Coming Home: Storytellers Kim Weitkamp and Bil Lepp

There are some stories that transport us to far-off lands or long-ago times. There are stories that whisk us off to places that have only ever existed in our collective imaginations. But then there are other tellers who focus on the kinds of shared experiences we’ve all had: a great teacher, an overbearing aunt who threatens to smother you with her bosoms, that stupid health assignment where you have to look after an egg.

Kim Weitkamp and Bil Lepp’s “Love and Other Headaches” concert falls firmly into the latter camp. Weitcamp’s telling style at times feels more stand-up comedian than storyteller; lots of carefully orchestrated punchlines. But a line of sweetness winds through her stories, too, with an emphasis on family–even when it’s ridiculous, which it usually is. Her very best line came when she stopped focusing quite so much on humor and instead reflected that “sometimes we don’t recognize a moment until it’s become a memory.” It’s a shrewd observation, and, in a way, the very basis of storytelling. We can’t always see what matters when it’s right in front of us, but with storytelling, we can keep it alive forever once we see its import.

In contrast, Lepps’s style is all about fast-talking tall-tales. He truly spins a story, one tale leading seamlessly into the next before doubling back and returning to the original story. His first story, “The Worst Christmas Ever,” somehow manages to incorporate a fear that his father will shoot Rudolph, a misunderstanding about a trip to see Elephant Gerald (say it out loud), and a small-town teacher’s failed attempts to teach world religions. Delivered in rapid-fire style with a West Virginia drawl, the result is compelling, funny, and utterly relatable.

I’ll admit to being biased: I prefer stories that take me to places I’ve never been before. But Weitkamp and Lepp are enjoyable companions for an evening spent closer to home.

Next up from Storytelling Arts is “Raven Ravin’ Misbehavin'” from Beth Horner. Save $5 when you buy your tickets in advance.

PS, any other ISTEP kids have flashbacks to “A lepp is a ball”? Just me?

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Go Tell It on the Mountain: Songs and Stories of Light

To be honest, I had a hard time convincing people to come see this storytelling concert, presented by husband-and-wife team Kim and Reggie Harris. “No, it’s great!” I assured them. “They’re awesome musicians and they specialize in songs and stories about the Underground Railroad and the Civil Rights movement and–”

“Oh, that sounds depressing,” they’d say. “I don’t want to think about those things.”

I wish now I had told them just to look at the title: these are songs and stories of light. These are tales that tell us that even in the darkest moments of humanity, there is hope and wonder and even joy. Nowhere is that encapsulated better than in the couple’s opening story, “The People Could Fly.” Yes, the story involves slavery. Yes, slavery is and was awful. But the story is one of deep, abiding hope: all it takes is one person to remember that we are capable of greatness, and suddenly, we all can fly. Or, in a moving and timely moment, the pair led the audience in a rendition of “Sing Mandela Free,” in honor of the late hero. And what a song that is! It’s not, “we’re going to tear down his prison,” not, “we’re going to hate those who oppose us.” We are going to sing this man free. And even more amazingly? They did.

Oh, yes. The singalongs. Typically, I’m not a huge fan of them. No, no, guys, I paid money to hear you sing. But the Harrises have such an amazing energy and charisma, you can’t not sing. They invite you into their world, hold your hand and make you feel awesome about singing in concert with others, even if you can’t sing. For a reason I still can’t understand, we sang an ode to solar energy to the tune of “Angels We Have Heard on High.” It was nonsensical, strange and a ton of fun. Just go with it.

Not all stories or songs are traditional; a heartfelt tale of Reggie’s liver transplant was thought-provoking, and the accompanying song, “Resurrection Day,” was lovely. The pair alternate between very theatrical telling style–usually in the more traditional tales–to more casual, comfortable patter. Both styles work well together and help keep the evening fresh.

I can honestly say this may be my favorite Storytelling Arts event I’ve yet attended. The couple bring history, struggle and hope to life in ways that feel real and personal to everyone. Thanks for braving the arctic temperatures and visiting us in Indianapolis.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the superb Freetown Village Singers who kicked off the evening. These four talented ladies sang gorgeous harmonies of traditional spirituals. I could quite happily have listened to a whole evening of their songs.

