Monday, October 31, 2011

Talking With Todd Wineburner, Actor, Writer, Bon Vivant

It's pretty much a given that you recognize Todd Wineburner if you've been to any theater in Bloomington-Normal, done the Discovery Walk at Evergreen Cemetery (where he is often Jesse Fell) or attended the "Funny Raiser" at Heartland Community College's Challenger Learning Center, where Mr. Wineburner has performed stand-up comedy for charity. Plus he's been on the radio hereabouts for a good long while. Currently, Todd does commercial scheduling and voice work at Radio Bloomington.

Todd is also starring in Deborah Zoe Laufer's "Sirens" at Heartland Theatre, where he plays Sam, a middle-aged songwriter who had a huge hit some 25 years ago, but has never struck gold in the same way again. Although he is married to the woman that original hit song was written about, Sam has been looking for inspiration elsewhere, trying to find old flames on Facebook and in general, trying to recapture his youth. As Todd Wineburner prepares to open in "Sirens," I chatted with him about his own past as well as about the play.

Todd, I know you’ve been working with Heartland Theatre Company for awhile. So how long has it been? And what was your first show at Heartland?

I’ve been involved at Heartland since I was in Uncle Vanya in 1995.

I know you’re from central Illinois and you’ve made a career in radio. Did you stay in Illinois for college, too? What is your academic back ground?

I have a Bachelor’s Degree from Illinois State with a double major in Theater and English. My radio background comes from my days in the Air Force when I was part of the Armed Forces Radio and Television Network at Comiso Air Station, Italy. There’s no U.S. presence at Comiso any more, but I don’t think I had anything to do with that decision.

I seem to recall you did the Shakespeare Festival here, too. Is that right?

While I was a student at ISU, I did spend one summer with the Illinois Shakespeare Festival and got the chance to play Brabantio (Desdemona’s father) in "Othello," Gremio in "The Taming of the Shrew," and Lepidus and various other characters in "Antony and Cleopatra." It was a great experience out at the old facility at Ewing Manor.

In recent years, we’ve seen you turn in excellent dramatic performances in shows like “The Drawer Boy” and top-notch comedic performances in shows like last season’s “Woman in Mind,” several ten-minute plays at Heartland, as well as stand-up and other comedy experience (and even the Discovery Walk at Evergreen Cemetery, where you played a lighter character last year). What do you prefer? What do you think is your true calling?

It’s so hard to say. I think all actors love giving a comic line and getting the instant feedback of laughter, so I guess I’ll give comedy the nod this time. Of course, sometimes the laughs don’t come, so if you ask me on those days I’d probably tell you that I prefer more serious plays. It’s all about the audience, really. When you’re doing a comedy, you want to hear a lot of noise in the form of laughter. When you’re doing something more serious, you want to hear silence as you hold the audience mesmerized. If you pick up the opposite of what you’re going for, you just try to make the best of it, but when it’s going good, it’s all good.

Although you are an old hand at Heartland, I think "Sirens" marks the first time you’ve worked with Connie de Veer. But you two are playing a couple who has been married for 25 years. How do you create that “old married” chemistry with someone you just met?

I actually attended ISU in my youth, then left for a time and returned as an older student. When I came back, Connie was the instructor for the first acting class I had at Illinois State, so even though we’ve never done a show together, we’ve known each other for quite a while. Having a familiarity with her definitely helps, but it’s working through the rehearsals that really let you mesh the two characters together to create the illusion of a long-term relationship. Luckily for me, Connie makes it pretty easy. Hopefully we can get people to believe that Sam and Rose have put some miles behind them.

I understand you have worked before with Connie’s daughter, Gwen, who plays the Siren in "Sirens." When was that? Has Gwen changed a bit since then?

When Gwen was 12, she won the title role in a production of Annie in Miller Park and I got to play Daddy Warbucks. That whole production was another great experience, and, yes, Gwen has grown a great deal as a performer since she was 12. She’s changed in other ways, too, but if I go into any of that it will sound creepy.

What would you like to tell potential audience members about "Sirens"?

The guy playing Sam is in a very delicate emotional state and if you don’t laugh at everything he says, there’s no telling what he might do. Please be kind and laugh a lot.

So there you have it -- a personal invitation from Todd Wineburner to come out to see "Sirens" at Heartland Theatre and a request to please laugh a lot. I don't think that's going to be a problem. He's hilarious. (And that line, about being hilarious, is even in the play.)

"Sirens" opens at Heartland this Thursday, November 3, with a special "Pay What You Can Preview" night, and runs though November 20, with performances Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30 pm and Sunday matinees at 2 pm. For reservation information, you can click here, email or call 309-452-8709.

I'm trying to interview all four cast members as well as director Ron Emmons, so stay tuned for more pieces in upcoming days. I forgot to ask Todd if he's ever looked for old flames on Facebook, but I may add that to this blinterview* if I remember!

*Blog is a made-up, smashed-together word in the first place, so I don't feel too bad making up "blinterview." Okay, I kind of do. That is one sorry excuse for a word.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

What Is the Deal With November 3rd?

By my count, there are four shows opening in Bloomington-Normal on Thursday, November 3rd, with another one bowing on November 4th.

Why in the world does everybody want to open a show on November 3rd? Maybe to get a decent number of performances in before Thanksgiving? Honestly, I don't get it. But it does mean that area theater-goers have a wealth of choices on November 3rd. And on the 4th, 5th and 6th, of course, as they try to pick up all the ones they didn't get to on the 3rd.

I'm partial to "Sirens" at Heartland Theatre, since I'm working on that show and I already know it's going to be a good one, since I've sat in on rehearsals. (You can read more about that here.) SIRENS features pretty much an all-star cast, with Todd Wineburner, Connie de Veer, Gwen de Veer and Andrew Rogalny, Jr. working together to tell the story of Sam and Rose Abrams, married for 25 years, but wondering whether their relationship is starting to sink. Gwen and Andrew play the the Sirens singing irresistible songs who pop up in their paths. It's funny and sweet and has some truths to tell, too. "Sirens" opens on... November 3rd, of course! And runs till the 20th. (I will be running interviews with the cast and possibly director Ron Emmons as the run wears on, so look for those in this space.)

