Monday, January 31, 2011

Community Players Announces 2011-12 Season

Jumping the gun? Or jumping on "Annie Get Your Gun"?

Community Players has announced their next season, starting with the Irving Berlin classic "Annie Get Your Gun," the musical riff on the life and romance of Wild West sharpshooter Annie Oakley. Look for auditions in May, with performances scheduled from July 8 to 24.

They'll follow the musical with a straight show, Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None," where a group of seemingly unrelated people gather at a remote island estate, only to be picked off one by one, with each death echoing a nasty children's rhyme. Where is their host? Who wants each of them dead? Can anyone escape the relentless killer? "And Then There Were None" is set for September.

Next up, CP offers "Do Patent Leather Shoes Really ReflectUp?" in November. This musical look at growing up Catholic features music and lyrics by James Quinn and Alaric Jans and book by John R. Powers.

Finishing out 2011 will be "Murder at the Howard Johnson's," a farcical play about a homicidal love triangle that heats up and breaks down in the same motel room. Written by Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick, "Murder at the Howard Johnson's" has been a staple of regional theaters since it first hit the boards in 1979. It's a "lab theatre" choice for Community Players, meaning there's no preview, only a few performances, and it is not included in the season ticket package.

John Logan's "Hauptmann," CP's choice for January, is a dramatic departure, telling the story of Bruno Hauptmann, charged with The Crime of the Century, the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby in 1932. Did he do it? Logan leaves that open to the audience to decide, as Hauptmann himself steps forward to tell his story.

"Blithe Spirit" blows into the theater in March. Noel Coward's breezy comedy involves Charles Condomine and his two wives, one real, one ghostly, and the off-the-wall séance conjured up by a psychic named Madame Arcati. When "Blithe Spirit" was recently revived on Broadway, Angela Lansbury played the wacky medium. Community Players won't have Lansbury, of course, but it's still a showstopper of a role for an actress of a certain age.

The Broadway poster for "You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running" proclaims it is "howlingly funny" and "a smash hit." You can judge for yourself when these four unrelated one-acts written by Robert Anderson come to Community Players at the end of March, 2012. This, too, is part of CP's "lab theatre project," so remember, no preview, fewer performances, and it's not part of your season ticket.

"Hairspray," the bright, bouncy musical version of the John Waters' movie about teens, pop music, love across boundaries, and big hairdos in Baltimore in 1962, finishes up CP's 2011-12 season with performances in May. The stage musical boasts music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan. It won eight Tony Awards when it hit Broadway in 2002 and ran for more than 2500 performances.

For more information or to look into applying for a position with Community Players in its new season, visit their website here. Before we get to those shows, you can also buy tickets to "The Solid Gold Cadillac" and "Titanic," the remaining shows in the current season.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Acting Classes for Teens with Rhys Lovell

Heartland Theatre Company is sponsoring acting classes for teens between the ages of 13 and 18 on Sunday evenings for 8 weeks beginning February 20th. Rhys Lovell, a wonderful actor who has appeared in plays like "Rabbit Hole" at Heartland and "Equus" at Illinois State University, will serve as the instructor.

Lovell (shown at right) also teaches acting at ISU and Illinois Wesleyan University. Locally, he has acted with Heartland Theatre, Prairie Fire Theatre, Illinois Voices, and the Illinois Shakespeare Festival. In Chicago, he has appeared with Famous Door Theatre and Chicago Dramatists, and in Los Angeles he was a member of the Ensemble Studio Theatre. He has directed for Heartland Theatre, Illinois Wesleyan University and Prairie Fire Theatre and is the author of the plays "Pangaea Fell" and "The Imaginist."

Admittance to this Master Class in Acting for Teens is by audition only and enrollment is limited to 12 students. Students interested in auditioning should prepare a two-minute monologue from contemporary dramatic literature. Auditions will be held at the convenience of the student and instructor and will also include a brief interview. Please contact Rhys Lovell by email at to arrange a time.

Tuition is $175 per person; a non-refundable registration fee of $25 (included in the price) must be paid by February 13 to secure a place in the class. Classes will be held at Heartland Theatre off Beech Street in Normal.

This is really a terrific opportunity for teens to develop their acting chops -- Rhys is himself an excellent, layered actor, and his Master Classes for adults have been hugely popular. If I were a teen, I'd be there with bells on!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

ISF Tickets on Sale January 31

I don't know about you, but I'm more than ready for summer Shakespeare now. I love the Illinois Shakespeare Festival at beautiful Ewing Manor, and with ticket sales starting very soon, I can dream ahead of balmy nights under the stars watching a little bit of the Bard.