The next Storytelling Arts of Indiana event is Choctaw teller Tim Tingle, with his presentation of “From Boarding School to Alcatraz, the Clarence Carnes Story” on January 18. This is sure to be another season highlight. Don’t miss it.

Disclosure: I am a board member of Storytelling Arts of Indiana. I paid for my ticket from my own pocket and have not been compensated in any way. 

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Scary Stories, Scary Experiences: Ghost Stories at Crown Hill

When I was a kid, I hated being scared. I distinctly remember my mom taking my brother and me to the haunted house at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis one year. We paid for our tickets and waited in the long, long line to get in, all the while listening to spooky sounds. We finally got to the entrance, and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t go in. What was I afraid would happen at a children’s museum haunted house? Beats me. But I sat by the door and waited. At the same time, I would devour books on ghost stories–every child of the ’90s remembers the horrifying Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series–and then spend sleepless nights waiting for my head to fall off. What was the difference?

Scary stories allow us to feel fear without experiencing it. That might seem like a fine distinction, but in a haunted house, there is direct interaction. There is a possibility, however remote, that that mild-mannered Children’s Museum volunteer is actually a serial killer clown. With a story, we see fear secondhand, and the primary concern is paper cuts (or today, I guess, Kindle electrocution). We get the salacious thrill without the risk.

Storytelling Arts of Indiana’s annual Ghost Stories at Crown Hill event combines the two. Yes, there’s the storytelling component that’s still secondhand and removed from true fear, but you’re watching all of this at night. In a graveyard. A graveyard full of 200,000 men, women, babies, soldiers, wives, fathers and every other kind of person imaginable, any one of whom might take offense to a story and grab your ankle on your way back to your car.

The best stories at the event took advantage of the graveyard setting and the first fear: fear of death. From tales of a man crawling through tunnels under the tombstones, pursued both by a vengeful ghosts and by rats (“Pull your feet a little closer to your body,” the teller advised) to a fantastic modern update on classic campfire tale “The Golden Arm” where the greedy husband gets his comeuppance with an embrace from the grave, these stories let us wonder what was lurking out there in the dark. Waiting. For us.

A tale of haunted chewing gum eschewed the graveyard but embraced the same “it could be out there right now!” fear and will probably have a few kids scrutinizing their trick-or-treat bags a bit more closely than usual, while a story of some super smelly sneakers certainly encourages better podiatric hygiene.

Other stories strayed a bit further, relying on our humanity and empathy for others to make us feel that fear. A variant on Bluebeard’s Wives (always a favorite of mine) plays not so much on the horror of finding a closet full of blood, bones and flesh, but rather the horrible helplessness of not being able to help someone in need. A pair of Japanese folktales from the work of Lafcadio Hearn–thanks for letting me put my Asian Studies minor to work–play on duty, honor and more fear of rats. Two more folktales, one from Scotland and one from Zimbabwe, were perhaps a bit divorced from their cultural roots to be readily understandable, but featured nice gross-out moments nonetheless.

Over time, I’ve learned the pleasures of experiencing fear, rather than feeling it by proxy. Ghost Stories at Crown Hill combines the two just enough to be spine tinglingly fun instead of truly terrifying. If you come to this event next year–and you should–do spend some time wandering the beautiful, peaceful cemetery. Knowing the place is so lovely and so calm, it’s hard to imagine any vengeful spirits out and about.

Though there probably totally are some. And do watch out for the rats, won’t you?

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World Made of Steel, Made of Stone: Flashdance the Musical

The ’80s were unquestionably the age of the great dancing movies. You had Footloose, Dirty Dancing and, of course, Flashdance. You can easily remember these because Footloose is the one with Kevin Bacon, Dirty Dancing is the one with Patrick Swayze and Flashdance is the one with the bucket of water. Seriously, every time I tried to describe the plot of this movie-turned-musical to someone, I ended up with a jumbled mess of “it’s about a welder who’s also a stripper but who wants to become a ballet dancer…you know, the one where she sits on the chair and dumps the bucket of water on herself?” “Oh that one!” It turns out I was partly wrong: Flash dancing is not the same as stripping, it’s an expressive form of jazz dance with its roots in the 1920s. It also does happen to involve skimpy costumes, however.

