The New Phoenix Theatre Rises — It’s One Hell Of A Rebirth

The new space, three times the footprint of the old location, provides a state-of-the-art setting for the Vonnegut musical “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.”

Target has nothing on the new Phoenix Theatre.

A vibrant head-to-toe red wraps the interior of the first freestanding theater to be built in Indianapolis in the last 100 years, from the gender-neutral restrooms to the monochromatic lobby area.

The Phoenix tripled the footprint of its Park Avenue space, from 6,600 square feet to approximately 20,000 at the Illinois Street location. And it’s the first building in Indiana with public all-gender bathrooms original to the building—other businesses with unisex facilities added them later on, says Phoenix advancement manager Chelsea Anderson. The 10 stalls feature floor-to-ceiling doors, with lights overhead that flip from a green arrow to indicate an open stall to a red X to signify an occupied one. The mirrors over the sinks are lit with a border of bulbs that lend a bit of Hollywood glitz to washing up.

But it’s the stages that steal the show. The 90-seat black-box Frank and Katrina Basile Theatre, home of The Pill, one of two productions currently on stage at the Phoenix, arrests the eye with a theater-in-the-round setup, a single spotlight languidly pulsing from green to blue to purple. It’s like Snape’s potions classroom in the Harry Potter movies, sans the slime and smells. And the best part? No pesky poles!

The 128-seat Livia & Steve Russell Mainstage (which can expand to seat 160) boasts seven trap doors, a soaring 49-foot ceiling, blue backstage lights, and sets that can be raised and lowered by the push of a button rather than techs hand-cranking them up and down from a makeshift attic. A scene shop backstage allows techs to roll sets right out on stage—no more schlepping them up and down stairs! (A theme at the new Phoenix, Anderson said.) An onstage monitor in the green room means actors will no longer have to listen at the door to time their entrances. There’s also a direct line to the stage manager in their dressing rooms.

It’s all the intimacy patrons loved about the Park Avenue church, stripped of all its shortcomings: The fans above the Russell Stage have been swapped for an energy-efficient heating and cooling system that adjusts the temperature based on the number of people in the building (it stayed at 68 degrees when I saw God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater last Thursday). The steep stairway to the basement Basile stage becomes an ADA-accessible ramp (the whole building, in fact, is ADA-friendly). Parking in a 50-car lot across from the theater off Illinois Street is plentiful, convenient—and free (no more circling Mass Ave trying to find a space!). And no more stockpiling paperwork on bathroom shelves, as the Phoenix staff joked they had to do in the cramped quarters of their former offices in the old church choir loft—their new office space is roomy, cubicled, and distinctly not dark-and-dingy.

Anderson, in fact, can’t think of anything the Phoenix hoped for that they didn’t get.

“We asked for what we needed,” she says. “Not what we wanted.”

She said the theater’s vision is to become more than mere entertainment: It wants to be a cultural center, a space for town hall meetings, and a purveyor of young-artist programming. An art gallery in the lobby will feature rotating exhibits, the first of which is Kurt Vonnegut–inspired to pair with the inaugural production. Anderson said the Phoenix will stage 13 shows per year, with eight plays and musicals produced in-house and the other five by performing arts groups such as the new Phoenix Rising Dance Company.

The Phoenix has raised $8.3 million of its $11 million goal, Anderson says. “Only $2.7 million to go!” may seem like a daunting proposition, but Anderson says that as soon as the Phoenix secures the $2 million title sponsor who will be awarded naming rights to the building (“Your-name-here Cultural Centre, home of the Phoenix Theatre”), it will essentially be set. She says the group has lined up a few prospects, but are staying mum for now on who those might be. Whoever it is will certainly be prime Indy eye candy—Anderson says the city determined that approximately 17,000 cars pass by the theater on Illinois Street every day.

But can the Phoenix fill its seats? Anderson says that wasn’t a problem in the old space, where each show’s run sold 60 to 70 percent of its tickets. The theater will run two productions simultaneously in 2018, and with the increased seating capacity in both theaters, that’s, to put it frankly, many more butts to put in seats.

But God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater sold out its Friday and Saturday opening-weekend shows, and Anderson says the Phoenix has already seen a spike in attendance.

“There’s a lot more to do in Indy than go see the Colts,” she says. “We want to be the SPART capital—sports and arts. We really hope we can do that here. I think we can.”

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

More marketing is on the way: a 10-foot-by-10-foot hanging glass phoenix sculpture, created by GRT Glass, backlit by LED lights in red (what other color?), and featuring hundreds of individual glass feathers, will arrive in the lobby this summer.

It’s a fabulous home for the Phoenix’s first production in the new space, and 400th overall: the Howard Ashman and Alan Menken comedic musical God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, based on the Kurt Vonnegut novel of the same name. The show tells the story of New York millionaire Eliot Rosewater (Patrick Goss), the neurotic, bibliophile son of a wealthy senator (Charles Goad) who attributes his progeny’s problems to booze (if only). The scatterbrained Eliot’s antics are borne by his long-suffering wife, Sylvia (Emily Ristine Holloway), who endures her husband disrupting an opera to berate the actors for wasting oxygen by singing as they’re dying. Then there’s the crowd of Eliot’s open-mouthed-chewing, fork-teeth-cleaning friends grinding cheese nips and gum into her precious rug.

For Eliot, money fixes everything—science-fiction conventioneers and townsfolk alike who wouldn’t otherwise give him the time of day cozy up to him when he doles out $500 checks like American flags at a 4th of July parade. After running off to Texas to join a volunteer fire brigade, he at last lands in Rosewater County, Indiana, where he vows to “love these discarded Americans even though they’re useless” and establishes the Rosewater Foundation, which gives away thousands of dollars to anyone who asks for it. He finds his calling running a suicide hotline (“Don’t kill yourself—call the Rosewater Foundation!”). But at what cost to his marriage (his wife begins referring to him as her “dirty, drunken uncle down South”)? His wealth? His sanity?

As is typical of Phoenix productions, it’s well-acted. The cast is a conglomerate of veterans of the Indy stage, including Rob Johansen, Mark Goetzinger, and Phoenix founding members Suzanne Fleenor, Charles Goad, and Deb Sargent Shaver. The tech crew has lots of new toys to play with (a new fly system! A deeper stage!), and the lighting design is especially creative. One nitpick: The sound mixing was a bit off, with actors’ voices at times drowned out by the music, and not every lyric intelligible (no one was body-miked). But, overall, it was great fun.

The musical opens with an angelic chorus as the skyline set descends from on high, a christening that could just as easily apply to the theater’s renaissance.

The Phoenix has risen from the ashes.

It’s one hell of a rebirth.

If you go: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater at the Phoenix Theatre (705 N. Illinois St.) at 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday through June 3, Russell Stage. A second production, The Pill, which presents the history of the birth-control pill, plays on the Basile Stage at the same times through June 10.