Also on the all-important November 3rd, Community Players over on Robinhood Lane in Bloomington is opening the Catholic coming-of-age musical comedy, "Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?" It, too, runs through the 20th. And Joel Shoemaker, who plays Felix (AKA The Filth Fiend) in the show, wrote about his "Black Patent Leather" experience and growing up in general for this blog a few days ago. You can read Joel's "Chronology" here.

The third show opening on that same night is at ISU's Westhoff Theatre, where Christopher Dea directs Christopher Durang's "The Marriage of Bette and Boo," a bouncy absurdist tragicomedy with a very different view of a boy's Catholic childhood than the one in "Black Patent Leather Shoes." You won't need to worry about whether to pick it for your choice on the 3rd, however, as that performance is sold out. If I've counted right, there are eight other performances with tickets available before "Bette and Boo" closes on November 12.

And our fourth possible choice on the 3rd is "Iolanthe," the Gilbert and Sullivan fairytale opera from Illinois Wesleyan's School of Music, directed by Robert Mangialardi, visiting professor of music and director of the opera theatre program at IWU, in Westbrook Auditorium at Presser Hall. Mangialardi directs a cast of 25, including Rachel Carreras and Cassandra Coglianese taking turns as Iolanthe and Suzanne E. Whitney and Holly Haines alternating as the Queen of the Fairies. As seems to be the pattern at IWU, the show runs for only four performances. The article linked here indicates that this is a free show, open to the public.

And just to complicate matters further, ISU has a second show going up on November 4th. "A Flea in Her Ear," the Feydeau farce directed by Don LaCasse, takes the stage at the Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, closing on the 12th just like "Bette and Boo."

Given that we're talking November, a rather serious month, it amuses me that all five of these are light and funny. Well, the Durang play has some decidedly dark stuff hiding under the jokes, and "Sirens" deals with some painfully funny truths, as well. And the nuns' rulers can hurt in "Black Patent Leather Shoes," too. I guess most comedy involves pain, when it comes right down to it.

Plus trying to schedule all of these shows in such a short amount of time is definitely painful!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

One More "Rocky Horror Picture Show," Extravaganza Style

Costumes! Horror! Monsters! The Time Warp! Rocky Horror and Halloween are a match made on the planet Transsexual, in the distant galaxy of Transylvania.

Which is why the Theatre of Ted is sponsoring its 7th annual Rocky Horror Picture Show Extravaganza, a combination of live performance and the Rocky Horror film, just in time for Halloween. They did it last night, too, but I'm a day late and a few leus short. Luckily for us, there is a second Extravaganza performance.

So, tonight, Saturday, October 29th, you may experience "Rocky Horror" and all its Hot Patootie Transvestite glory, which includes a showing of the film along with a complete (fully rehearsed and choreographed) "shadow performance" of the live show performed in front of the screen. It's two shows in one! Or a hybrid. Or a Frankenshow.

Doors will open at 7 pm, with a "Virgin Ceremony" scheduled for 7:30. I have no idea what that means, but with the Theatre of Ted, it could be anything. Marking Vs on newbie's foreheads with red lipstick? Sacrificing virgins? Possibly lap dances from someone in a red corset? (I read the comments at the Facebook page linked above.) I dunno. It is an Extravaganza, after all.

Oh, and the performance begins at 8. The first 100 people get a free prop bag, which will not include the toast, rice, water pistols, open flames or other messy items sometimes associated with "Rocky Horror." Instead, if you are among the lucky 100, you will get a flashlight, some newspaper and toilet paper, playing cards, a rubber glove, a party hat, a noisemaker, and a picture of a piece of toast so you that can throw toast without actual toast crumbs falling on the carpet. The Theatre of Ted is apparently practical as well as insane, so that's good.

And all of this is only $5, payable at the door.

"The Rocky Horror Picture Show Extravaganza" takes place at Capen Auditorium, on the second floor of Edwards Hall. Edwards Hall is on the Illinois State University campus in Normal, on the East side of University Street, two buildings south of College Avenue.Parking is available in the Bone Student Center parking lot for a small charge.

Fishnets and tap shoes optional, but encouraged. Please leave the kids at home.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Chronology: Joel Shoemaker Looks Back for Black Patent Leather Shoes

Here we are again, with another blog post from Joel Shoemaker, who looks at life and theater differently from anyone else I know. I asked him for something sort of Joelish on the subject of "Do Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?," which he is currently working on for Community Players. And here's what Joel had to say...

I’m something of an expert when it comes to baking. My vast experience, dating all the way back to August 2011, ambitiously includes…cheesecake. Oh, and some sort of spin on tiramisu. And bars! I just CANNOT possibly be expected to remember all of it. My history with baking is just that impressive. Oh and there was that one time last weekend when I microwaved some sort of Rice Krispie concoction. That’s it. I knew if I just starting going through these MANY sundry culinary creations I would come up with the one I wanted. Something would jog my memory.

Making the Rice Krispie treat is a fairly complicated deed but I mastered it. In due time. The problem was the architecture. It was a pumpkin spice treat, as was the cheesecake, as were the bars. These are treats that beg to be shaped as their flavor suggests. Being Halloween-time, I supposed such a shape-making device would not be much trouble to acquire. The baking/cookie section? Why would they be there? With pots/pans/utensils-of-kitchen-type? OF COURSE NOT. How about weddings, by random chance? Nope. In my fury, checking out with only candy corn in hand, before accepting defeat I merely ask the checkout gal, do you have cookie cutters? There are none in Heaven, I understand, but this is FREAKIN’ WALMART. And turning around, IMMEDIATELY outside of the particular checkout lane I had chosen, sits a beautiful display of every shape and size of cookie cutter imaginable.

I chose the one with the comfort grip, for obvious reasons.

