Saturday, May 28, 2011

Drama Desk Awards Honor "Mormon," "Anything," "Normal," "Tiger" and More...

You may recall that I said I was way behind on awards season. I still am. Sigh. But I am trying to catch up.

So, first, let's talk the Drama Desk Awards. These are presented for excellence in New York theater, whether it's on Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway, or from "legitimate, not-for-profit theatres." In fact, the Drama Desk organization decided in 1955 to create awards to recognize "creative stage achievements wherever they were presented." As long as it's New York, of course.

Because they so frequently center on Broadway shows, the Drama Desk Awards are often seen as precursors to the Tony Awards. If you are handicapping those, a look at Drama Desk winners may be helpful.

This year's awards were presented on May 23, with Harvey Fierstein acting as the host for the evening. The Stephen Sondheim Theatre revival of "Anything Goes" and the new musical "The Book of Mormon," created by the "South Park" guys (Trey Parker and Matt Stone) along with Robert Lopez from "Avenue Q," were the big winners, taking home five awards each, with Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart" and Rajiv Joseph's "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" each taking two.

"The Book of Mormon" won Outstanding Musical and Nick Stafford's "War Horse" was named Outstanding Play. For revivals, "The Normal Heart" won the award for Outstanding Play and Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" won Outstanding Musical.

Frances McDormand took Outstanding Actress in a Play honors for her role in "Good People," while Outstanding Actor in a Play went to Bobby Cannavale for "The Motherf**ker with the Hat" in a bit of an upset, since Mark Rylance (for "Jerusalem") had been considered the front-runner. And Joe Mantello (for "The Normal Heart"), who wasn't nominated for a Drama Desk, has been talked about as a hot prospect for the Tony. ("The Normal Heart" did win a Drama Desk Award for its ensemble, as opposed to honoring individual actors.)

Rounding out the acting awards for plays were Brian Bedford, named Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play for playing Lady Bracknell in the Roundabout's "The Importance of Being Earnest," and Edie Falco, Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play for the "House of Blue Leaves" revival at the Walter Kerr Theatre.

On the musical side, Outstanding Actor was Norbert Leo Butz for the musical version of "Catch Me If You Can," and Outstanding Actress was Sutton Foster for "Anything Goes," in which she plays Reno Sweeney.

Awards for Outstanding Featured Actress and Actor in musicals were handed out to Laura Benanti for "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" and John Larroquette as big boss J.B. Biggley in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" opposite Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe.

In a bit of a departure for him, Joel Grey, who is currently playing Moonface Martin in the "Anything Goes" revival we've been talking about, took home a Drama Desk Award for his direction; he and George C. Wolfe won for their co-direction of "The Normal Heart." And Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker shared the award for Outstanding Direction of a Musical, too, for "Book of Mormon."

To see the complete list of winners, you can click here. I am especially happy for Laura Benanti and Joel Grey, two of my all-time favorite performers.

Even though I think Bobby Cannavale is a champ, I am still hoping Joe Mantello wins the Tony, mostly because I'm glad he returned to acting. I couldn't have loved him more when he played Louis in "Angels in America" -- such a fabulous performance -- and yes, he's an amazing director, but still... It's great to have him back on stage. "The Normal Heart" is a searing, fiercely moving play, and a perfect vehicle to lure Mantello back. So I'm hoping Tony voters will recognize that and hand him the award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play, even though the nominees include Cannavale and Bedford, who both won Drama Desk Awards last week, and Mark Rylance for "Jerusalem," the putative favorite, and Al Pacino, nominated for "The Merchant of Venice." Never bet against Al Pacino. It's a tough category all around. Go, Joe Mantello!

All the Drama Desk nominees are listed here, while you can find the Tony nominees here. The Drama Desk website says that the May 23rd ceremony was filmed, with plans to be aired on the Ovation network between June 2 and 15. The Tony Awards ceremony will be televised live on CBS on Sunday, June 12, at 7 pm Central time.

I just realized I have the perfect dress for that, so if anyone wants to invite me to a Tony viewing party, I'm ready. I will even offer my star-shaped beaded coasters as incentive. Me, my dress and my coasters... Any takers?

Friday, May 27, 2011

"As You Like It" from the Globe to the Art

The Art Theater in Champaign continues its "Shakespeare in Cinema" series (direct from the Globe!) with "As You Like It" tomorrow and Sunday at noon.

If you recall, a company called Opus Arte has been filming live performances of "the world's finest opera, ballet, theatre and music" and sending them to movie theaters all over the world. I saw a lovely "Love's Labour's Lost" at the Art Theater earlier this year, concluding that there was no real downside to seeing a filmed version of staged Shakespeare, no matter how awkward that sounds.

This "As You Like It," directed by Thea Sharrock, was very well received by critics when it played at the Globe, with the Guardian offering that "Naomi Frederick's superb Rosalind is a woman of wit and intelligence" and "[Jack] Laskey's Orlando is equally bewitched, bothered and bewildered, and the playfulness between the two is a pleasure."