This summer, the ISF will offer a new "Romeo and Juliet," a fresh take on "The Winter's Tale," and redo of the Reduced Shakespeare Company's "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)."

"The Complete Works," which is sometimes also referred to as "The Compleat Wks of Wllm Shkspr" or other odd spellings to indicate its abbreviated nature, will open this summer's Festival on June 23. It will once again be directed by Bill Jenkins, who took the reins in 2008 when the show last appeared on the Shakes Fest schedule. I've heard it through the grapevine that David Kortemeier and Thomas Anthony Quinn will once again play two of the three roles in the show, although I don't know whether Jenkins will also bring back the trailer trash setting. When I saw "The Complete Works" with a touring version of the Reduced Shakespeare Company at U of I way back when, it didn't use a mobile home, mullets or characters out of "You Might Be a Redneck." Those additions worked just fine in 08, so Jenkins may very well return to the Good Ol' Boy well.

I have to say, I think it's odd to bring the show back this quickly, as funny as it is. I have a feeling it's all about box office for this one -- if it was wildly popular before, I guess it makes sense to revive it and run with it. I'd rather see more real Shakespeare, but... I'm not paying their bills, am I?

"Romeo and Juliet," directed by Doug Finlayson, is scheduled to open June 24. Everybody knows the plot of "Romeo and Juliet," right? If not, you can always pop "Shakespeare in Love" in your DVD player to get an introduction. Or "West Side Story." Staging your own little "Romeo and Juliet" film fest isn't a bad idea, even if you've seen "Romeo and Juliet" and its tale of romantic woe a million times.

I have seen it at the Shakespeare Festival before, in a production that was purported to be all about the heat in Verona and how it inflamed everyone's passions. It didn't really work out that way, but I have high hopes Findlayson and his cast will find their way this time.

The last show on the roster is "The Winter's Tale," directed by ISF Artistic Director Deb Alley. This one is a curious play about King Leontes and his sudden, quite irrational case of jealousy. He cannot or will not be dissuaded from the notion that his wife, Hermione, is cheating on him with another king named Polixenes. That sends a series of strange events into motion, including predictions from an Oracle, an abandoned child named Perdita (which means "lost") who is raised by a kindly shepherd, a statue who isn't really a statue who comes to life, and what may be Shakespeare's most famous stage direction ("Exit, pursued by a bear"). How will the ISF create a bear? Puppet, actor in a bear outfit, real bear on loan from the zoo, rippling fabric, video projection or something I haven't thought of?

The Illinois Shakespeare Festival will also offer free, shortened performances of "Twelfth Night" intended for young audiences(tickets are free but reservations are required), "Shakespeare Experience" summer camps, jazz and live music nights, special speed dating, scavenger hunt and wine tasting Tuesdays, post-show talk-backs and ice cream socials, and backstage tours. For information on educational options, visit this page, while this one will guide you through your pre-show and post-show choices.

If you're a member of the Illinois Shakespeare Society, you're already eligible to buy your ISF tickets. Everybody else can pick up the phone or visit the Shakes Fest website to get a jump on those tickets next Monday, on January 31.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Theater Hall of Fame Honors Eight Lifetime Achievers Tonight

The Theater Hall of Fame will induct eight more honorees tonight at New York's Gershwin Theatre and celebrate the new Hall of Famers at a Gala Dinner at the Friar's Club.

This year's inductees include directors Michael Blakemore, Joseph Chaikin and James Lapine, actors Brian Dennehy, Linda Lavin and Fritz Weaver, playwright Caryl Churchill and conductor/musical director Paul Gemignani. That's a whole lot of theatrical excellence represented right there.

The Theater Hall of Fame was begun in 1971 to honor lifetime achievement in the American theater. That has included actors, directors, playwrights, producers, designers and other related professionals, from producer/director/playwright/some-of-everything George Abbott to costume designer Patricia Zipprodt. The list also includes my personal favorites Fred Astaire, Sir Alan Ayckbourn, Fannie Brice, Bob Fosse, George Gershwin, Al Hirschfeld, Julia Marlowe, Sir Ian McKellen, Stephen Sondheim, Tom Stoppard, Gwen Verdon, Orson Welles and August Wilson. And Bloomington's own Rachel Crothers.

