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Weekend offerings include cabaret, Chicano drama and a musical spoof comedy

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Pre-race activities at the Indianapolis Speedway, the 500 Festival Parade, the Snakepit Ball and the 500 Mile Race itself grabbed focus over the Memorial Day weekend in Indy but there were also plenty of performing arts events available for those seeking a cultural alternative.

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On Thursday, Examiner.com attended “A Night at the Cabaret,” presented by the Indianapolis Men’s Chorus at the Cabaret at the Columbia Club. Friday it was the Phoenix Theatre's “Bless Me, Ultima” in the Frank and Katrina Basile Theater. Then, on Saturday, this writer took in “Box Office of the Damned,” at Theatre on the Square.

“A Night at the Cabaret”

For the third year in a row, members of the Indianapolis Men’s Chorus, led by artistic director Greg Sanders, held their “Night at the Cabaret,” which showcased some its most talented singers, singing mostly Broadway show tunes and songs from the Great American Songbook.

Except for a few lackluster performances, all of the participants demonstrated superior vocal abilities. However, several stood out not only for their singing but also for their superior showmanship.

Charismatic Cory York has all the qualities of a Broadway performer, as evidenced by his rendition of “C’est Moi” from “Camelot” and Jason Robert Brown’s “Moving Too Fast” from “The Last Five Years,” during which he was accompanied by D.J. Smith on piano.

Judy Garland’s iconic 1963 counterpoint with Barbara Streisand, on the former’s TV show, was recalled by tenor Alex de Aguilar Reuter and baritone Michael Rabb singing “Get Happy/Happy Days Are Here Again.” Reuter also shone in Stephen Sondheim’s “Stay with Me/Children Will Listen” from the musical “Into the Woods.” Accompanying himself on the piano, Rabb was touching in Noel Coward’s “If Love Were All.” Marring his performance was the fact that the piano, unfortunately, was situated so that Rabb’s back was to the audience.

Ryan Smith, a recent I.U. School of Dentistry graduate and U.S. Army Captain, announced that the Cabaret performance would be his last because he was leaving for Germany, where he will be stationed. Given that he is one of the most dynamic and polished performers on the IMC’s roster, his loss is major. Nevertheless, he will always be remembered for his R & B styling and brilliant smile, and appealing stage presence, evidenced once again when he sang “I’m Your Man” and “Georgia on my Mind.”

Jordan Bolyard and Damon Clevenger both turned in robust performances while singing rock-flavored tunes from the musical in “Hedwig and The Angry Inch.” With both accompanied by Sanders, Bolyard sang “Origin of Love” and Clevenger (who played Hedwig in a recent Footlite Musicals production) performed “Sugar Daddy.”

Triple threat Joseph Perkins Jr., who frequently performs with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra Pops, showed Great White Way caliber when he sang “Come up to My Office” from the musical “Parade” and crooned Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are.”

On the downside, there was an inconsistency in sound quality which negatively impacted on certain performances. There was also a lack of consistency in regard to introduction of songs and performers which would have been helpful considering that programs were not provided; and a tepid chemistry amongst the musicians. Overall, though uneven, the IMC effort was entertaining and, in some instances, quite moving and inspiring.

For tickets and information regarding upcoming Indianapolis Men’s Chorus concerts, visit www.indychoruses.org.

“Bless Me, Ultima

Bryan Fonseca, artistic director, is to be commended for his dedication to producing and presenting works at the Phoenix Theatre that speak to African-American and LGTB history, culture and issues. And as he has done for a number of seasons, Fonseca, who himself is part Mexican in origin, has also presented plays by Latino playwrights. This season, it’s “Bless Me, Ultima,” based on Rudolpho Anaya’s bestselling Chicano novel of the same title published in 1972. The drama continues through June 8.

Ultima is one of the play’s main characters. She is a “curandera,” a medicine woman or healer who spiritually guides, teaches and mentors Antonio, a young boy growing up in a family living in 1940s New Mexico, about the history and the traditions of his people. Antonio is caught between the old ways and those of a swiftly changing modern world. Torn between Catholicism and indigenous spirituality, he struggles to find balance as he searches for his own identity amidst the violence that threatens to engulf him. Combining elements of magic, music and dance, “Bless Me, Ultima” is Antonio’s coming of age story.