You can watch a trailer for the film here and decide for yourself whether this Rosalind and Orlando are to your liking. Or you can click here to find out more about the cast and crew.

For those of us unable to get to the Globe as a matter of course, these "Shakespeare in Cinema" screenings are a pretty sweet deal.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

U of I Summer Studio Starts June 2

After successful summer seasons under several summer names, the University of Illinois Department of Theatre skipped a year, offering no summer shows last year.

Well, it's baaaaaack!

Summer Studio Theatre opens next week, with [title of show], the Hunter Bell/Jeff Bowen musical about trying to create a musical. If they can't even come up with a title to fill in the first blank on their form for the musical contest, how will Hunter and Jeff (Yes, they named the characters after themselves. But they did play the roles originally, so... There was a reason.) and their friends Susan and Heidi come up with any musical at all? [title of show] is directed by Robert G. Anderson, which is good news for [title of show] but bad news for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival over here in Bloomington, since Anderson has been very, very good playing a whole bunch of different roles the past few seasons. [title of show] plays for ten performances, closing June 26.

The second show on the Summer Studio roster is Peter Parnell's "QED," opening June 8th. Lisa Gaye Dixon directs this almost-one-man show that dances around Richard Feynman, a professor of Quantum Electrodynamics (the QED in the title) as he puts together a lecture, advises a student, reminisces about his past and deals with illness. Champaign-Urbana actor Gary Ambler will play Feynman in eight performances through June 24.

"Blithe Spirit," the third show in this summer rep, doesn't start till July 7th, with Peter Davis at the helm. This Noel Coward classic was revived on Broadway in 2009, with Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati, the wacky medium who accidentally conjures up the ghost of newly-married Charles Condomine's first wife, the divine Elvira. I don't know which role she's playing, but I do know that Joi Hoffsommer, a terrific actress who did Coward's "Private Lives" in Krannert's Studio Theatre during a long-ago summer season, will be in there somewhere. Will she be Madame Arcati? She's a more likely Elvira, but who knows?

"Blithe Spirit" gets the Studio Theatre all to itself in July, playing from the 7th to the 23rd. That means these shows are not literally playing in repertory, but it is summer, so... I'm calling it summer rep.

For details and reservations, go here. If you click on MAKE PLANS, you'll find a handy calendar of events.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Getting Together with One State, Normal or Not

This just in! One State Together in the Arts has announced they will be live-streaming their 2011 conference. That means you can participate at home, even if you can't get to the Uptown Normal Marriott tomorrow or Tuesday to take part in person.

To find the live-stream, you are invited to go to www.onestateillinois.com and click the big orange "Watch Live" button.

One State says you will be able to see:
  • Visionary designer and author Bruce Mau's keynote, starting at 10:45 am CDT on Monday.
  • The Breakthrough Ideas of Frank Maugeri of Redmoon Theater; James Goggin of the Museum of Contemporary Art; and members of Albany Park Theater Project, starting at 1:00 pm CDT on Monday.
  • Breakthrough People Kevin Coval of Louder than a Bomb, Carrie Sandahl of UIC's Program on Disability Art, Culture and Humanities; and Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon, starting at 3:30 pm CDT on Monday
  • Talks about Breakthrough Connections by Orbert Davis of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic; playwright and actor Tanya Saracho; and Daniel Sinker of Columbia College Chicago (and @MayorEmanuel fame), starting at 10:00 am CDT on Tuesday

All you need to do is go here and click the button that looks like this:


ENJOY!

The Osborn Award: "When January Feels Like Summer," by Cori Thomas

Yes, I am still catching up on awards. But I think it's good to recognize award-winners, even if you don't do it in a timely manner!

So, apologies for tardiness to Cori Thomas, who was awarded the M. Elizabeth Osborn New Play Award for her play, When January Feels Like Summer, along with the $1,000 cash prize that goes along with the award, back in April.

The M. Elizabeth Osborn Award, named after former Theatre Communications Group and American Theatre play editor M. Elizabeth Osborn, is given annually to recognize a specific play by an author whose work has not yet received "national stature," which is interpreted to mean that the playwright has not seen a significant New York production, such as Broadway or off-Broadway, has not been widely staged regionally, and has not received any major national award before this one.

Cori Thomas is a native New Yorker who lived in seven countries before returning to the United States, where she studied theater at Marymount Manhattan College. She is a lifetime member of the acting/writing ensemble at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York City, and she has been a finalist for a Juilliard Fellowship as well as a nominee for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.

When January Feels Like Summer premiered in March, 2010, at City Theatre in Pittsburgh, in a production directed by Chuck Patterson and sponsored in part by the Edgerton Foundation, which provides a fund for new American plays. (You can see the artwork for that production at the top of this blog post.) According to Thomas, the City Theatre production was her first professional production.

The American Theatre Critics Association, which funds and adjudicates the award, describes When January Feels Like Summer as "a comic and touching tale of love, sex, redemption and the survival of the American Dream in the 21st century, amid the struggle with the polar attractions of identity and assimilation. Thomas stirs together a diverse group of urban dwellers on an atypically warm winter month: a middle-aged African American sanitation worker, an East Indian shopkeeper whose husband from a loveless marriage is in a coma, her brother in the midst of a transgender transformation, and two bright homeboys trying to understand everything from global warming to meeting girls. All are on a quest for the healing power of true love, a mythic journey presided over by the Hindu god Ganesh, lord of the removal of obstacles."