A great many years prior to being an expert baker, I was an aspiring chef of another type. My sister and I, we grew up in kitchens. Mom and dad were basically always cooking something. As such, I think we both took a natural interest as children. My interest, at this particular time – and since I have no real idea and it couldn’t matter any less I’m going to call myself ten years old here – was in grilled cheese. My mother worked in a liquor store, and my dad spent a lot of time cooking in the bar portion at the back of this. One day, we made grilled cheese on the flat grill and dad offered the sage advice of not touching the grill because, well, that would suck. Still, I was given the crucial task of distinguishing your ordinary toast from the gourmet sandwich by gently placing the processed cheese slice onto the leftmost slice of Texas toast. Always Texas toast. Always the left. It’s crucial to your success as a gastronomic great, so, please, write it down. Obviously, I heeded this advice. Just with complete disregard for the other.

You know, when I placed my right hand firmly upon the cooking surface. And held it there. And said, yeah, that totally does suck.

Before successful chef, I was a budding police officer riding around on my bicycle, singing my own siren, demanding license and registration and handing out many a ticket. No one was safe, from what I understand. I don’t remember any of this.

Perhaps I was too young. Or maybe it was my repeated childhood love of porch-diving, but that’s another story.

The point is, we grow up. We change.

Thank God.

I will never be that young again.

This is a theme of the ever-popular musical, Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?, opening November 4th at Community Players in Bloomington. Even better, it follows a particular group of children growing up with a Catholic education. And, it’s hilarious. Basically, Eddie (played at Community Players by Austin Travis) falls in love with Becky (Jennifer Stevens). But he’s really, REALLY bad at it. Of course, Eddie and Becky have friends -- Nancy (Mindy Lahood), Virginia (Kelly Slater), Mary (Reena Artman) Mike (Tom Smith), Louie (Mark Robinson) and Felix the Filth Fiend Lindor (Joel Shoemaker) -- to help them get into PLENTY of trouble with the Priest (Bob McLaughlin) and the nuns (Christie Vellella, Nancy Nickerson, Samm Bettis and Melissa Fornoff) along the way. Throw in your regular sex education and a senior prom and you have a fairly comprehensive (and yes, as complicated as it sounds) plot.

It's retrospective. It's a yearbook. It's reflective. Nostalgia. I didn't have time for Wikipedia this time but I did read the back of the script. It states this as Chicago's longest running show, and some kind of record-breaker in Philadelphia!

Find out why and watch all of these characters grow up before your eyes just like those pills that, with water, turned all kinds of shapes and sizes (introducing three-year olds everywhere to the fascinating world of pharmaceuticals!!) through the first three weekends in November, Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 PM and Sundays at 2:00 PM, closing November 20th.

I know you’re still asking yourself, “But, Joel, do black patent leather shoes really reflect up?"

I've been in rehearsals for over a month and I still haven’t a clue. So what? Everything has flaws...

And there you have it. Joel Shoemaker's inimitable stylings on shiny shoes, cheesecake, Texas toast and pharmaceuticals. Thanks, Joel!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

"Globe to Globe" -- Shakespeare in Many Tongues, Including Hip Hop From Chicago

Something really cool is happening in London next year, as part of the World Shakespeare Festival.

"Globe to Globe: 37 Plays in 37 Languages," begins April 21st, 2012, with plans to produce every one of Shakespeare's plays in a different language, each performed by a different international company. Those languages include British Sign Language, with "Love's Labours Lost" performed by England's Deafinitely Theatre; "The Merchant of Venice" performed in Hebrew by the Habima National Theatre of Tel Aviv; a Maori production of "Troilus and Cressida" by the Ngakau Toa company from New Zealand; "Measure for Measure" performed in Russian by Moscow's Vakhtangov Theatre; a Swahili take on "The Merry Wives of Windsor," performed by Nairobi's Bitter Pill company; "Twelfth Night" performed in Hindi by the Company Theater of Mumbai; "Cymbeline" in Juba Arabic from the South Sudan Theatre Company and "Richard II" in Palestinian Arabic from Ashtar Theatre of Ramallah; and a new Balkan trilogy for Henry VI, with Part 1 in Serbian, Part 2 in Albanian and Part 3 in Macedonian from the national theaters of Serbia, Albania and Macedonia. Other productions will be in Argentine Spanish, Armenian, Bangla, Belarusian, Brazilian Portuguese, Cantonese, Castilian Spanish, Dari Persian, French, Georgian, German, Greek, Gujarati, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Lithuanian, Mandarin Chinese, Mexican Spanish, Polish, Shona, Turkish, Urdu, Yoruba, and a combination of IsiZulu, IsiXhosa and SeSotho, Setswana, Afrikaans and South African English as the Isango Ensemble from Cape Town performs a "carnival interpretation" of the narrative poem "Venus and Adonis."

There is also a production in regular old British English, with "Henry V," that most British of plays, performed by the Shakespeare's Globe company.

Will there be an American representative? Why, yes, there will! The Q Brothers are taking their hip hop version of "Othello," created for our very own Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, to represent the United States. The Globe to Globe program offers this quote from the show: "I hate the bastard, hate the Moor, I hate his rhymes, I hate his whore." Not your grandfather's "Othello."

I love language and I love Shakespeare and I find all of this absolutely fascinating. O for a muse with wings to carry me to England in April and leave me there till June.

You can find a summary here, a Festival Guide here, and the complete line-up here.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

In One Week, We'll Hear the "Sirens" Call

Deborah Zoe Laufer's "Sirens" opens with a couple, Sam and Rose, contemplating (or, more accurately, arguing about) how to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. When it comes to anniversaries, you need to represent both halves of the couple, after all. But songwriter Sam is in the middle of trying to recapture his youth and his youthful enthusiasm for songwriting, so he isn't in the mood to think about anniversaries, while Rose would really like something special to commemorate 25 years.

As it happens, I first saw "Sirens" at Actors Theater of Louisville's Humana Festival of New American Plays in 2010, and just before I went, my husband and I were contemplating (or, more accurately, arguing about) how to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. I remember seeing that first scene and feeling a sense of recognition, a sense of "Oops. This play is talking about me."

We certainly didn't do a cruise to the Greek Isles for our anniversary, and I think maybe watching the play informed my decision. But I loved the Humana Festival production of "Sirens" because of its underlying truths, its sense of humor, and its sense of whimsy. In fact, I came back and wrote a rave review for it, parts of which have shown up on the back of the published version of the play.