The musical adaptation is almost exactly what you would expect it to be based on the movie. And I say that as a compliment: it’s faithful to the film’s gritty Pittsburgh setting, its big hair and legwarmers and its street-influenced dance style. It also includes a romance with Nick, the really really ridiculously good looking grandson of the owner of the steel mill where Alex, the feisty woman who dreams of being a dancer, works. This gives lots of opportunities for power ballad duets, which I personally enjoy. You’ll also hear several famous numbers from the movie, including “Maniac” and “What a Feeling!” However, my favorite song from the movie is “Manhunt,” which is reinterpreted here as a crazy cool BDSM number with a lot of Grace Jones influence. It’s a neat interpretation which makes full use of the fun costume design, the neat projected scenery that’s used throughout the production, and also a hunting bow. I don’t know, but it was neat.

Often in musicals which focus on dancers, you wind up with weak singers. That is decidedly not the case with Flashdance. To a person, these were some of the strongest voices I’ve heard in a Broadway show in some time. And this song is equally demanding on its singers as it is on its dancers; the part of Nick is especially challenging in its range, but it’s all pulled off with great aplomb. The dancing itself is impressive, athletic and very true to the (slightly ridiculous) moonwalking style of the original.

While the overarching story is the kind of “believe in your dreams, take risks!” sort of thing that’s stock and trade in our culture, there’s actually a really interesting thread about knowing your limitations and accepting them. Jimmy wants to be a comedian in New York City; his girlfriend Gloria wants to be in music videos. Unfortunately, neither of them are very good at what they want to do. Jimmy bombs in New York City and Gloria winds up in a strip club where she’s fed drugs and given money pretty much just for standing there naked (yeah, her story’s a lot sadder). In the end, they both come back to Pittsburgh and start a new life together with Jimmy hoping to become assistant manager of his uncle’s club. It’s a small sideline and not one explored with much depth, but you know, not everyone can be good at what they love. I adore singing, but even with lessons and years of work, I only ever attained mediocrity at best. And that’s okay! Sometimes it’s okay for a passion to be a hobby and for a job to be a job. Not everyone can or should “take their passion and make it happen.” It’s simply a different and, to some extent slightly subversive, message than the one we normally hear.

Flashdance is a big, brightly staged and fun kickoff to Broadway Indy’s 2013-2014 season. The show will be in town through October 6 at Clowes Memorial Hall. Tickets start at $28, which is a pretty fantastic deal.

My tickets were provided courtesy Broadway Across America Indianapolis. I was asked to tweet about my experiences, but all opinions are my own. I received no other compensation. 

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A Musical Time Machine: Patrick Ball in Celtic Harp and Story

When I first heard that Patrick Ball would be playing the Celtic harp, my mind naively went to the cute little hand harps you might find someone plucking on in an Irish pub on two-for-one pint night. But no, this is not a hand harp or a lap harp. Standing more than four feet tall, the harp’s base has two massive slabs of buttery maple joined together. They taper up to a graceful dip across the top before jutting out into a sharp point like a ship’s prow. It’s all strung up with 32 copper strings (nylon strings are for wusses, apparently), and when played, it creates a sound that connects you to more than a thousand years of misty islands, love, loss, violence and mythology that makes Ireland so compelling.

The presentation was truly the history of the harp itself, from an ancient tale about a mother who sold her soul so her boy could be the best harpist in all of Ireland to a personal account of how a laid off NASA scientist revived the harp after it had fallen into two centuries of disuse. Woven throughout are songs on the harp. Ball does not sing, as I had anticipated. Rather, the music speaks for itself, acting as a window into the emotional lives of the characters in his songs, deepening our understanding of who they are and their world. It all fits together seamlessly, almost like musical montages in a movie, and watching Ball’s graceful hands pluck and coax the strings while his foot moves in an almost balletic fashion beside it is a treat.