Though beautifully produced "Bless Me, Ultima," unfortunately, suffered from lack of believability due to weak and often amateurish acting, particularly in the area of accents. They were inconsistent at best and stereotypical sounding at worst.

Scot Greenwell, who played the adult Antonio and the play’s narrator, grasped the essence of his character but was not entirely convincing in terms of his physical appearance and inability to successfully mimic an authentic sounding Spanish accent or the English accent of a native speaker.

Elisa Creekmur effectively captured Ultima’s or “La Grande’s” nurturing kindness but was not believable in terms of her character’s maturity and physical appearance which required Creekmur to appear much older.

Members of the ensemble, many of whom wore masks and played multiple characters, had their individual moments but some of them came off as mere caricatures.

“Bless Me, Ultima’s” saving grace, however, was its top notch production values and elements which included Laura Glover’s spectacular lighting, Tom Horan’s sound, Zach Rosing and Ben Dobler’s video, Jeffry Martin’s intriguing set, and Ashley Kiefer’s superbly designed and executed costumes. Together these talented stage craftspeople captured the exotic look and sound of Anaya’s world. Mariel Greenlee, who choreographed a lovely folk dance sequence, also contributed to the authenticity of the story told which unfortunately was not matched by all of those telling it.

For tickets and information about “Bless Me, Ultima” and the remainder of the Phoenix Theatre’s 2013 – 2014 season, call (317) 635-2381 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.

“Box Office of the Damned”

Capping off a weekend of varied theatrical experiences, this writer was highly amused by the frothy romp that was “Box Office of the Damned,” presented by Theatre on the Square on its Cabaret Stage. Michael Ogborn wrote the book, music, and lyrics for this musical revue which pokes fun at all things theater and which had its off-Broadway debut in 1994, starring the not-yet famous Kristin Chenoweth.

The TOTS production, adroitly directed by Paul Nicely, a well-known local actor fresh off his turn as Inspector Javert in the Civic Theatre’s hit “Les Misérables,” featured an appealing and likeable cast consisting of Jeffrey Beasley, Hannah Elizabeth Boswell, Carl Cooper, Karen Frye, Linda Heiden and Mark Perkins.

Satirical and biting, the review consisted of sketches combined with production numbers set to music which incorporated various styles prevalent in the musical theater genre. The story centered on the box office staff of the Amalgamated Center for the Performing Arts and their mishaps. Also skewered were the venue’s subscribers, single ticket buyers and the theater going public in general.

Dancing to and singing songs, such as “Please Hold,” “Vive La Matinee,” “The New Non-Union Usher Polka” and “One Ticket,” adeptly choreographed by Sean Seager, with vocal direction and accompaniment on keyboards by A. Paul Johnson, cast members showed well-rounded skills. Performing on the simple yet effective colorful set created by Rachel Godollet-Johnson, the cast also displayed comic flair while playing multiple characters in situations and individuals associated with the theater world, such as latecomers, elderly or “blue hairs,” matinee goers, ticket refunds and exchanges, volunteer ushers, obnoxious ticket buyers and long lines for the ladies room.

Seasoned Indy community theater performer Karen Frye, who played the no-nonsense box office supervisor, Anne, was a proverbial trouper, as she managed, sometimes with the help of cast mates and a wheelchair, to move about the stage, despite the fact that he was wearing a boot to support what appeared to be a broken leg.

The only thing that served to spoil an otherwise well executed production was an occasional breaking of the fourth wall. Due to the sight line associated with the location of this writer’s seat on the theater’s far right side, actors could be seen changing costumes through an opening in curtains meant to mask the backstage area from the audience. Though distracting, the production faux pas was not, however, totally detract from an afternoon of pure escapism nor did it impugn the solid effort made by all those associated with its creation.

For tickets and information regarding Theatre on the Square’s “Box Office of the Damned,” call (317) 685-8687 or visit www.tots.org.

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