One Week Left to Enter Your "Back Porch" Play

If you've been working on a 10-minute play for Heartland Theatre Company's annual 10-Minute Playfest, now's the time to finish it up and enter it! There's only week left to get in your "Back Porch" play.

This is Heartland's tenth annual 10-Minute Playfest, and all eight winning plays will be set on a back porch. The porch is an homage to the very first 10-Minute Playfest, which was set on a front porch.

And even though the image accompanying the 10-Minute Playfest information shows a bride taking refuge on a back porch, I have it on good authority that there are no plays submitted so far with a bride taking refuge on a back porch. Of course, the fact that more plays are being submitted even as we speak may mean that is no longer true. Aliens, ghosts, old friends and relatives, someone who may or may not be Jesus, cops, preachers, teachers, thieves... You never know who might appear in Heartland's 10-Minute Playfest!

If you have an idea, if you've started something, your chance to enter is fading fast. You must have the play submitted to Heartland Theatre by February 1st.

For all the other rules and regulations, be sure to visit the Heartland website and be SURE to read and follow every bit of those rules. Heartland even offers a stylesheet you can follow to give your play the best shot at advancing.

Well? What are you waiting for? Time's a-wasting!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Celebrating Groundhog Day

I never really got into Groundhog Day as a holiday. I guess by February 2nd I am so ready to be done with winter that letting my fate -- even my pretend fate -- hang on the whims of a rodent -- even a large, cuddly rodent -- has never appealed to me.

But then along came "Groundhog Day," the adorable 1993 Harold Ramis-directed romantic comedy, with Bill Murray as a selfish weatherman who needs to learn the value of being a real human being to get out of the eternal loop of repeated Groundhog Days. Ramis and Danny Rubin wrote a warm, sweet, beautiful script that flips all my switches, and Murray turned in one of his best performances ever. As his love interest, Andie MacDowell is also right on target. The cute, funny groundhogs in the film (especially the one driving the car) make me forget for a minute that they really are rodents.

To celebrate Groundhog Day in style, you have several choices. You can get a copy of the film, of course. I heartily recommend it. You can travel to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, the classic locale where they wait for groundhog Punxsutawney Phil to emerge from his burrow. ("Groundhog Day," the movie, purports to be taking place in Punxsutawney.)

You can also drive up to Woodstock, Illinois, where the film was actually shot. If you're lucky, locals will point out the house where Bill Murray's Phil Connors woke up every day, the restaurant where the TV crew hangs out in the movie, and the curb where Phil steps into an icy puddle to avoid Ned Ryerson. (I went to high school in the Chicago suburbs with a guy named Ned Ryerson, and I've always wondered if Harold Ramis, who is from Chicago, knew him or named the character after him. He was certainly nothing like this Ned Ryerson, a pushy, overly friendly insurance agent played by Stephen Tobolowsky. Only Harold Ramis knows for sure!)

If Punxsutawney and Woodstock are too far to go, you do have a lovely Central Illinois choice this year. Wildlife Prairie State Park, outside Peoria, is presenting their own Groundhog Day celebration on Wednesday, February 2nd, with a fetching groundhog named Gertie (seen at left) doing the honors. Legendary weatherman Willard Scott is flying in to join Gertie and announce the official weather prediction based on whether she sees her shadow. The park is offering "Wake up with Willard and Gertie" tickets, as well as special breakfast packages. You can see all the details and make your plans at the Wildlife Prairie Park website, or call (309) 676-0998. Gertie is pretty irresistible, isn't she?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Reading History with "History Reads"

The McLean County Museum of History, in conjunction with the Bloomington Public Library, has announced a "History Reads Book Club," meeting in the Governor Fifer Courtroom on the 2nd Floor of the Museum on the first Tuesday in February, May, August and November, 2011. Selections for this book club may include fiction, non-fiction, memoirs, biography and any other kind of book that illuminates Illinois history.

First up, "The Great Comeback" by Gary Ecelberger, which is subtitled "How Abraham Lincoln Beat the Odds to Win the 1860 Republican Nomination." Most Illinoisans know a bit about Lincoln in New Salem, in Springfield or as President, but Lincoln the political operator maneuvering behind closed doors to nab his party's nomination is something a little different. Ecelberger's book was published by Thomas Dunne Books in 2008 and has received excellent reviews, including a rave in Publishers Weekly that called his prose "enthralling."

