and Abby Wright.

The show’s action was staged in the center of the ballroom which was flanked on either sides by audience members seated in an arena configuration. On opposite sides of the playing space were platformed stages which served as the home base for each group.

Asaykwee has a knack for writing clever dialogue infused with pop culture references. In “East Side Story” his sharp witticism was also delightfully present in this script filled with Irvington and east side references. The same can be said for his lyrics for songs with titles such as “Slide it to the East Side” and “Indi-nap-o-lis.” Both songs were very catchy and could actually do well commercially.

In introductory remarks prior to the show, presented to a sold out audience of 120 members, Asaykwee remarked that the 12 young people in the cast were chosen from a group of 43 who auditioned. Judging from the talent displayed by these young triple-threat performers, they were obviously the crème de la crème. The adults in the cast, including Asaykwee, were hardly slouches. In fact, the performers in both groups, with mentors and kids often paired, were equally talented.

As far as the show’s dance sequences, which were staged the whole length of the ballroom, there was plenty of room for the performers to move to Asaykwee’s exuberant and exciting Jerome Robbins inspired choreography, especially in a scene where the two groups first confront each other and later during a “conclave,” or “rumble” as it was called in “West Side Story.” One of the highlights of the show takes place during “Halloween Festival,” during which all the performers are wearing costumes chosen from a costume shop operated by one of the story’s characters, and everyone dances to Latin-flavored music, another reference to “West Side Story” and the dance in the gym.

The only downside of the production was the acoustics of the ballroom which is a cavernous space and which sometimes made it difficult to hear the show’s dialogue and lyrics, but not enough to ruin the enjoyment of the highly entertaining show.

And like “West Side Story,” Q Artistry’s “East Side Story,” which involves a friendship between a member of the “Tallz” and one from the “Youfs,” there is a message about celebrating difference and accepting others. Like the trailblazing work on which it was based had an enormous impact when it first appeared and is still relevant today, “East Side Story” had the same powerful effect. There is only two performances left, on Saturday, May 17, at 2 and 5 pm. This writer highly recommends that, if it is not already too late, buy your tickets now. It’s truly not to be missed.

For tickets and information about Q Artistry’s Q Kids production of “East Side Story” call (317) 677-5317 or visit www.qartistry.org.

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