Ball’s telling style is theatrical, almost Shakespearean. His speaking cadence is idiosyncratic, with long pauses where one wouldn’t necessarily expect to find them. It works for him, with his wild cotton candy-like hair, and is a wholly different telling experience than last year’s Irish teller Clare Murphy, though they covered some similar ground with tales of Finn MacCoul, Ireland’s great hero. The mythology is interesting, as it always is, but Ball shone when he recited a story about a pair of newlyweds milking a cow on a beautiful hill as the sun sets. Yes, there’s great strife and warfare and glory and ugliness in Irish history, but much of life on the emerald isle boils down to just this: people, animals, love, stories.

Those stories have kept a scattered, battered people whole, proud and happy after centuries of violence, all set to the mystical strains of the Celtic harp. Ball is a fitting successor of the great Irish bards.

Next up on Storytelling Arts’ season is Ghost Stories at Crown Hill on October 12. This was the highlight of the season last year. For those looking to get their Halloween fright on or just experience night in a beautiful and peaceful cemetery, you won’t want to miss this one. Tickets are available here.

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We’ll Find a New Way of Living: West Side Story

Spoiler alert: West Side Story is a tragedy. No matter how many times you see it, no matter how badly you want it to end differently, everyone is really pretty terrible. Time and again there are opportunities to prevent the tragedies, and time and again they’re blown because of pride, violence and stubbornness.

The show does its best to have a hopeful message, with the beautiful, haunting “Somewhere,” sung primarily in a dreamlike sequence. “There’s a place for us/A time and place for us,” Maria and Tony, the star-crossed lovers sing. But then you step back and look at the story, and you wonder if there truly is.

West Side Story is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, subbing in mid-century New York for Italy. Romeo and Juliet is itself an adaptation of an ancient Roman myth. Will there ever truly be a time and place free from meaningless hatred, where arbitrary lines are drawn based on skin color or nationality?

Philosophical musings aside, West Side Story is a hell of a musical. There are musicals that do individual things better–some have stronger scores (though not many); some better lyrics; others tighter books; still others more impressive choreography. But West Side Story is unique in that it achieves all of those things at an extremely high level, making it an extremely strong contender for best musical of all time. Even though the musical is almost 60 years old, it still feels vital and fresh. The slippery saxophones and plinking of the score, the sharp and crisp choreography, that message that unfortunately we still need, it’s still the epitome of cool.

The company playing in Indianapolis is very young. Many of them listed this as their first touring show. Some of that greenness does shine through–some of the sharp, snappy dialogue in “America” is lost; a few dance moves aren’t quite as clean as they could be. But Maria (Mary Joanna Grisso) has the bell-like voice and childlike innocence necessary to pull off songs like “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart.” Her older, wiser friend Anita (Michelle Alves) shines at dramatic acting, as do the leaders of the rival gangs. It’s a company with a lot of heart, and makes a great introduction to one of Broadway’s classic shows.

Maybe one day there will be a time and place for people like Tony and Maria and for all of us. But even if that day comes, West Side Story will continue to be beautiful, chilling, haunting theater. This is a show everyone should see at least once. Every time you take it in, you see more of the tragedy and humanity, beauty and folly that defines us all.

That’s a wrap on the 2012-2013 season. It’s been ludicrous tons of fun being your Twitter Critic, and thanks to Broadway Across America Indianapolis for providing my tickets all season. Next year’s lineup is exciting because every single show is playing in Indianapolis for the first time. Enjoy your summer, check out West Side Story, and I’ll see you in the fall.

West Side Story is playing at Clowes Memorial Hall on the Butler University Campus from June 4-9. Click here to purchase tickets. 

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Would You Take the Pill? Kevin Kling and Storytelling Arts of Indiana

Some would say storyteller Kevin Kling’s been given a hard lot in life. He was born with only four fingers on his left hand, and then later lost the use of his right arm in a motorcycle accident. As part of a theatrical company for people with disabilities–everything from Down syndrome to aphasia to MS–he was asked if he could take a pill that would remove his infirmities, would he? At that time, Kevin was the only one to answer yes.