Congratulations, Cori Thomas!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Something's Cooking at IWU's "Spitfire Grill"

“The Spitfire Grill” has a curious history. A Roman Catholic organization trying to find a good film project with positive, inspirational themes, turned to writer-director Lee David Zlotoff, who had a Hollywood track record from shows like "MacGyver" and "Remington Steele." Zlotoff put together a script they liked, got the movie made for about $6 million, and submitted it to the Sundance Film Festival. At Sundance, this modest little movie was a real audience-pleaser, inciting a bidding war won by Castle Rock Entertainment, the production company founded by Rob Reiner among others.

But once it was released, "Spitfire" was decidedly less successful than Castle Rock anticipated, taking in only $12 million at the box office, according to the Internet Movie Database.

Still, some three years later, James Valcq and Fred Alley thought that the sweet, down-home sensibilities of “The Spitfire Grill” were exactly what they needed for a stage musical project. They changed things around a bit, moving the story from Maine to their native Wisconsin, turning surly “Nahum” into surly “Caleb” (still Biblical but less New England Yankee), trimming the storylines, building a happier ending, and, of course, adding music.

As a musical, “The Spitfire Grill” has been quite a hit, gaining critical raves Off-Broadway in 2001, and becoming “one of the most often-produced new American musicals.” Its official site notes productions “All across the United States, from Canada to the Caribbean, from Korea to Germany, from the UK to Japan.”

The story is a familiar one – there’s just something about small-town cafĂ©s that seems to resonate with writers – as it tells us about Percy Talbott, a young woman just released from prison, who shows up in Gilead, Wisconsin, after seeing a travel ad for its fall foliage. Percy is looking for a fresh start, and Joe, the lone cop in Gilead, who is also her new parole officer, steers her to the Spitfire Grill, a hardscrabble diner owned by cranky old Hannah Ferguson, as her only shot at a job.

Hannah’s nephew, the afore-mentioned Caleb, isn’t happy about this imposition on his aunt, and neither is town gossip and postmistress Effie. But Percy sticks around, trying to learn to cook and keep up with the demands of the grill. And after Hannah is injured, Caleb’s wife Shelby also comes on board, and the three women – wounded Percy, flinty Hannah and sweet Shelby – form a strong bond. In the end, Percy and her compatriots are transformed, enlightened and renewed by that bond, bringing a sense of hope back to Gilead.

Director Nicholas Reinhart, a graduating senior in the Music Theatre program at IWU, notes in the program that he wasn’t sure about the potential of “The Spitfire Grill.” “Upon first look,” Reinhart writes, “I couldn’t get past the twang of its folk score, the down-home mentality of its characters, or even its over-the-top, Hallmark card ending.” But then he realized that at its heart, “Spitfire” is about family and kinship, about building a support system with the people around you, no matter whose biology matches whose. So, yes, the script may be somewhat sentimental, with plot points and second-act revelations that you can see coming a mile off, but it also struck a chord for a graduating senior putting on his last show with his Wesleyan family.

“The Spitfire Grill” is not a big musical, and Reinhart’s staging choices make it fit nicely in IWU’s black box Laboratory Theatre, with a fairly simple but charming set, including a plain wooden floor, woodsy backdrop, one screen door, and some rolling set pieces moved by the cast members as they enter and exit, from Scenic Designer Aaron O’Neill.

Laura Williams makes a very pretty and tuneful Percy; her soaring vocals are lovely throughout, and it’s hard not to fall in love with Kate Rozycki’s warm, engaging take on her new friend Shelby.

Erika Lecaj deserves some kind of award for versatility, successfully tackling cantankerous old Hannah in this show after loopy Princess Winnifred in “Once Upon a Mattress” last fall and Eleanor Roosevelt in IWU’s “Lucky Nurse” a month ago. It’s always tough for college-age actors to play senior citizens, but Lecaj does yeoman work here, using a very different singing voice than she used for sparkling Winnifred, making it work across the board.

There’s no Musical Director credited in the program, so I am guessing that Reinhart did that, too, using a trio (keyboards, cello and violin) to play Valcq’s score, which includes country-folk tunes as well as lots of power ballads. With this show and “Big” last January under his belt, Reinhart has certainly earned his stripes along with highlighting the depth of the musical theatre program at Illinois Wesleyan.

THE SPITFIRE GRILL
Music by James Valcq, lyrics by Fred Alley, and book by James Valcq and Fred Alley.
Based on the film written and directed by Lee David Zlotoff.

E. Melba Johnson Kirkpatrick Laboratory Theatre at Illinois Wesleyan University

Director: Nicholas Reinhart
Scenic Designer: Aaron O’Neill
Costume Designer: Caiti Frantzis
Lighting Designer: Curtis C. Trout

Cast: Laura Williams, Kate Rozycki, Erika Lecaj, Ben Mulgrew, Andrew Temkin, Roz Prickel, Adam Walleser.