I suggested "Sirens" as a play that might suit Heartland Theatre, it was chosen, and I am currently working on the props the actors carry in the play. (So if you go and see a pretty glass of wine or a tortured length of knitting, remember me.) As Ron Emmons, who is directing the play for Heartland, has said, it could be viewed as a play about marriage, about midlife crises, about writer's block, about one-hit wonders, about modern life and social networks and how they create even more challenges for the AARP crowd, about a clever twist on Greek mythology for the new millennium, or about any number of other things. But mostly, it's a play about journeys, about figuring out where and with whom you want to be for the journey of your life.

I was at a "Sirens" rehearsal just last night, and this play is looking really good. Todd Wineburner, a Heartland favorite, and Connie de Veer, last seen there in "The Trip to Bountiful," have developed a sweet, real chemistry that makes Sam and Rose rootable (and since Sam has his less-than-sympathetic moments in the script, the fact that Wineburner makes you understand and root for him, anyway, is pretty impressive), while Gwen de Veer, who starred in "Proof" at Heartland last year, is lovely and magical as the various Sirens who sing a song only Sam can hear. This is the first time mother and daughter Connie and Gwen de Veer have done a show together, and that's pretty magical, too.

The fourth member of the cast is a newcomer to Heartland, Andrew Rogalny Jr. He is a sophomore at ISU; you may have seen him as Antonio in ISU's recent "Merchant of Venice." His character, Richard Miller, adds a crucial component to the plot, as sort of a siren for Rose, and Rogalny is totally going for it.

I know I've already used both these words too often in this piece, but Emmons is putting together something quite special and magical for the Heartland stage. As I said when I saw the play in Louisville, "The humor and warmth, as well as the understanding of what it means to be married a long time, are things that never go out of style."

Performances of "Sirens" begin at Heartland next week, on November 3rd, with a Pay-What-You-Can preview. Regular performances commence the next night and continue through Sunday, November 20th. I would highly recommend you reserve a seat at "Sirens." Special... Magical... It's what theater is all about.

For more information or a bigger look at the beautiful blue poster, click here. To jump right to reservations, click here.

See you at "Sirens"!

Monday, October 24, 2011

"Anonymous," the Movie. Will I or Won't I?

Just for the record, I think Shakespeare wrote his own plays. And I really, really think it's nonsense to suggest otherwise.

But a movie called "Anonymous," from blockbuster director Roland Emmerich, opens on October 28th, and it casts the actual William Shakespeare, the glover's son from Stratford-upon-Avon, as a silly hooligan who fronted for the real writer, Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. So, you know, Shakespeare was a nobody from Stratford who couldn't possibly have written these fabulous plays because he wasn't noble or aristocratic or educated enough, blah blah blah. The "Anonymous" trailer is already all over my television. And that gives me pause. Do I avoid it like the plague, because I find the very idea odious and idiotic? Or do I pay my money and "review" (and therefore spend time on) something I hope dies a quick death?

It's a dilemma.

One of the blogs I follow (see column at right) has already dealt with the "Anonymous" issue far better than I ever could. Holger Schott Syme, the author of that blog, is an associate professor who teaches Shakespeare (and other topics) at the University of Toronto, where he also chairs the Department of English and Drama at the Mississauga campus. In a blog post from September 19th called "People Being Stupid About Shakespeare," Syme dissects the movie quite neatly, pointing out all the ways it is even more idiotic than you might expect from an "authorship" movie.

I will wait while you go and read that post.

Well done, yes? But Syme goes on, on October 18th, to suggest that it is not acceptable to just ignore the "Anonymous" ideas floating around out there. In "Enough Already," Syme argues that meeting Anti-Stratfordians with either boredom or rage isn't going to make them go away. He talks about Sony pictures encouraging high school teachers to use "Anonymous" in classes as a "quasi-textbook" and offers a poster of a German production of "Macbeth" that says the play was written by Edward de Vere, "alias William Shakespeare." Seriously. On the poster!

So there's my dilemma again. Should I ignore a movie that is guaranteed to set my teeth on edge? Or see it and then write about it, even though I knew I would hate it before I went?

I think I am just going to stay out of it and direct you to keep reading Holger Schott Syme.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

More "Where Are They Now?"

I can't believe I forgot these two.

Christopher Denham was very well cast during his time at U of I, playing Prior in "Angels in America" and Romeo in "Romeo and Juliet," among other roles, as well as appearing in "This Is Our Youth" at the Station. Right out of college, Denham scored the role of Harold in "Master Harold...and the boys" opposite Danny Glover and Michael Boatman on Broadway. After that, Denham appeared off-Broadway in Charles L. Mee's "Wintertime" and Adam Rapp's "Red Light Winter," which earned him a Lucille Lortel Award, and back on Broadway as a replacement in "The Lieutenant of Inishmore" at the Lyceum. He is also a playwright, with his play "Caged" directed by Rapp for Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in 2006. Denham has also done a bit of film, with appearances in "Charlie Wilson's War" (directed by Mike Nichols, starring Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks), "Duplicity" (the fizzy caper film with Roberts again, this time opposite Clive Owen) and "Shutter Island" (the highly-promoted Martin Scorsese movie with Leonardo DiCaprio). Denham is the one on the right in the "El Camino" poster, where he appeared opposite "Mad Men" star Elisabeth Moss.