Later, however, after an unforgettable moment of singing with his company and two world-famous opera singers in the Australian Outback, Kevin changed his answer. For all the pain he’d gone through, all the inconvenience, all the being othered, he wouldn’t take that pill if it meant he had to give up that one sublime moment.

At its core, Kevin’s performance is about who you are and where you come from. That includes everything from his Minnesotan heritage to his hatred of fairy tales (though he tells a hysterical rendition of Grimm’s “12 Princesses” which may be better than the original) to frank and candid discussion of his disability. All of these things tie together to make him who he is, and you can’t remove any of it, even the less than ideal parts of it, without winding up with a completely different person.

Kevin is a truly funny storyteller. His stories bounce from one another in a kind of schizoid stream-of-consciousness that somehow works. For the record, he may also be the fastest-talking Minnesotan known to man. His act is far ranging, discussing everything from taking his Dutch cousin to the Minnesota State Fair (Protip: Corn dogs freeze really well) to a memorable trip where Kevin performs a banned play in communist Czechoslovakia. As it turns out though, the play was banned by the Americans, not the communists.

“You can go anywhere you want, as long as you remember where you came from,” Kevin’s gros papa (grandfather) told him. And that’s really what the show is about. Where you came from isn’t just a place, it’s a state of mind, a state of physicality, a state of limitations and ways of shattering them. Funny and thoughtful in equal measures, Kevin richly deserved his standing ovation and was the perfect way to close out a stellar season of Storytelling Arts.

Thank you to all the talented performers this year. Hope to see some of you next season, which kicks off in September with Irish music and storytelling. In the meantime, Storytelling Arts will still be active in the community, including sponsoring a stage at the Indy Fringe Festival in August.

My ticket was provided free of charge by Storytelling Arts of Indiana. I was asked to write about the event but was not compensated and the opinions are only my own.

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American Idiot: Part Performance Art, Part Music Video, All Loud

The original American Idiot album was written by alt band Green Day in 2004. Ubiquitous songs like “Holiday,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and the eponymous “American Idiot” formed a kind of backdrop to my junior and senior years of high school. I never bought the album, but the songs were always there, simmering below the surface and echoing internal and external chaos. In a way, that’s how the songs play into the stage version of American Idiot. Yes, characters sing, but often the heavy lifting of a song is carried by the chorus or by a background character. The songs express the character’s emotions without necessarily coming from the character themselves. In essence, it turns the musical into one big music video–which is not necessarily a bad thing.

The show takes another step away from musicals with its heavy integration of video and art. The set is truly amazing: grungy dark metal, anarchy symbols, a dirty bathroom and rolling metal platforms. But there are also dozens of flat-panel TVs that flash scenes from the news, pop culture, abstract patterns, colors and phrases (seriously: I wouldn’t attend if you’re prone to seizures). The use felt similar to modern art pieces until it almost began to cross the line into performance art. Sometimes this goes a bit too far, as when an aerial ballet begins with a woman in a sparkly blue burka descending  from the ceiling, only to strip to reveal a genie outfit and dance through the air with a recently injured soldier, but usually the imagery enhances the show, pushing the very limits of what we think of as musical theater.

American Idiot takes the work RENT started with rock operas and pushes it one step further. There is very little dialogue–this review will probably be longer than all the spoken dialogue in the show–and unlike RENT, there are no arias or recitatives. It’s all songs, many of them familiar radio singles. There is a story, about three loser friends who seek their fortunes, one in the big city where he gets sucked into drugs, one into the army where he loses his leg, and another is forced to remain behind with his girlfriend and their new baby, but it’s not really about specific people. Rather, it’s about that weird time known as the early 2000s, a time we can’t even come up with a good name for.

Remember freedom fries? The start of the Iraq War? The nagging fear that still never quite went away that there could be another September 11 any day? The roller coaster stock market, the constant uncertainty in almost every aspect of life? But wrapped up inside that uncertainty, we were supposed to have an emotional security. After all, we were born atop Maslow’s Hierarchy. We never wanted for creature comforts, for love, for self esteem. All these things were piled on top of us like down comforters.