Running time: 2:05, including one 10-minute intermission

Remaining performances: May 21 at 8 pm and May 22 at 2 pm

Tickets: $3 for General Admission and $2 for Students with valid ID. For reservations, call the McPherson Theatre box office at 309-556-3232.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Hither and Yon: One State, Titanic, Spitfire and The African Queen


Some reminders and updates on things happening in the area...

First, One State Together in the Arts is coming to Bloomington-Normal May 23 and 24 and you can still register at their site or, if you don't get it done today, at the door when the conference opens on Monday at the Uptown Normal Marriott. One State is an annual conference put together by the Illinois Arts Council and Arts Alliance Illinois, offering arts administrators as well as artists, educators, students and community leaders the opportunity to connect, network, keep up with new developments, find creativity and inspiration, and renew their commitment to the arts in Illinois.

With a slate that includes Bruce Mau, "world-leading visionary, designer, and author" as the keynote speaker, award-winning playwright Tanya Saracho ("Our Lady of the Underpass") and Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon, the One State experience is brimming with opportunities and information for anybody connected to the arts. There are also walking tours to introduce out-of-town guests to Bloomington-Normal galleries, artists, performers and theaters.

That's next Monday and Tuesday, but this week, you have four opportunities left to catch "Titanic" at Community Players, four chances to see Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in "The African Queen" at the Normal Theater, and three chances to see "Spitfire Grill" at Illinois Wesleyan (click here for more information or reservations.) "Spitfire" is the last show of Wesleyan's season and your last chance to see the talented members of the Class of '11 in action.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Cain Wins Steinberg/ATCA Award One More Time

I'm quite behind on awards and nominations in the past few weeks, so I'm going to try to catch up. First up, the most tardy!

When I attended the Humana Festival of New American Plays in April, I was present for the awarding of the annual Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award, presented to the best new play produced outside New York City in a given year. A $25,000 prize is attached to the award, making it the largest monetary prize for playwriting.

Last year, the winner was playwright Bill Cain for his play "Equivocation," and this year, the winner was... Bill Cain! For his play "Nine Circles." He teased the play at the 2010 Humana Festival, suggesting he was not treating critics nicely in "Nine Circles." Given the description of the play (below) it does not sound like a platform for criticizing critics, so perhaps Cain thought better of that aim.

In any event, "Nine Circles" is described by the American Theatre Critics Association, the body that reads and judges the nominated plays, this way:

"Cain’s drama follows the descent into a very recognizable hell by a young American soldier accused of an atrocity in Iraq. His journey through the bureaucratic and social maze mirrors Dante’s vision of an arduous odyssey to find redemptive self-knowledge. The play premiered Oct. 14, 2010 at the Marin Theatre Company."

The poster you see above for "Nine Circles" came from that Marin Theatre Company production with illustration by Ron Chan.

Kathryn Grant and her play "The Good Counselor" received a Steinberg/ATCA citation and $7,500. "The Good Counselor" involves an African-American lawyer who is trying to defend a young white mother, an outspoken racist, who has been charged with murdering her three-week old baby. "The Good Counselor" premiered last July at Premiere Stages in Union, New Jersey.

Davd Bar Katz's "The History of Invulnerability" was the last play cited; it also received a $7,500 prize. Katz's play deals with Jerry Siegel, one of the co-creators of the "Superman" comic books, Superman, the Holocaust, and how that all interrelates. "The History of Invulnerability" opened in April 2010 at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.

The other finalists this year were Rinne Groff for “Compulsion,” Lisa D’Amour for “Detroit” and Emily Schwend for “Splinters.”

ATCA materials tell us that 27 scripts were nominated by ATCA members, with the winners chosen by a committee chaired by William F. Hirschman of the South Florida Theater Review.

For a complete list of all the winners since 1977, click here.

Monday, May 16, 2011

"Titanic" Rises on Stage at Community Players

I love Maury Yeston's work. Let's just get that right out there before we go any farther.

Yeston is the composer behind the musical "Nine" and the song "Unusual Way," which I think is one of the most beautiful and captivating show tunes ever, as well as the other "Phantom," whose plot and music are much more to my liking than the more famous Andrew Lloyd Webber version. Yeston also wrote the score for "Grand Hotel," and a song cycle called "December Songs."

P.S. Classics (something else I love) put out a collection called "The Maury Yeston Songbook" in 2003, featuring songs from all of those shows, with individual songs performed by an amazing roster of Broadway stars, from Laura Benanti to Liz Callaway, Brent Barrett, Christine Ebersole, Brian d'Arcy James, Sutton Foster and Betty Buckley. If you don't own a copy of "The Maury Yeston Songbook," you need to buy one immediately. I'm not kidding.

Have you ordered one yet? I'll just wait while you do. Don't worry -- I will listen to my own copy while you're busy with that.

Done? Good.