Denham has the lead in a 2011 film called "Forgetting the Girl," directed by Nate Taylor, which reminded me of another successful U of I alum who also appears in that movie. I remember Holley Fain very well from her roles as Antigone and Catherine in "Proof" when she was an undergrad. Since then, she has been showing up all over the small screen, with guest spots on "Lipstick Jungle," "The Good Wife," "The Mentalist" and "Children's Hospital," a prominent role in "Gossip Girl" and an upcoming turn as a romantic foil for "McDreamy" on "Grey's Anatomy." A few years back, Fain appeared in "Frank's Home," a play about Frank Lloyd Wright (played by Peter Weller), directed by Robert Falls. "Frank's Home" moved from Chicago's Goodman Theatre to Playwrights Horizons in New York. Fain then starred in the American Airlines Theatre production of "Present Laughter" on Broadway with Victor Garber and Harriet Harris. You can read an interview with Holley about "Present Laughter" here.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Where Are They Now? Some of the Successful Performers Who Started Here

We see a lot of acting students (and students who are in other disciplines who act on the side) come through central Illinois. And, yes, we all know what happened to John Malkovich and Terry Kinney and Jeff Perry and Jane Lynch and Gary Cole and Judith Ivey and Sean Hayes and Laurie Metcalf, all ISU students who made good. Or Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, who supposedly played Sarah Brown in an Illini Union Board production of "Guys and Dolls" once upon a time. But they are all before my time as a reviewer, meaning I didn't actually see any of them on stage in central Illinois.

Here are some other performers I've personally seen in shows either in Champaign-Urbana or Bloomington-Normal. No, I didn't know when I saw them that they would zoom to the top. If there's one thing I've learned in all this time watching and reviewing college theater... You just never know.

Nick Offerman, now the amazing Ron Swanson (seen above) on TV's "Parks and Recreation," didn't get cast much in U of I's mainstage shows. I do remember him as a policeman blowing a whistle in a Feydeau farce in the Colwell Playhouse at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, as a soldier in "Biloxi Blues" at Urbana's Station Theatre, and in a bizarre piece about a burglar (Offerman) and a terrible child (played by Jimmy Slonina, now a Cirque du Soleil performer) who makes the burglar put his arm down a garbage disposal at the Armory Free Theater. I'm glad Nick survived the garbage disposal. Now he's a star!

In the same class as Nick Offerman, Joe Foust emerged as an actor to watch both at U of I and at the Station, where he had a small role in "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" and stole the show night after night. Always entertaining and eminently watchable, Foust went to Chicago with Offerman and other members of that same class to found the Defiant Theatre, named the Best Experimental Theatre in Chicago by Chicago Magazine in 1999. Foust co-wrote and directed "Action Movie: The Play," one of Defiant's biggest successes. He shared Joseph Jefferson Awards for the fight choreography in "Action Movie" and the puppetry and masks in "The Skriker." Since the much-lamented end of Defiant Theatre, Foust has performed at Chicago Shakespeare, the Goodman, Steppenwolf, Remy Bumppo, Wisdom Bridge and many other theaters, including frequent trips to Peninsula Players in Door County, where he recently did "God of Carnage." And he's played the unhappy elf in "Santaland Diaries" more than once at Chicago's Theater Wit.

Linda Gillum was another one of those U of I actors who founded the Defiant Theatre. Gillum has been an Artistic Associate at Chicago's Remy Bumppo Theatre since 2001, and she has acted in shows with A Red Orchid, Court, Defiant, Lyric Opera, Mercury, Northlight, Roadworks, ShawChicago, Steppenwolf and Theatre at the Center, and directed at Chicago Dramatists, Defiant, Famous Door, Illinois Repertory Theatre, Next Theatre, Noble Fool, St. Croix Festival, Timber Lake Playhouse, Carthage College as well as back at her alma mater, the University of Illinois. She teaches acting at Remy Bumppo, Acting Studio Chicago and the Theatre School at DePaul University.

Around the same time as Foust, Gillum and Offerman were earning their undergrad degrees, Dominic Fumusa was earning his MFA at U of I. Fumusa went from leading roles at U of I to Stephen Belber's "Tape" at the Humana Festival in Louisville and "Wait Until Dark" on Broadway, roles in everything from "Sex and the City" to "Law and Order" and "The Sopranos" and originating one of the roles in Richard Greenberg's "Take Me Out" on Broadway. Fumusa did the national tour of "Tuesdays with Morrie" opposite Harold Gould and is currently playing the hunky (if clueless) husband on HBO's "Nurse Jackie."

James Vincent Meredith wasn't an acting major (I think he started in pre-law at U of I) but he did play the lead in "Six Degrees of Separation" at the Station Theatre back in 1995. And he was very, very good. My friend Steve Keen directed that show, and I hope it was the success experience of "Six Degrees" that convinced James he ought to stay an actor. Meredith left Urbana for Chicago, where he did shows with Chicago Shakespeare and the Goodman, eventually joining Steppenwolf as an ensemble member. With Steppenwolf, he has played roles in "Superior Donuts," "The Bluest Eye" and "The Crucible," and is currently wowing critics in "Clybourne Park" (that's James in the "Clybourne Park" poster you see here) as well as in the STARZ series "Boss" starring Kelsey Grammer.

Another Steppenwolf ensemble member, Jon Michael Hill, went straight from U of I to the ensemble. In Urbana, I remember his performances in "A Chorus Line" and "King Lear" in the Colwell Playhouse and in "Gynt" and, oddly enough, "Six Degrees of Separation," in the Studio Theatre. Hill made a splash in "The Tempest," including a nomination for a Joseph Jefferson Award, and as the lead in the original production of "Superior Donuts" from Steppenwolf that went to Broadway, earning him a Tony nomination and a 2010 Theatre World Award. Hill followed that up by starring in ABC's "Detroit 1-8-7" last season.

The lovely Leslie Ann Sheppard memorably appeared in "The Crucible" and "Ring Around the Moon" at ISU, after which she, too, found success in Chicago, including being named one of the Chicago Tribune's "Hot New Faces" last year for her work in the musical "The Hundred Dresses" for the Chicago Children's Theatre. One of the founding members of Suitcase Shakespeare Company, Sheppard also appeared recently to offer advice to ISU theater students as part of Homecoming festivities.

It's clear that Illinois Wesleyan students have done very well in their post-college careers, especially if you can keep an eye on their Facebook page, where they detail the exploits of alums like Bryonha Marie Parham (in "Porgy and Bess" coming to Broadway in previews in December), Casey Erin Clark (in the 25th anniversary touring production of "Les Misérables"), Lisa Karlin (in "The Addams Family" on Broadway) and Evan Kasprzak, who placed third on the TV show "So You Think You Can Dance" while still a student. He is currently appearing in "Newsies" at Paper Mill Playhouse. And Sarah Bockel, who just graduated in 2010, went on as an understudy in the title role in "Violet" at Bailiwick Chicago and earned herself a rave review.