"The Great Comeback" will be discussed at 7 pm on February 1st at the McLean County Museum of History. For more information, check out the this page from the McLean County Museum of History, this page from the Bloomington Public Library, or the publisher's page on the book itself. Copies of the book will be available for purchase at the museum gift shop or to check out at the library. Participants in the History Reads Book Club are invited to browse the museum before or after the discussion. Lots of good stuff there to look at!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Dance Dance Dance at IWU

IWU's student-choreographed dance concert waltzes into the Hansen Student Center this weekend, with performances on Saturday and Sunday.

Well, I doubt they'll be waltzing. This is, after all, a new generation, more likely to bring hip hop and krump moves than anything ballroom into their dances. On the other hand, Illinois Wesleyan is the school that brought us Evan Kasprzak, the theatrical dancer who took TV's "So You Think You Can Dance" by storm with his smooth jazz and tap stylings.

Who knows? You may just see the next Evan Kasprzak at this very performance!

On the technical side, Ian Coulter-Buford and Annie Simpson are producing the event, with Raven T. Stubbs as stage manager, Celeste Kelly as house manager and Sheri Marley acting as their advisor.

Choreographers include Amy Bannon, Blake Brauer, Andrea Cain, Ian Coulter-Buford, Miranda Kiefer, Becca Lydon, Chase Miller, Alix Ozaki, Nicholas Reinhart, Abigail Root, Josh Levinson & Kate Rozycki, Julie Tucker and Britta Whittenberg.

Performances are scheduled for Saturday, January 22nd at 8 pm and Sunday, January 23rd at 4 pm, and admission is free.

FMI, visit the event's Facebook page here.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Community Players Goes WWII

Community Players has announced a special extra presentation to explain and expand upon their current production of Norman Krasna's "John Loves Mary." Krasna's play, a romantic comedy written in 1947, involves a soldier back in the United States after his service in World War II and how he deals with the sticky problem of an English woman who thinks he still wants to marry her when he's already married someone else. To clarify the play's milieu, Community Players has invited ISU English professors Sally Parry and Robert McLaughlin to discuss "The Returning Veteran in World War II Popular Culture" at the theater at 1 pm on January 22nd.

Parry and McLaughlin are the authors of a book called "We’ll Always Have the Movies: American Cinema during World War II," which looks at more than 600 American movies made between 1937 and 1946, from "Casablanca" to "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo."

In their presentation for Community Players, Parry and McLaughlin will discuss "the ways mid-1940s fiction, drama, and film presented the homecoming serviceman" as well as how those fictional representations "reflected social anxieties about how these men might be changed by their wartime experiences and about how these men might change the society they were returning to." Fascinating stuff, to be sure.

This discussion of World War II and its place in art is free, open to the public, and scheduled for Saturday, January 22nd, at 1 pm at Community Players Theater, 201 Robinhood Lane, in Bloomington. CP notes that Parry's and McLaughlin's remarks will be followed by an informal reception with refreshments that also reflect the World War II era.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

IWU's Music Theatre Society Scores with "Big: The Musical"

In an attempt to emulate New York's "Encores!" series, which revives forgotten or overlooked shows in a concert setting, IWU's Music Theatre Society brings us "Big: The Musical," the Maltby/Shire musical version of the Tom Hanks movie where an almost-13-year-old wishes he were "big" and is magically transformed into an adult. Like "Encores!", everybody wears black, they use notebooks as props as well as to refer to for the script, and there's a full orchestra with pared-down staging and dances. Unlike "Encores!", Wesleyan's Music Theatre Society does this all for free.

Yes, that's right. In the best bargain in local theater you're going to see this year, admission is free to this concert staging of "Big: The Musical." A whole orchestra plus 20 performers, dances, songs, and two hours and twenty minutes of entertainment, all for free. That is, indeed, big.

I am a bit of a Maltby/Shire fan, so I went to see "Big: The Musical" back in the 90s, plus I bought a cassette of the original cast recording. (And, yes, I did say cassette. It was the 90s.) I loved "Stop, Time," the mother's plaintive plea to keep her children young, and "Stars," the romantic ballad, although I thought some of the more synthesized, poppy parts of the score sounded a little dated even then. I also had some issues with the book of the show, written by John Weidman, especially the squicky moment when 13-year-old Josh is onstage watching his 30-year-old self make out with an adult woman. That last bit demonstrates that, even after his transformation from 13-year-old to 30-year-old, Josh is still a kid inside. A kid who should not, I think, be having sex with adult women. Oh well.