There is just one song from Yeston's "Titanic" included in "The Maury Yeston Songbook." It's the last cut on the cd, and it's the haunting "No Moon," sung by the lookout on the Titanic as he peers into the darkness, watching out for icebergs. Howard McGillin, who owns one of Broadway's best voices, performed the song for this "Songbook," and he's wonderful.

To my mind, Yeston's big, emotional, sweeping score is the strongest part of this "Titanic," which opened on Broadway in 1997, winning five Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Original Score, and running at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre for 804 performances. On Broadway, "Titanic" was filled with stars like John Cunningham, who played the captain of the ill-fated ship, Brian d'Arcy James, beginning his Broadway career in the role of the "stoker" down in the boiler room, Victoria Clark, as gossipy social-climber Alice Beane, and Michael Cerveris, playing J. Bruce Ismay, the villain of the piece, head honcho of the White Star Line, who demands that the ship go faster, icebergs be damned.

Peter Stone's book squeezes in a lot of stories, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 roles played by 37 actors (if I counted correctly) in the Broadway production. That production was also famous for its complicated, hydraulic set, with three decks and the capability to lurch and tilt to indicate the ship was sinking. That's fine for Broadway (although it pales in comparison to "Spider Man" and his technological woes), but not so much for regional productions, especially in community theaters. So how in the world does a company like Community Players in Bloomington, Illinois, begin to pull off something that huge?

Director Sally Parry and Scenic Designer Bruce Parrish wisely choose to rein in the set, with a gallery at the top for the ship's bridge, two curving staircases for passengers to congregate on, a space in the center to tuck the orchestra under the gallery, and every bit of space on the apron for shifting scenes from the boiler room to the crow's nest and the radio room. There's also a scrim to project an image of the "Titanic" on at the onset. That creates some handsome stage pictures and also provides just enough playing space.

Parry and Musical Director Chad Kirvan have pulled together a really terrific cast, with lots of excellent voices to fill Yeston's score. It's an ensemble show in every sense of the word, but it's hard not to pick out favorites as we see them sing us their stories. I was especially impressed with Mark S. Robinson's take on Thomas Andrews, the ship's designer, who gives voice to the dreams of greatness and progress that went into the Titanic in both the opening and "Mr. Andrews Vision," W. John Lieder's stalwart Captain Smith; Joel Shoemaker, bringing us a sweet, honorable everyman as Barrett the stoker and sounding terrific on both "Barrett's Song" and "The Proposal," Natalie LaRocque, pretty and tuneful as the first of the Kates, Irish girls stuck in 3rd class but dreaming of what they might be in America in "Lady's Maid," and Kirvan himself, leading the band and fronting "Doing the Latest Rag."

There are only four performances left of Community Players' "Titanic," and you are well-advised to reserve tickets now. The Sunday matinee I saw was completely sold out. It also ended with a standing ovation and a lot of happy audience members.

TITANIC
Music and lyrics by Maury Yestion, and book by Peter Stone.

Community Players Theatre
201 Robinhood Lane
Bloomington, IL

Director: Sally Parry
Musical Director: Chad Kirvan
Assistant Director/Choreographer: Sherise Kirvan
Scenic Designer/Builder: Bruce Parrish
Properties Designers: Dorothy Mundy and Carol Plotkin
Costume Designer: Opal Virtue
Lighting Designer: Dan Virtue
Sound Designer: Rich Plotkin

Cast includes Nikki Lask Aitken, Brian Artman, Fania Bourn, Omni Bourn, Sara Bronson, Karen Clark, Jason Coppenbarger, Jason Culpepper, Joe Culpepper, Cristian Embree, Wendi Lee Fleming, Jay Hartzler, Kyle Holliday, Jim Kalmbach, Ryan Kane, Aimee Kerber, Mindy LaHood, Natalie LaRocque, Dave Lemmon, W. John Lieder,Ashley Lyons, Charlie Maaks, Andrew Martin, Andrea Martinez, Laura McBurney, Nick McBurney, Bob McLaughlin, Aditi Mocharla, Eli Mundy, Charles Palm, Gerald Price, Eric Reichelt, Herb Reichelt, Reena Rhoda, Mark S. Robinson, Joel Dwight Shoemaker, Kelly Slater, Deb Smith, Diane L. Smith, Chrissie Strong, Scarlett Strong, Chuck Stuckey, Cody Stuepfert, Cathy Sutliff, Austin Travis, Kevin Paul Wickart, Todd Wineburner, Emily Wurmnest.

Remaining Performances: May 19, 20 and 21 at 7:30 pm and May 22 at 2:30 pm.

Box office: 309-663-2121 or click here to buy tickets online.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Weekend of "New Plays from the Heartland" Starts Tomorrow


Heartland Theatre Company begins its three-day "New Plays from the Heartland" event tomorrow night, with a discussion (open to the public) with Ben Viccellio, Assistant Professor of Drama in the Department of Theatre at Kenyon College, who served as the final judge in this year's playwriting competition.