If you have other success stories I missed, send 'em on. I've been meaning to do this "Where Are They Now?" story for a long time, and I've probably misplaced some names along the way.

But, in any event, I hope this means our current ISU, IWU and U of I students will look at that BFA or MFA a little differently. In time, who knows? You just may end up with your own Pyramid of Greatness.

Monday, October 17, 2011

PS Classics Has Your Ticket to the DC/Broadway "Follies"

Along with their brand-new original cast recording of Maury Yeston's "Death Takes a Holiday," PS Classics is also offering a cast recording of the current Broadway production of "Follies," this one starring "two-time Tony Award-winner Bernadette Peters as Sally Durant Plummer, four-time Tony Award-nominee Jan Maxwell as Phyllis Rogers Stone, two-time Tony Award-nominee Danny Burstein as Buddy Plummer, three-time Emmy Award-nominee Ron Raines as Benjamin Stone and four-time Olivier Award-nominee Elaine Paige as Carlotta Campion."

This "Follies" started at the Kennedy Center under the direction of Eric Schaeffer, cofounder and artistic director of Arlington, Virginia's Signature Theatre. "Follies" played at the Kennedy Center in May and June of this year, transferring to Broadway's Marquis Theatre in September to begin a limited run. (That run has now been extended to January 22, by the way.)

If you've seen the Peters/Maxwell/Burstein/Raines "Follies" and want to relive the experience, or if you won't be able to get to New York before January 22, PS Classics' producer Tommy Krasker may just be your new best friend. Krasker is known for the care he takes in creating these tributes to shows, performers and composers. He sweats the details and we all benefit.

Right now, PS Classics is taking pre-orders, with plans to ship on November 15th.

As I said about the Chicago "Follies" that's playing till November 13, you can never get enough of this particular show. Adding this cd to your collection is a no-brainer. So go forth and pre-order!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Losing My Mind Over "Follies" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

At first blush, "Follies" is a strange fit for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. This Stephen Sondheim/James Goldman confection is not, after all, Shakespeare. But director Gary Griffin (who also happens to be the Associate Artistic Director at Chicago Shakes) has made something of a cottage industry of directing Sondheim shows there, successfully staging "Sunday in the Park with George," "Passion," and a very well-received "Pacific Overtures" (that ended up winning a pot of Olivier Awards in London's West End) in the upstairs black box theater and "A Little Night Music" downstairs in the 500-seat Courtyard Theater.

These "Follies" are supposed to be set in 1971, in a huge, decaying Broadway theater during a party held by impresario Dimitri Weismann (very much in the Florenz Ziegfeld mold) to celebrate and say goodbye to the theater, which is set to be torn down, and to reunite the former Follies girls who sang and danced there over the years. So we expect to see the interior of a specific kind of early 20th century theater, like, perhaps, the Winter Garden or the New Amsterdam, where Ziegfeld actually produced his Follies. The lovely Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier, with its thrust stage and gallery seating, is definitely not that kind of venue.

So we know from the get-go that we will be seeing a more intimate "Follies." Scaling down the number of Follies girls and the dance numbers to fit on a small stage? Not so nifty. But if the trade-off is a chance to experience all the beauty and pain of Sondheim's amazing "Follies" songs close up, I'll take that bargain every time.

I am not, as it happens, unbiased or dispassionate when it comes to "Follies." I love this show. You could do a production with five-year-olds tap-dancing through "Too Many Mornings" and I would still be choked up from the overture through the finale. Sondheim's haunting, emotional score matched with Goldman's story of youthful promise, middle-aged regret, dashed dreams and misplaced passion goes straight to my heart.

Still, even if I force myself to get critical, there's a lot to love about the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production. For one thing, it sounds beautiful, with a 12-piece orchestra on risers behind the proscenium and visible throughout most of the show. All of the voices in the cast are terrific, giving Sondheim's magnificent score everything it deserves. And most of the casting is dead-on, from Mike Nussbaum, adorable and irreverent as Mr. Weismann himself, to Bill Chamberlain and his sterling tenor giving us a delightful "Beautiful Girls," Marilynn Bogetich bringing down the house as Hattie, she of the tired feet pounding 42nd Street in "Broadway Baby," Nancy Voigts bringing it down again as Stella, who leads the ladies in the Mirror Dance -- AKA "Who's That Woman?" -- and Chicago favorite Hollis Resnik, showing us the elegance and the steely-eyed tenacity in Carlotta Campion, once a sloe-eyed vamp on the big screen but now reduced to TV, who smashes the house to smithereens when she belts out "I'm Still Here."

I also liked Griffin's use of one special Follies ghost, a beautiful apparition who drifts through the theater as a constant reminder of the past, played by Jen Donohoo, performing half of a waltz opposite one leading man and stopping the other one dead in his path. There are other ghosts on stage, but Donohoo's Showgirl leads the way.

Those are your supporting players, creating a vision of Follies numbers of the past, while in the foreground we have Sally, once a flaky, fun chorus girl who ate Baby Ruths for breakfast, now a fading housewife in Phoenix; Phyllis, her old roommate, who has honed off all her rough edges in order to be a polished and sophisticated political wife; Ben, the promising law student turned big-time politico who married Phyllis but still remembers his fling with Sally; and Buddy, Ben's nice guy pal back in the old days, now married to Sally, trying in vain to keep them both sane while spending most of his time on the road as a traveling salesman. There are two sets of this quartet, since we see current Sally, Phyllis, Ben and Buddy as well as their younger counterparts who fell into all the heartache in the first place.

Among the older quartet, Susan Moniz is quite wonderful as Sally, the one who has never gotten past the love affair she once had. Moniz looks cute and youthful, even as the cracks in her psyche start to show, with the right "Twinkle in her eye, hot off the press, strictly a mess" demeanor when she enters, and a devastating "Losing My Mind" when the time comes.

I also liked Robert Petkoff's Buddy quite a bit. Petkoff pulls off the singing, dancing, self-loathing and inner turmoil in "Buddy's Blues," with a nifty Jimmy Durante/Groucho vibe that feels energetic and fresh.

Caroline O'Connor, who looks a bit like Betty Boop, seems a strange choice for Phyllis, although I could certainly understand why she was cast when we got to her big second-act number. O'Connor can dance. And then some. Apparently Griffin envisioned "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" as a boffo jazzhands-and-muscled-chorus-boys-in-bowler-hats number right out of "Chicago," and O'Connor delivers that with sizzle and snap. And jazz hands. But Phyllis is supposed to have gone from Jessica Simpson to Princess Grace, to have been a happy, unformed young thing who worked her butt off to turn herself into the impossibly posh, chilly woman who collects Braques and Chagalls and routinely arranges dinners for ten elderly men from the U.N. With the wrong hair, the wrong dress, a jazz dancer's posture and a strangely stilted delivery, O'Connor never reads as Phyllis to me.

Brent Barrett certainly looks handsome and debonair enough for Ben, the center of the love quadrangle, and his voice is fabulous, although there are times when he seems to be aiming for the second balcony of a large theater rather than the tenth row of this Courtyard. He is also hampered by a number right out of "Chicago," when his "Live, Laugh, Love" turns into Billy Flynn's "All I Care About," complete with white tie and tails and fan-dancers.

Individually, the younger quartet shows off good voices and character choices, but none of them match up well with their older selves. By that, I mean they don't resemble Barrett, Moniz, O'Connor or Petkoff at all, in terms of size, hair color, or even type. That's a bit unsettling.

Still, the joy of seeing Nussbaum, Bogetich, Voigts and Resnik strut their stuff is more than enough to make this a fabulous "Follies" experience, and Moniz may be my new favorite Sally. Oh, who am I kidding? The first notes of the overture are enough to get me there.

The Chicago Shakespeare production has a limited run, with quite a few sell-outs. So get your tickets now if you haven't already. To my way of thinking, there is never enough of "Follies."


Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Goldman.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Performances through November 13

Director: Gary Griffin
Musical Director: Brad Haak
Choreographer: Alex Sanchez
Scenic Designer: Kevin Depinet
Costume Designer: Virgil C. Johnson
Lighting Designer: Christine Binder
Sound Designers: Joshua Horvath and Ray Nardelli
Wig and Make-up Designer: Melissa Veal

Cast includes: Susan Moniz, Caroline O'Connor, Brent Barrett, Robert Petkoff, L.R. Davidson, Rachel Cantor, Andrew Keltz, Adrian Aguilar, Mike Nussbaum, Jen Donohoo, Bill Chamberlain, Marilynn Bogetich, Kathy Taylor, Dennis Kelly, Ami Silvestre, Nancy Voigts, David Elliott, Hollis Resnik, Linda Stephens, Kari Sorenson, Christina Myers, Amanda Tanguay, Amanda Kroiss, Rhett Guter, Julius C. Carter, Devin Archer, Jenny Guse, Nate Lewellyn, Tanner Smale.

Running time: 2:30, including one 15-minute intermission

Note: If you'd like a video peek at this "Follies," check out this page from the online Chicago Tribune.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Collaboration Adds Power to Area Arts

Ruthie Cobb from the Area Arts Round Table Collaboration Committee recently sent me this update about that committee's September meeting. She asked that readers pay special attention to this section:

This event was the first in a series of workshops planned by AART's Collaboration Committee. Response from the participants was positive and most expressed a desire to keep the conversation going. Future workshops are planned to focus on connecting the arts with area businesses and with communities in McLean County.

Here's what else Ruthie had to share:

"The Area Arts Round Table (AART) hosted a workshop for area artists to explore ideas for collaborating with each other and to lay a foundation for future activities. A group of 50 people representing visual arts, dance, theatre, music, and literary arts attended the two-hour event held September 12 at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts. The workshop, entitled “Getting Our Arts Together,” also drew educators, administrators and board members from local arts-related organizations, as well as representatives from Illinois State and Illinois Wesleyan Universities and Heartland Community College.

"AART facilitator Judy Brown began with a brief introduction to the art of collaboration, followed by comments from several members of the arts community who are already involved in a variety of collaborative ventures. Joel Aalberts, performing arts director for the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts, described how his venue works with area schools and the Children’s Discovery Museum to offer multi-stop, one-day field trips. The BCPA has also combined efforts with the Bloomington-Normal Jaycees to host an outdoor concert and a fundraising event.

"Candace Summers, educator at the McLean County Museum of History, discussed the Museum’s collaboration with Evergreen Cemetery and the Illinois Voices Theatre company for the annual Cemetery Walk. Summers also noted that special exhibits at the Museum offer opportunities for partnering with the McLean County Arts Center and a poetry group. Tri-Valley Junior High School students research and create displays about various elements of local and state history that are exhibited at the Museum each year.

"Eaton Gallery owners Herb and Pamala Eaton described their long-running collaboration with other artists who have studios and galleries in Downtown Bloomington. The Around the Corner Art Walk has allowed the public to learn more about the local arts scene, and the artists have gained experience facilitating the annual event. The Gallery has also hosted New Route Theatre’s 'One Shot Deal' theatrical productions once a month since last February.

"Details about the McLean County Dance Association’s collaborative efforts were presented by Judy Brown. Students in McLean County school districts benefit from the dance group’s interactive performances. The organization also takes dance to audiences in area daycare centers, retirement centers, and the McLean County Arts Center.

"Workshop participants were then given time to get acquainted and brainstorm ideas for potential collaboration. Discussion groups were arranged to include perspectives from all artistic disciplines, as well as local educational institutions and arts organizations. Representatives from each group summarized the ideas and concerns. Among the many ideas discussed were ways to offer more public and school outreach opportunities, the inclusion of live music in more theatrical productions, development of standardized agreements for use by collaborators, and the desirability of establishing an arts information clearinghouse. The last item is already on the AART 'to-do' list. Joann Goetzinger of the AART Communication Committee noted that an extensive survey is being prepared to collect detailed information about area arts and venues. The searchable database will be available on an AART website that is also being developed.

"This event was the first in a series of workshops planned by AART's Collaboration Committee. Response from the participants was positive and most expressed a desire to keep the conversation going. Future workshops are planned to focus on connecting the arts with area businesses and with communities in McLean County.

"The Area Arts Round Table is a non-profit organization based at the McLean County Arts Center in Bloomington. Members seek to stimulate arts participation by encouraging cooperation and building leadership in the arts community, and promoting a positive image for the arts as an essential part of the central Illinois culture. For more information about the Area Arts Round Table, contact Doug Johnson at (309) 829-0011."

Collaboration and cooperation as a way of creating critical mass to get all the individual organizations and artists noticed was one of the main themes of last May's "One State Together in the Arts" conference held at the Normal Marriott.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

New Route's "Soda" One Night Only Wednesday October 12

Tomorrow night will be your one chance to see local playwright Kamaya Thompson's new one-act play, "Soda," at the Eaton Gallery in Bloomington. Thompson is a senior at Illinois Wesleyan University.

"Soda," billed as "a play in poetry," involves issues of race and class in America that are not often discussed. Those topics include "old and new racism," levels of education among minorities, and the path that uneducated, underprivileged kids are currently taking in our America. Thompson has written her play in a way that challenges and provokes assumptions and misconceptions. And her provocative one-act play will introduce the community to a powerful new voice in local theatre. This performance of "Soda" will be followed by a discussion.

"Soda" will be presented October 12 at 7 pm at the Eaton Gallery, 104 North Center Street in Bloomington, as part of New Route Theatre's One Shot Deal series. Jamelle Robinson, who played Undine in New Route's production of "Fabulation," is directing a cast that includes Anne Cook, Corey Hardin, Charlene Ifenso-Okpala, Ariele Jones, Tamar Lange, Matthew Robinson, Matt Vlazny and Terrance Washington.

As always, seating is limited at the Eaton Gallery, so reserve your seat in advance by e-mailing a request to

By Kamaya Thompson

Wednesday, October 12
7 pm

New Route Theatre One-Shot Deal Series
Herb Eaton Studio and Gallery
411 North Center Street
Bloomington, IL

Young at Heartland Performs at the Normal Public Library Friday

Heartland Theatre Company’s senior performing troupe, Young at Heartland, will perform their fall showcase, offering dramatic and comedic scenes and monologues — maybe even a song or two — at the Normal Public Library on Friday, October 14th.

This free event, open to the public, will take place from 2 to 3 pm in the library’s Community Room. And refreshments will be offered.

If you are over 55 and you’ve been considering joining Young at Heartland or adding acting and performance skills to your resume, you will want to attend to see how much fun the members of Young at Heartland have and just exactly what they do.

Friday, October 14, 2011
2 to 3 pm
The Community Room at the Normal Public Library
206 West College Avenue
Normal, IL 61761

Friday, October 7, 2011

"The Artist Struggles...beautiful disasters" Opens Tonight at Eaton Galleries

Brian Simpson, owner of Uptown Normal's Babbitt's Books, is part of a new exhibit called "The Artist Struggles...beautiful disasters" with a special reception tonight, October 7, at the Eaton Gallery in downtown Bloomington. One of Simpson's works, titled "Between" is shown at right.

Simpson is showing drawings collected under the label "Grace and Ineptitude," while gallery owner Herb Eaton will offer paintings and drawings he calls "Caught in the Thickets."

Eaton Gallery has scheduled an artist opening and reception for tonight from 5 to 9 pm, followed by an artists' talk on Wednesday, October 19, from 6 to 8 pm. "The Artist Struggles...beautiful disasters" runs till October 19 at the gallery.

Eaton Gallery
411 N. Center
Bloomington, IL 61701

Fall TV Update: The Networks Slash and Dash

When I wrote about the new fall TV schedule a mere 11 days ago, there was optimism and a hint of promise in the air. Since then, NBC has wielded a mighty ax, canceling its execrable attempt at a "Mad Men" rip-off, "The Playboy Club" and the mildly unamusing "Free Agents." At least "The Playboy Club" had a recognizable title. I'm willing to bet that 80% of viewers have no idea what "Free Agents" was at all. (It was the one with Hank Azaria, scheduled to go with "Up All Night," the "Oh, no, we have a baby" comedy starring Christina Applegate and GOB Bluth, er, Will Arnett.

And speaking of which, NBC has balanced out the axings by giving full-season orders to "Up All Night" and another execrable show, the eponymous "Whitney." I lasted for a mere three minutes of "Whitney" before deciding I had better things to do. It's not funny, Whitney Cummings is not pleasant or attractive or anything I would want to watch, and I am shocked, shocked, I tell you, that this series got an early pick-up.

Meanwhile, the CW's nasty little pop culture show "H8R," hosted by Mario Lopez, has been axed after only four episodes. I guess everybody H8'd it.

Back in the positive column, CBS has picked up "2 Broke Girls," with Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs as unlikely roommates, for a full season, while Fox has ordered a full season's worth of episodes of "New Girl," the too-zany-for-its-own-good Zooey Deschanel vehicle that makes me want to hurl but is frolicking happily through the ratings, smirking at the H8Rs like me.

I have now also seen the season openers for returning favorites "Parks and Recreation," "Happy Endings," "Modern Family," "Community," "The Office" and "House," and I would give them A+, A, B, B, B and B+, in that order, with that last grade for "House" not a permanent mark, but open to review. Its season-ender last year was so awful that even though I liked its first fall episode a lot (and I never don't like Hugh Laurie) I am going to wait and see just where it goes from here.

"Parks and Recreation," meanwhile, gets better every episode, and I wish some more viewers would tune it. Leslie Knopes running for office and Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman, an alum of our very own University of Illinois, shown below with Ron Swanson's Pyramid of Greatness) fighting off extra Tammies has been fabulous. But, no, the TV audience is apparently too busy goobering over the likes of Zooey and Whitney for their sit-com fun. I fear for "Parks and Recreation." