The Indiana Repertory Theatre production of a newer play is outstanding and the Beef and Board Dinner Theatre's peppy production of a recent Broadway musical is fun, but the highlight of the American Theatre Critics Association's weekend conference inIndianapolisthis weekend was a rare joint concert inIndianabyColumbusnative Michael Feinstein and a Broadway legend: Barbara Cook.

The Indiana Repertory Theatre production of a newer play is outstanding.
Beef and Board Dinner Theatre's peppy Indianapolis production of a recent Broadway musical is fun.
Yet, hands down (or rather hands applauding so hard it hurt), the highlight of the American Theatre Critics Association's recent weekend conference in Indianapolis was a rare joint concert by Columbus native Michael Feinstein and a Broadway legend: BarbaraCook.

Broadway legend Barbara Cook. File photo

Feinstein and Cook – lovingly remembered by generations of fans as the original Marian the Librarian in The Music Man and the first Cunegonde in Candide– joined together Saturday night before a packed crowd at The Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, Indiana, to celebrate the Great American Songbook.

The truly lovely concert helped raise visibility and funds for Feinstein's Great American Songbook Iniitiative based at the center. (I'll be writing more about Feinstein and his iniitiatve fora Sunday Arts piece April 7in The Dispatch.)

Of course, their concert in the center's impressive Italian-opera-house-style Palladium was a showcase for classics from the Great American Songbook - roughly, the standards introduced from the 1920s through the late 1950s by such great writers as Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Cole Porterplus thegreat singers from Crosby to Sinatra.

And yes, that most definitely includes Cook.

Among the wonderful Cook-Feinstein duets: Give Me the Simple Life, imbued with creamy clarity; a bouncy I've Got the World on a String; and their heartfelt encore, Shine On Havest Moon.

Feinstein excelled in a new orchestration of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's great Somewhere from West Side Story – a much slower and meditative, almost whispery version that Cook afterwards commented on as one of the freshest and most beguiling interpretations she's ever heard.

The critics group enjoyed the concert after seeing the fine area premiere of at the Indiana Rep of The Whipping Man, a worthy play that hasn't made it to Broadway but is making the rounds with success at major regional theaters.

Left to Right: Former slave owner Caleb (Andrew C. Ahrens), and his former slaves Simon (David Alan Anderson) and John (Tyler Jacob Rollinson) conduct a Passover seder in Indiana Repertory Theatre's The Whipping Man.Photo by Zach Rosing.

The post-Civil-War drama by up-and-coming playwright Matthew Lopez sheds what feels like fresh light on history while exploring poignant and suspenseful themes of family, love, loss, religion and racial reconciliation.

Only three characters – an older black man, his son and a similarly young white Confederate soldier – populate the near-Biblical tale, but they're so well-drawn (and so well-acted) that they bring an era and a family conflict to powerful life.

Most intriguing is the shared Jewish heritage among the men that helps bridge the racial gap. Well before they perform a Jewish Passover Seder service with food scrounged from their devastated old Southern home that they once shared as "master" and slaves, other deeper links between the men are uncovered…. but I shouldn't say more, since the intriguing twists and turns and revelations in this affecting play are very much part of its pleasures and intrigues.

I can't wait for Columbus to see this play, although it might be hard for any central Ohio troupe to rival either the quality of the Indiana Rep production or its large audience (equivalent to a packed Riffe Center Capitol Theatre, likely way too big forsuch an intense dramain Columbus.)

I can't say that Columbus really needs to see9 to 5, a recent also-ran musical that hasn't made it toColumbus yet. Based on my first impression of Dolly Parton's musical at Indianapolis' professional dinner-theater, which has launched its 40th season with an impressive production that casts a clear light on the strengths of Parton's tuneful score as well as the script's dated cliches, Columbus isn't missing much.

Violet Newstead (Annie Edgerton), left to right, Doralee Rhodes (Crystal Mosser) and Judy Bernly (Sarah Hund) sing "Change It" after taking over their company and instituting a few new policies in 9 to 5, The Musical at Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre.

Still, the Beef and Board production is entertaining, with strong singing, acting, design and staging – vivid enough to reveal the thinness of the sitcom-style script.

Parton must be credited for tackling her first Broadway musical. She's a great songwriter, but none of her quite workable songs that flesh out the stage version of her 1979 film comedy measure up to her peppy title song.

The songs aren't the main problem, though; it's the now-outdated book, which reduces its neo-feminist fable to a cartoon.

Also, the translation from the film (which co-starred Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda) to the stage is too literal, adding nothing that fans of the film aren't already familiar with. I prefer musicalizations (such as The Producers and The Full Monty) which add depth and twists to the films that inspired them).

Columbushasn't had a successful professional dinner theater since County Dinner Playhouse in the 1970s. Whatever he limitations of this particular musical, it's nice to see thatIndianapolishas a thriving example of this once-widely-popular format.

Now a bit more about the highlight of the theater critics conference.

Just as much of a treat as the songs that Cook and Feinstein lovingly performed at their concert were their stories related to the songs, which offered tantalizing glimpses into the history of American music and musical theater and touched upon talents from Sondheim (who cried when reading the original song manuscripts from the Gershwin's Porgy and Bess at the Library of Congress) to Liza Minnelli (whose optimism about the power of great and enduring songs shapes her approach to her concerts.)

Some of their stories were simply amusing. Before singing A Lotta Living to Do from Bye Bye Birdie, Feinstein shared a story about Paul Lynde, the flamboyant comic actor who didn't actually sing that song in the original Broadway show or in the film, but who cares?

Lynde, who had a drinking problem, was driving his car inBeverly Hillswhen he was a bit too far under the weather, Feinstein said.

When his car veered off the road and hit a palm tree, Lynde just st there behind the wheel until a policeman drove by, stopped and got out of his car with his pad of paper and began writing p a ticket.

Lynde – famously a wit even when drnk – simply rolled down his car window and said: "I'll have a cheeseburger, large fries and a chocolate shake."


For more information about central Indiana theater, visit Carmel, Indiana's The Center for the Performing Arts at and Indiana Repertory Theatre at and Beef & Board Dinner Theatre at