Thursday's discussion is just the opening round of this "New Plays" project, with presentations of the plays themselves, a special workshop with Viccellio for the playwrights who made it to the final round of competition, a response to the plays in performance by Viccillio and a reception for the winning playwrights after Friday's performance, and a talk-back with playwrights, sponsors, actors and the director after Saturday's performance.

"New Plays from the Heartand" is an annual competition open to playwrights from eight Midwestern states, with three short one-acts chosen to be produced on the Heartland stage. Although Heartland Managing Artistic Director Mike Dobbins calls these "staged readings," they are actually quite a bit more than what you'd normally see as staged readings, with some costumes, props, lights, etc., using actors from Heartland's stable under the direction of Dobbins himself.

"New Plays from the Heartland" is funded by Paul and Sandra Harmon and the NPH Sponsors Circle, including Jay and Sue Edmondson, Myra and George Gordon, John and Pat Groves, Marc and Darlene Miller, Jim and Pam Raymond and Robert and Marilyn Sutherland.

The winning plays to be performed are:

BUCK NAKED by Gloria Bond Clunie from Evanston, Illinois

KEEPING THE WORDS by Terri Ryburn from Normal, Illinois

THE DOCK by Stephen Peirick from St. Louis, Missouri

All events take place at Heartland Theatre, One Normal Plaza (Lincoln and Beech Streets), in Normal, Illinois.

OPEN FORUM ON PLAYWRITING WITH BEN VICCELLIO
Thursday, May 12, at 7:30 pm

NEW PLAYS FROM THE HEARTLAND
Friday, May 13, at 7:30 pm
Saturday, May 14, at 7:30 pm

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Happy Birthday, Fred Astaire!

May 10th used to be a holiday in my household, as I always tried to celebrate the birthday of my favorite film star, Fred Astaire. I remember taking a cake with 80+ candles on it to my office one May 10th in the 80s, with co-workers fearing we were going to set off the sprinkler system if we actually lit it up to attempt to blow it out.

Now that my beloved Fred has been gone for awhile (he died in 1987, at the age of 88) I no longer send him a birthday card (obviously) or eat cake in his honor, although I still try to celebrate in my own way. This year, that way is to talk about him on my blog, to let everybody who reads this in on the significance of May 10th in our cultural landscape. And also, of course, to let myself wallow in a little Astaire-o-rama just for fun.

Frederick Austerlitz was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 10, 1899, as the world was moving from horse-and-buggy thinking into automated everything. Movies, cars, radio, music coming from your very own Gramophone or Victrola... The world was breaking wide open.

As America entered the 20th Century, Fred Austerlitz and his older sister Adele were taking dance lessons at the behest of their mother, who hoped to create a brother-and-sister act for the vaudeville circuit. By 1905, they had moved to New York and adopted the name Astaire as part of their mom's plan to achieve stardom.

Everybody thought Adele was the one with the talent, while Fred was clever and creative, picking up dance styles easily as well as noodling on the piano and other instruments. Their brother-and-sister act did very well pretty much from the start, landing a spot on the Orpheum circuit, and eventually getting themselves into a Broadway show, a Sigmund Romberg revue called "Over the Top," in 1917.

From there, they got larger spots in bigger shows, and were quite the splash in a show called "Stop Flirting!" in London in 1922. The show didn't do much in New York under the name "For Goodness Sake," but additional Gershwin songs were added for London, boosting the Astaires' role. Suddenly they were the toast of London, and "Stop Flirting!" ran for an amazing 418 performances.

After that, "Lady Be Good," with hits like "Fascinating Rhythm" in the score, was created just to showcase Fred and Adele in New York. It was the biggest hit yet for George and Ira Gershwin, as well as the perfect mix of song, dance and romantic comedy to highlight the charms of the Astaires. And if I ever run into anybody who has perfected time travel, I plan to request December 1, 1924, so I can walk into the Liberty Theatre on Broadway and see Fred and Adele open in "Lady Be Good."

Fred found movie stardom on his own, after Adele had decided to drop out of the act to marry Lord Charles Arthur Francis Cavendish, the son of the Duke of Devonshire, in 1932. At first, Fred continued on stage by himself, with Cole Porter's "Gay Divorce" and the hit song "Night and Day" paving the way for his solo career. Then Fred made his way to Hollywood, like so many stage stars before him, to see what he could do on the big screen.

Supposedly, some bigwig or other watched his screen test and concluded, "Can't sing. Can't act. Balding. Can dance a little." That's the story, anyway. At any rate, Fred got a walk-on in an otherwise dreadful Joan Crawford pic called "Dancing Lady" in 1933, and from there, danced into history at RKO Studios when he was paired with Ginger Rogers for a fizzy, fun picture about airplanes and romance in Brazil called "Flying Down to Rio."

Although neither Astaire nor Rogers was keen on being part of a team, their success in the filmed version of "Gay Divorce," now called "The Gay Divorcee," as well as "Top Hat," "Shall We Dance" and "Swing Time," pretty much assured their names would be linked forever. They were huge for RKO, they were huge for Hollywood, and they were huge for the development of musicals on film.

Astaire was more than just a gifted dancer and charming performer. He sweated every detail of every dance, rehearsing and re-rehearsing until every step, every turn was sheer perfection. There are all kinds of famous stories about chicken feathers and beaded sleeves and bloody shoes getting in their way when they danced, but on screen, Astaire and Rogers look like La Belle, La Perfectly Swell Romance.

For me, Fred Astaire represents the best of what Hollywood can do (or could do, back in those early days of movie technology). Astaire-Rogers Land is a world where everybody can sing and dance (and does, whenever they feel like it), with beautiful music accompanying them as they and their fabulous costumes waft in and out of swanky (and enormous) black-and-white rooms. Fantasy, sure. But what a fantasy.

With or without Ginger, Fred is my idea of swoony, swell romance. He projects a certain gentility and sweetness along with all that easy elegance; his on-screen persona suits the tinkly tunes as well as the funny novelty numbers and the dramatic, romantic ballads. “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” “One for My Baby.” “Cheek to Cheek.” “The Way You Look Tonight.” And my absolute favorite song of all time: “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.”

Nobody did it better. Ever. Yes, with Ginger, but also with Rita Hayworth and Leslie Caron and Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire made you believe that people can fall in love when they’re dancing. Isn't that a lovely thing to believe in, just for an hour or two?

As it happens, I discovered on this Mother’s Day weekend that my husband’s grandfather, Carl Frick of St. Charles, Illinois, was born the exact same day as Fred Astaire. As far as I know, Carl Frick wasn’t a dancer and he never considered leaving St. Charles for fame and fortune on the vaudeville circuit. Two men, born the same day in different Midwestern towns. One stayed in the Midwest and raised a dancing daughter, who had a decidedly non-dancing son (my husband) and very much dancing granddaughter (our niece). The other went east with his sister, developed a whole new style of dancing on film, and became an enduring screen legend as well as an example and inspiration to pretty much every dancer who came after him. Whether that was fate, destiny, or just the roll of the die, I'm glad Carl Frick stayed in St. Charles to raise his daughter June, and I'm glad Fred Austerlitz became Fred Astaire.

As Fred says in “The Gay Divorcee,” “Chance is the fool’s name for fate.” Or “Fate is a foolish thing to take chances with.” Or something.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Blues, Jazz and "The Ladies" from New Route Theatre

Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Roberta Flack... What’s not to love? They're just three of the iconic African-American women who sang jazz and blues who will be showcased and celebrated in New Route Theatre’s new musical revue called “The Ladies: A Musical Love Letter.”

Jennifer Rusk is the featured singer for this New Route Theatre production, with Dave Shields on keyboards and Miles Singleton providing brass. "The Ladies" was conceived and directed by Phil Shaw.

"The Ladies: A Musical Love Letter" is scheduled for Wednesday, May 11 at 7 pm at the Eaton Studio & Gallery, 411 N. Center Street, Bloomington. For more information, check out this Facebook page devoted to the event.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

All-Star "Company" Headed for a Movie Theater Near You

At least I hope it comes somewhere near me. Within a hundred miles would be lovely. But I'll take 200.


Anyway, this is a filmed version of the New York Philharmonic's all-star production of Stephen Sondheim's "Company." It played for a total of four sold-out performances last month, and this is a chance for the Philharmonic to share the joy with those of us who are not in New York or didn't get our hands on tickets when it was there. You can see information here and sign up for their mailing list to get first notice of where exactly it will be playing in movie theaters starting June 15.

In this production, Neil Patrick Harris played Bobby, the man at the center of the play, the one who can't seem to figure out what it means to be part of a couple, even though all of his friends are married. "Company" has a fabulous score, with "Being Alive," "Marry Me a Little," "Getting Married Today" and "The Ladies Who Lunch" at the top of the list for me.

The Philharmonic cast also included Stephen Colbert and Martha Plimpton as a couple who battle it out with karate moves; Craig Bierko and Jill Paice as the pair who seem like the perfect couple but are headed for a divorce; Jon Cryer and Jennifer Laura Thompson as the non-hipsters who smoke pot with Bobby; Katie Finneran as Amy, the girl with cold feet right before her wedding to Paul, played by Aaron Lazar; Patti Lupone as the Joanne, Bobby's cynical older friend and Jim Walton as her long-suffering husband; and Christina Hendricks, Anika Noni Rose and Chryssie Whitehead as the three different women Bobby is currently driving crazy.

Lonny Price directed and produced this "Company," with long-time Sondheim collaborator Jonathan Tunick doing orchestrations, Josh Rhodes choreographing, and Paul Gemignani conducting the New York Philharmonic symphony orchestra.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Book Event Friday for "Solace in So Many Words"

Local poet Kathleen Kirk has been participating in events in Chicago recently, some of which you can read about at Kathleen's blog here. Kathleen has another event coming up May 6th, back in Chicago at the Women and Children First Bookstore at 5233 North Clark Street. This one is in celebration of the release of "Solace in So Many Words," a poetry and prose anthology on the subject of comfort and consolation, edited by Ellen Wade Beals and published by Weighed Words LLC. Kathleen's work appears in that volume, and she will be present at the release party at Women and Children First, presumably to read from her work.