The good news is that in this concert staging, with all college-age performers, that squick factor is eliminated, plus the young director and musical director (Wesleyan seniors Nicholas Reinhart and Matt Neylon) have made the score sound more current and less Flock of Seagulls. Choreographer Ian Coulter-Buford has to work without skateboards or technical pyrotechnics, but he, too, makes it work by simplifying and streamlining.

It's one thing for seasoned Broadway pros to take a week to put this kind of show on its feet in the expansive space of New York's City Center, but quite another for a bunch of college kids to do it inside the small confines of IWU's Hansen Student Center. At the beginning, Reinhart announced they'd had ten days to cast the show and rehearse it, and that shows in some ragged edges around the trickier group pieces, but for the most part, the staging, musical and choreographic choices fit in the space, tell the story and charm the audience. What more do you need?

It helps that there are some really lovely voices in the cast, led by Josh Levinson and Ben Mulgrew as the old and young versions of our main boy, Josh Baskin; Jenna Haimes as Susan, Josh's adult love interest; Melina Rey as his mother; Jacob Krech as Billy, Josh's teen best friend; and Josh Conrad as Mr. MacMillan, the owner of the toy company where Josh ends up working. Mulgrew, Haimes, Rey and Conrad have vocal warmth and color that is especially welcome, while Levinson makes the grown-up Josh appealing with his sweet, effervescent acting presence.

There's a lot to like about this "Big," and a lot to like about IWU's Musical Theatre Society and its mission. The second performance of the show is this afternoon at 2:30, back at the Hansen Student Center on the IWU campus. Again, it's free. What's not to love?

Big: The Musical
Music by David Shire, lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr. and book by John Weidman.

Based on the motion picture "Big," written by Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg.

IWU Hansen Student Center

Director: Nicholas Reinhart
Musical Director: Matt Neylon
Choreographer: Ian Coulter-Buford
Assistant Director: Peter J. Studlo

Cast: Josh Levinson, Jenna Haimes, Melina Rey, Jacob Krech, Ben Mulgrew, Chase Miller, Annie Simpson, Laura Martino, Kate Rozycki, Brad Gresik, Isaac Sherman, Erika Lecaj, Marek Zurowski, Mandi Corrao, Abigail Root, Will Henke, Adam Walleser, Lizzie Rainville, Nice Jiratipayabood.

Running time: 2:20, including one 15-minute intermission

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Everything's Waiting for You, "Downton"

A lot of people are comparing the PBS "Masterpiece" series "Downton Abbey" (airing Sundays at 8 pm on my local PBS stations) with the "Upstairs, Downstairs" of yesteryear. I will now confess that I didn't watch "Upstairs, Downstairs," although I don't exactly know why. Probably because I was in high school when it aired and I had other, more teen-angsty things to do. Still, the setting of both shows is perfect for me, showing off beautiful British interiors and beautiful British people on both sides of the great social divide in the early part of the 20th century.

I love the fashion and look of the Edwardian era, and that's what you get at the beginning of "Upstairs, Downstairs" and in the first episode of "Downton Abbey," which aired last Sunday. (Small note: The Edwardian era is usually dated from 1901 to 1910, and "Downton Abbey" begins with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, so it is technically not Edwardian. But the fabulous fashions are there, so... I'm calling it Edwardian.)

The multi-talented Julian Fellowes created the story for "Downton Abbey," dancing across the line between servants and masters in a dishy British estate at the beginning of King George V's reign, when everybody is clinging to old traditions and morés and rules about social position, even as everything changes around them. Fellowes showed he knows his way around the milieu in the movie "Gosford Park" as well as a novel called "Snobs," and he does just as well going back to the well one more time in "Downton Abbey."

As the story opens, Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, has just found out that his presumptive heir has died on the Titanic. That leaves Lord Grantham and his household in a bit of a pickle, since the estate is securely entailed, meaning his daughters cannot inherit and a more distant male relative will need to be found who can take over after Lord Grantham. This puts everything up in the air for his family, since his daughters are going to need to be married off without the bait of the estate, his mother and his wife are pitching fits for different reasons, and the new (potential) heir, a lawyer who actually works for a living (Oh, the horror!), will be horning in.