So dammit, why weren’t we happy? Why does the main character resent his mom because she lent him bus fare to get to the city? Why couldn’t we settle own into the good, boring jobs and the good, boring lives that were planned for us? The show doesn’t really offer any answers, though our characters do find that home is a lot better than they thought.

The music is performed ably by a large, energetic and very young cast. The leads sound almost freakishly similar to Green Day, but the brassy voices of the ladies steal quite a few numbers. The dancing is aggressive, sloppy, apathetic and perfect. And above all, this show is loud, with cacophonous accompaniment from an onstage band. My feet were vibrating; my ears are still ringing. The moments of silence in the show were truly deafening, and many times the audience seemed to forget to clap or even breathe as we were plunged from noise into stillness.

Be warned: This is not a show for everyone. Many people will dislike this show intensely. I saw a few people walk out.  But it’s a show that sticks with you, a show that reminds me of being young and confused and yeah, an idiot. Of not knowing where I was going or what I wanted or what mattered. And just a little bit, of coming home. I’m glad I saw it.

If you’re a Millennial  you’re interested in recapturing that feeling or you want to see some pretty cutting edge theater with a retro (can we consider the 2000s retro yet? Dear God, I’m old), check out American Idiot. It’s playing at Clowes Memorial Hall through April 7. Tickets start at $25, which is a steal. The show is in one act and clocks in at a brisk 1 hour 45 minutes and is completely inappropriate for children in every conceivable way.

My tickets were provided courtesy of Broadway Across America Indianapolis. I was asked to tweet about my experiences and was not required to blog about the show. All opinions are my own. 

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By the Power You Are Healed: Sister Act

For the past two days, I’ve been fighting a cold that’s left my head afog and my nose asnot. I strongly considered ditching not just Sister Act, but this whole day. I wanted to curl under the covers with a box of Kleenex and try it all again tomorrow.

But I couldn’t. There was too much to do, and I couldn’t miss out on an evening of theater, no matter how sneezy I might be. So I drug myself out of bed, bumbled through work and met up with dear friends for Sister Act at the Old National Centre. I’m so glad I did. This morning while I moped under my covers, I forgot that two of the best treatments for sickness of the body or of the soul are music and laughter. Sister Act delivers both in spades.

For those of you who only have misty memories of the 1992 source movie starring Whoopi Goldberg, that’s okay. The plot is simple: Wannabe lounge singer Deloris witnesses her gangster boyfriend capping a henchman in a back alleyway. As luck would have it, she has to enter an unconventional witness protection program in a convent. As you do. There, she runs smack into a by-the-book Mother Superior and a ragtag group of nuns who couldn’t sing “alleluia” if their lives depended on it. Using sass and brass, Delores transforms them into a choir with the heart, soul and chops to sing for the pope himself.

Yeah, it’s flimsy and silly. This is not a deeply cerebral musical. Embrace that. It is surprisingly clever. There were a few obscure religious jokes that had me rolling in the aisles. Come on, what other musical has a joke about Barabas? Not even Jesus Christ, Superstar. I can’t recall ever laughing quite so hard at a musical, from the silly seduction of a group of thugs to the antics of the nuns, it’s a good-hearted and thoroughly fluffy musical. I love it for that. Mother Superior (Hollis Resnik) displays perfect comedic timing and a whip-smart weariness that I adored.

As for the music, it truly shines during group numbers. Any time you have a big group of people on stage, the results will be stunning, and the nuns are no exception here. Their harmonies are tight, their habits are sparkly and their dance moves are pure ’70s cheese. “Take Me to Heaven,” the first rousing number the nuns sing together, really is stirring, as is the booming encore.

Sister Act also features what may be my favorite ever prop in a musical: a giant statue of the Virgin Mary. It starts off as a shrouded, almost forgotten thing, but eventually becomes a bedazzled extravaganza of wonderfulness.

