Danville's funky Royal Theater, a single-screen movie house with Tudor facade and a '50s-style marquee, anchors one side of what looks to be a still-functioning town square. A modest distance from downtown - a 30-minute drive on Rockville Road ends directly in the square after passing through the strip malls of Avon - the Royal happens to have perhaps the best sound of any venue in Central Indiana, a warm tone that one listener has compared to laying in an audio bath. Chuck Watts at Indiebrew not only books the venue - upcoming shows worth noting include the Asylum Street Spankers Nov. 22 and Alejandro Escovedo Feb. 20 - but he's also set up an adjoining taproom for microbrews, nicely supplementing the requisite popcorn, whose buttery aroma earned comment from the stage Thursday night.
None of which would have made any difference if Thursday night's performers weren't three outstanding female singer-songwriters, all gifted with voices worthy of opera or musical theater, pursuing an aesthetic that ranged from steam-punk (My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden) to cabaret (Clare Muldaur and her Reasons) to indie-folk (Marla Hansen).
Worden and company ended the night (save a single song for the encore) on the most charming note: The string trio (the quite funny Olivier Manchion, violin; Hansen, viola; Maria Jeffers, cello) abandoned their instruments to stage a puppet show while Worden sang the English translation to "Je N'en Connais Pas La Fin" ("My Lost Melody" is the popular translation of the title) in her soft and lovely mezzo-soprano, accompanying herself on electric guitar. The puppet show opened with a short shadow play, before Jeffers and Hansen took hold of two small dolls that pulled away and embraced through the love song.
A child-like energy and wonderment informs Worden's chamber pop; besides the puppet show, the band performed a song ("Black and Costaud") based on Ravel's second opera, in which objects, animals and plants tortured by a young child come back to haunt him. If she sings with an imposing clarity, she also wears a disarming smile that keeps sometimes dark and abrasive material from ever seeming too malevolent.
Clare and the Reasons also get credit for creative presentation: She and her string trio (shared with My Brightest Diamond) wore bright spelunking lights in an entirely darkened room for the exotica track "Pluton," on which violinist Manchion picked up a singing saw, matching Maldaur's pitch to achieve a somewhat other-worldly sound. Maldaur, who sounds like Patti Smith in a cool jazz cabaret, was just as playful as Worden, playing a kazoo solo while bicycle kicking flat on her back on "Nowhere," and resurrecting "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" with a pizzicato, Glassian string arrangement.
Marla Hansen brought a couple of her fellow string players on stage later in her set, but she seemed the most comfortable in the solo, troubadour performance style of anyone that night, spinning songs that didn't wear their art music (Worden) or jazz (Manchion) influences quite as much on their sleeves. While she picked up a guitar early in the set, her use of viola seemed most original, picking or strumming to accompany her own work and a great cover of U2's "One Tree Hill."