There's plenty of intrigue and chicanery happening, what with a snobby Duke who was a marriage prospect for the Earl's oldest daughter who also had a thing with one of the servants (male) and is getting blackmailed; a new valet for Lord Grantham who has a bad leg and may get fired because of it; possible romance on both sides of the stairs; and a new guy in town who doesn't know which fork to use or how to instruct a servant and doesn't much care. It's all told with good energy, excellent speed and a whole lot of panache and style.

It helps that "Downton Abbey" is chock-full of wonderful British actors. On the aristocratic side, playing members of the Crawley family, we get Hugh Bonneville (someone you might recognize from the recent "Murder on the Orient Express" on PBS and the movies "Iris" and "Notting Hill"), the always-riveting Dame Maggie Smith, and a spirited Penelope Wilton (also in "Iris" as well as "Shaun of the Dead" and "The History Boys"). And among their servants, you might recognize Jim Carter (married to Imelda Staunton in real life -- he played the stage Nurse to her "real" Nurse in "Shakespeare in Love") as the family butler. There's even an American in the mix, with Elizabeth McGovern as the wealthy wife who saved the estate when she married the Earl of Grantham (played by Bonneville) and now finds that she has no control whatsoever over her money. McGovern and Bonneville have terrific chemistry; I found myself enjoying both their performances more than anything I've seen them do before.

I am eagerly anticipating the next installment tomorrow night, but if I really can't wait after that, PBS will let me buy the whole first season on DVD. Yes, I said "first season." Britian's ITV has announced that there will be a second season, showing us the further adventures of the Earl and his family at Downton Abbey. That is seriously good news!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"Love's Labour's Lost" Direct from Shakespeare's Globe

The Opus Arte organization, which has brought opera and ballet performances to cinemas, has now added Shakespeare to its roster. "Love's Labour's Lost," the most recent entry in this "Shakespeare in Cinema" project, was filmed during a performance at the Globe Theatre in London, and from there made its way to the screen at the Art Theater in Champaign, where I was saw it last weekend.

This particular filmed performance puts you right in the middle of the Globe. Although there are some close-ups and framed shots, a good deal of the time you can see the audience members and the whole stage, exactly as if you were there. Definitely a treat to get to visit the historic refurbished Globe without airfare or jetlag!

"Love's Labour's Lost" is probably not high on most people's lists of their favorite Shakespeare plays (except maybe Kenneth Branagh, who tried a musical version on film in 2000.) But "LLL" does have its joys. It's a fizzy romantic comedy for the most part, with the King of Navarre and his three compatriots Berowne, Longaville and Dumaine vowing to give up love for three years in order to concentrate on more studious pursuits. Of course, as soon as they take their oath, the lovely Princess of France and her three ladies in waiting pop up outside the castle, testing the limits of the men's forbearance. My favorite bits involve Berowne, that smart, witty lord who has always enjoyed the whip hand over Cupid, but now finds himself bemoaning his fate:

And I, forsooth, in love!
I, that have been love's whip,
A very beadle to a humorous sigh,
A critic, nay, a night-watch constable,
A domineering pedant o'er the boy,
Than whom no mortal so magnificent.
This wimpled, whining, purblind, wayward boy,
This signor-junior, giant-dwarf, Dan Cupid

Don't you wish you'd written that? Wimpled, whining, purblind, wayward, signor-junior, giant-dwarf? I love Berowne.

Aside from the three lords and their ladies, the plot is further complicated by a clown named Costard, a Spanish dandy, a country wench named Jacquenetta beloved by both Costard and the Spaniard, a snippy little page, and a schoolteacher and a curate who like to spout Latin and make themselves sound intelligent.

In Shakespeare's time, the characters and their incessant wordplay (with puns and alliteration and rhymes and repartee spinning in every direction) probably seemed fresh and fun, although it may be a challenge to figure out what they're saying now. That's where the Globe production, directed for the stage by Dominic Dromgoole, excels, with zippy, funny staging tricks that communicate everything nicely. There's skipping, hopping, double-takes and pratfalls, and it all works. (You can see a trailer for the film, complete with amusing action, here. You can also see how Jonathan Fensom's clever scenic design puts the audience literally in the middle of the stage, with a sort of figure 8 representing the King's knot garden where groundlings lounge.)

Among the cast, I especially like Trystan Gravelle's Berowne (seen here talking about the play and performing a bit), who is sharp, headstrong and adorable throughout, as well as Michelle Terry's take on the Princess of France. She has enough spizzerinctum to dominate the action, which isn't really usual for Princesses of France in this play.

It's amazing to me that they all act, sing, dance and generally impress. British thespians seem to do that as a matter of course and I never have understood how that works. But it does. In this "LLL," there's singing after Shakespeare's bittersweet ending, tying it all up in a neat bow.

This was a terrific introduction to Opus Arte's "Shakespeare in Cinema," and I'm very much looking forward to "Romeo and Juliet," coming up next.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Our Very Own Encores!

IWU's Music Theatre Society has been taking a page from the Encores! book, with a mission to produce "lost or rarely produced musicals in a concert setting backed by a full orchestra." In previous years, this student-run organization has done "Reefer Madness," "Do Re Mi," "Tenderloin" and "Funny Girl." This year, they're taking on "Big," the musical version of the 1988 Tom Hanks movie, with Nicholas Reinhart taking the directorial reins.

This "Big" (with music by David Shire and lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr, the creators of "Baby" and the "Closer Than Ever" revue) played Broadway for only 193 performances in 1996, even though it got a big, boffo staging and earned four Tony nominations. All those bells and whistles cost a whole lot of money, making "Big" a big-time box office loser. But the idea behind it -- a 12-year-old boy named Josh wishes he could be big enough to run his own life and gets that wish, including a job at a toy company -- is pretty irresistible, and the bright pop score by Maltby-Shire score is definitely worthwhile. A lot of people predicted that "Stop, Time," the ballad sung by Josh's mother in Act II, would become a staple at bar mitzvahs and graduations.

I haven't heard much about "Big" in awhile, so it's great to hear that Reinhart and his fellow Wesleyan students are taking it on in this concert setting, giving everybody a chance to hear the score. The Music Theatre Society cast includes Josh Levinson as the suddenly adult Josh, Jenna Haimes as his love interest, and Melina Rey as Mrs. Baskin, who gets to sing "Stop, Time."

Performances are scheduled for Saturday, January 15th at 8 pm and Sunday, January 16th at 6 pm at the Hansen Student Center. FMI, click here.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

News, Updates & Changes

January is barely wet behind the ears and I'm already making changes!

I mentioned that a filmed version of the Globe Theatre's "Love's Labours Lost" will be playing January 8th at Champaign's Art Theater. So far, so good. The Art has now put up its calendar for the week, and the show is at NOON, not 7:30 (my previous guess) and January 8 is a Saturday, not a Friday, which makes a noon show that much more reasonable. (Thanks to Steve Keen for pointing that out. Whew. I would've been trucking over to C-U Friday night. And I would've been very disappointed.)

The special production of Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along" that was supposed to be directed by Gary Griffin for ISU isn't happening. (Insert sad face here.) ISU's School of Theatre is replacing that show with "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," playing February 10-19. I saw the musical talent they have to choose from on display in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" and I have high hopes they'll do a great "H2$" as well.

The Illinois Shakespeare Festival has announced its summer season. They'll offer "Romeo and Juliet" and "The Winter's Tale" from Mr. Shakespeare himself, and reprise "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)," the madcap summary of the entire canon created by the Reduced Shakespeare Company, as the third show. That makes for a curious season, since "The Complete Works" was just done in 2008, and when it comes to real Shakespeare, they're doing a tragedy and a "problem play," but not a comedy. I'd rather see another "Much Ado" or "As You Like It," but I guess they have their reasons. And "The Complete Works" really was hilarious the last time in the hands of Thomas Anthony Quinn and David Kortemeier. We'll see how it all works out.

TheatresCool in downtown Bloomington has two announcements. First, the TheatresCool Teen and Adult Music Theatre Classes have completed their session, meaning they're ready to perform "Waiting for the Light to Shine," directed by Cristen Susong (who was one of the people who was so good in ISU's "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," mentioned above.) The performance is this Saturday, January 8th at 1 pm, and admission is free. TheatresCool Artistic Director Kymberly Harris has also opened registration for her winter Method Acting Classes. Ms. Harris offers classes for several different age groups and performance levels. You can check out all of that and see registration information here.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Happy January!

I usually post a monthly preview on the first of the month, but I hope you'll forgive me for being a day tardy this time. I'm now 3/4 of the way through my Fred & Ginger marathon -- I have a habit of picking two Astaire/Rogers pics and watching them on New Year's Eve, but this year I decided to go for eight of the ten (leaving out "Vernon and Irene Castle" and "The Barkleys of Broadway" since they just don't fit) and doing it over this whole New Year's weekend -- so I'm surfacing between "Swing Time" and "Shall We Dance" just to try to put this preview together. I hope you'll forgive me for spending my time with "Never Gonna Dance" and "Pick Yourself Up" instead of paying attention to my blog.

So... January. Well, it's not a particularly crowded month for entertainment, as it happens, although it does have its joys. The Normal Theater screened "Some Like It Hot," the Billy Wilder classic, last night and they'll be showing it again tonight. If you have time to get there, it's definitely with the trip, with fizzy, fun performances from Tony Curtis (doing his best Cary Grant imitation in several scenes), Marilyn Monroe (both luscious and sweet as she plays chanteuse Sugar, a quintessential Monroe role) and especially Jack Lemmon (seriously funny while masquerading as a girl and fending off the advances of Joe E. Brown.) Curtis and Lemmon both have pretty nice legs in the poster, don't you think? "Some Like It Hot" is guaranteed to heat up your week. If you like It Hot.

Next weekend, the Normal Theater offers a more current choice in "Toy Story 3," which has been lauded as the best of Pixar's nifty "Toy Story" series and as Oscar bait, and then, at the end of the month, "Winter's Bone," a dark tale about a girl from the Ozarks trying to chart dangerous waters to find her father and save her home. "Winter's Bone," which has also gotten Oscar buzz, hits the Normal Theater January 27-30, with all performances at 7 pm.

An unusual choice -- a filmed performance of the Globe Theatre production of Shakespeare's "Love's Labors Lost" -- airs at the Art Theater in Champaign on Saturday, January 8th as part of their special "Performing Arts" lineup. I haven't seen this film, but I'm thinking it's worth a trip to Champaign just to see something on the restored Globe stage. The Art's website doesn't have the time for "LLL" listed yet, but I'm guessing, based on other shows, it will be at 7:30 pm.

The Art is also offering a Kurosawa double feature late this month, with "Ran" and "The Seven Samurai" on January 29 and 30. They're both terrific choices and not screened all that often around here. In fact, I haven't seen either of them since college, so I'm way overdue.

Community Players kicks off 2011 with a 1947 post-war romantic comedy by Norman Krasna called "John Loves Mary." The play lasted a year on Broadway, and then hit the big screen as a Ronald Reagan vehicle. The CP production opens with a preview on January 13th, running till the 29th, with Austin Travis and Hannah Kerns as the John and Mary in the title.

Also opening on Thursday the 13th is Theresa Rebeck's "Mauritius" at Urbana's Station Theatre. Rebeck is known for a sort of diabolical drama with undertones of suspense and betrayal. "Mauritius" sets two estranged half-sisters against three desperate collectors who want some valuable stamps they think the sisters have inherited. "Mauritius" also runs from the 13th to the 29th, with all performances at 8 pm.

The Russian National Ballet Theatre comes to the University of Illinois' Krannert Center for the Performing Arts with Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" on January 18 and 19 and "Cinderella" on the 20th. They promise: "With more than 50 dancers, the Russian National Ballet Theatre under the direction of Elena Radchenko sweeps the majesty of grand ballet history into the Tryon Festival Theatre." Performances are recommended for audiences age 12 and up.

And Parkland College brings out its annual student production, when students select, direct, design and act, on January 19. This year's student show is "Outside the Box" by J.P.S. Yates, which they describe as "an inside look at office politics in the toy world," when downsizing and reorganization plans hit the toys themselves. Please note that seating for "Outside the Box" is on-stage in the middle of the action and therefore limited.

If you've enjoyed area band Hip Pocket and its bluesy rock stylings over the years, you'll want to see their swan song at the BCPA on January 28th. As the Hip Pocket website tells us, "After 5 CDs, hundreds of performances, a double DVD, 3 Presidential Inaugural performances, and sharing the stage with some of the best musicians in the world, the final chapter is about to be written." That means the BCPA concert billed as "The Last Shuffle with Hip Pocket" may be your last chance to see this local favorite. Tickets are $16 for general admission.

Heartland Theatre is dark during January, but don't forget the deadline for Heartland's annual 10-minute play contest (this year's theme is The Back Porch) is February 1st. Time to put the finishing touches on your Back Porch play and send it off!

Coming up: Info about the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in 2011 and a note on a program change in February for ISU.