Great music and laughter aren’t a cure for illness; my nose is starting to drip again and the clouds are creeping back into my head. But for a couple of hours, I was able to laugh away my illness and spend some time being transported away from my cares with a show that is far, far more fun than I ever expected. Go see Sister Act. Trust me on this one.

Sister Act is at the Old National Centre February 26-March 3. Tickets start at $39. My tickets were provided courtesy of Broadway Across America Indianapolis. I was asked to tweet my impressions of the show but was not obligated to write this blog post or endorse the show in any way. Opinions are my own. 

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Tight Harmonies, Tight Stories in Jersey Boys

I first saw Jersey Boys when it came to Indy a few years ago. When people asked me about it, I would answer that it was a good show–for a jukebox musical. This sub-genre of musicals relies on the work of a pop artist or a particular era of music rather than original songs. For many jukebox musicals, that means hanging the songs onto a flimsily constructed story, as in Mama Mia! or Rock of Ages. However in Jersey Boys, the music of the Four Seasons is used to tell the story of the Four Seasons. And that makes all the difference.

After seeing Jersey Boys again tonight, I can tell you that it isn’t just good for a jukebox musical. It’s an excellent musical of any stripe and one of the best touring productions I’ve seen in a good long while.

The music is great, sung and played by freakishly talented musicians, though there are no surprises. It’s the classic music of the Four Seasons, including “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and my personal favorite, “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night).” What this musical excels at is putting that tried-and-true music into an emotional context that gives them tremendous resonance. When “Walk Like a Man” is reprised at the end of the first act, it’s transformed from an anthem of spurned boys into a recrimination against a group member who has shirked his responsibility. When Frankie sings “Bye Bye Baby,” it’s sung both to his wayward daughter as well as to his wayward group, which is falling apart in front of his eyes. Though many of the lyrics are bubblegum, the show builds a sturdy emotional framework around them that makes them greater than they are.

The structure of the show is tight as a drum. The first act is a breathless whirlwind, with almost continual music. The second act has more space to breathe and consider the emotional blowback from the group’s meteoric rise to fame. The narration is divided into four–what else?–seasons, each narrated by a member of the group. It’s a fun study in unreliable narrators, since none of the group member’s stories are to be entirely believed.

The seasons give each cast member a chance to shine with their acting, which is a rare treat in a musical. John Gardiner as Tommy DeVito is all bluster, swagger, and heart; Michael Lomenda as Nick Massi is a stoic presence for much of the show before busting out some serious comedic chops. Nick Cosgrove’s Frankie Valli has the beautiful bell-like voice and nasal falsetto needed for the role and brings what life he can to a role that’s not terribly developed outside of that voice.

However, the surprise of the night was Tommaso Antico as Bob Gaudio. You always groan a little when you see an understudy is subbing in; even though you know they’re great, part of you can’t help but feel you’re getting the B team. But Antico brought a real sensitivity and plain old likability to wunderkind writer Gaudio. It’s a role that can easily come off as know-it-allish or unpleasant, but Antico kept an innocence and a sly wit about him. Sure, he strained a bit on his big solo in “December, 1963,” but Bob emerged as my favorite of the group, thanks to Antico’s character work.

The staging is crisp, minimal, and clever, enhanced by video panels with comic book-like images and live footage of the group as they sing in profile to the audience. The set is mostly a chain link fence and a staircase, never letting us fully forget that at heart, these are boys from the wrong side of the tracks. They’re boys who never should have made it anywhere except jail, but by pulling together and always, always staying true to each other (even when maybe they shouldn’t have), they found a way to thrive. More or less.

Jersey Boys can proudly hold its head up as a great musical in its own right, without any qualifiers or limitations. It’s fast-paced, funny, thoughtful, with fun music sung by talented people. Even if you’re not familiar with the Four Seasons, you’ll find a lot to love in Jersey Boys. It’s in Indianapolis through January 20 at the Murat Theatre at the Old National Centre.

My tickets were provided courtesy of Broadway Across America Indianapolis. I was asked to tweet about my experiences, but the opinions are my own. I was not asked to write this blog and was not compensated in any other way. 

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