Weighed Word's press materials describe the anthology this way:

"How can you find consolation? What sets your mind at ease? What can you hold onto when the world around you crumbles? What is solace and how do you find it?

"This insightful anthology features essays, poetry, and fiction on these vital questions. By the very nature of its theme, this collection delves into global problems such as our endangered planet and the effects of war and hate as well as individual struggles like the death of a loved one and the consequences of aging and illness. Whether read cover-to-cover or savored one contribution at a time, “Solace in So Many Words” connects with readers through the heartfelt and compelling writing of more than 50 writers, including Antler, T. C. Boyle, Philip Levine, and Joe Meno, as well as newer literary discoveries who offer well-crafted words on what solace can mean to us today. A timely and timeless book to give as a gift to comfort a friend or to keep for yourself to gain a new perspective on coping with life’s difficulties."

You can read the book announcement here, find information on the contributing authors here, look at reviews here, or find ordering information about halfway down this page.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

May Days!


The biggest show this month (and the one where you might expect somebody to cry out, "Mayday! Mayday!") is Community Players' production of "Titanic: The Musical," the version of the Titanic story without Leonardo DiCaprio or Kate Winslet, but with haunting and lovely music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, one of my favorite musical composers. This "Titanic" won five Tony Awards in 1997, including Best Musical, Best Score for Yeston and Best Book for Peter Stone. It's an ensemble show, which meant that no one in that star-studded Broadway cast was nominated in the performance categories. For Community Players, W. John Lieder plays Captain E. J. Smith; Joel Shoemaker is Stoker Barrett; Bob McLaughlin is J. Bruce Ismay, the director of the White Star line; Mark S. Robinson is Thomas Andrews, the designer of the ship; Austin Travis is Radioman Harold Bride; Brian Artman is Steward Henry Etches; Chuck Stuckey and Deb Smith are wealthy Isidor and Ida Straus; Dave Lemmon and Reena Rhoda are passengers Edgar and Alice Beane; Nick McBurney is Charles Clarke; Kelly Slater is Caroline Neville; and Natalie LaRoque, Emily Wurmnest and Mindy LaHood play the three Kates.

Community Players' "Titanic" opens with a preview May 5, running through May 22. Click here to look at dates and times or buy tickets.

The McLean County Diversity project is presenting "The Diary of Anne Frank" at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday, May 10th and Wednesday, May 11th. Shows are at 7 pm both nights. Adults (over 25) may bring up to three high school students to the show for free.

A movie I can't wait to see, Mike Leigh's "Another Year," plays on the big screen at the Normal Theater May 12-15, with all shows at 7 pm. "Another Year" features the fabulous Jim Broadbent as half of a happy couple surrounded by sad and unhappy family, friends and colleagues over the course of one plain-old, nothing-special year. If you like Mike Leigh and his improvised, character-based films (and I do), you'll want to see this one.

Heartland Theatre gears up for its annual "New Plays from the Heartland" project with staged readings of three short one-acts on May 13 and 14. This year's winning plays, chosen from those submitted by playwrights from Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin, on the theme "I thought it would be simple," are "Buck Naked," by Gloria Bond Clunie of Evanston, Illinois, "Keeping the Words," by Normal's own Terri Ryburn, and "The Dock," by Stephen Peirick from St. Louis. More information on this new play project is available here.

Eureka College's regular theater season is done for the semester, but they will be taking on an "Unrehearsed Shakespeare Workshop" May 16-21. This year's play is "Macbeth." For details, follow this link.

Illinois Wesleyan has one last show in its season. This one is "The Spitfire Grill," with music and book by James Valcq, and lyrics and book by Fred Alley, based on the movie of the same name, written and directed by Lee David Zlotoff. Nick Reinhart directs "The Spitfire Grill" for IWU's E. Melba Kirkpatrick Laboratory Theatre, with performances on May 20th and 21st at 8 pm and May 22nd at 2 pm.

Prairie Fire Theatre returns with a Champagne Gala, a concert and fund-raiser, on May 21, at the Marriott Hotel in Uptown Normal. Your $50 ticket includes a $25 donation to Prairie Fire Theatre. Doors will open at 7 pm, and the concert will begin at 7:30 pm. Tables for the Gala can be reserved by calling 309-824-3047.

Champaign's Art Theatre has three entries in its "Performing Arts" series this month, where they show filmed versions of stage performances. On May 7 and 8, it's "The Magic Flute" from La Scala, the famous opera house in Milan, Italy, followed by "Coppelia" from the Paris Opera Ballet on May 21 and 22 and then Shakespeare's "As You Like It," from the Globe Theatre in London, on May 28 and 29. All of these "Performing Arts" shows are scheduled at noon at the Art.

And the Illinois Shakespeare Festival continues to sell tickets for its three-show summer season. I'm told last year's production of the Reduced Shakespeare Company's "Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" was a big hit, and they're expecting this year's take to sell out quickly, as well. You are advised to get your tickets now. Get the whole scoop here.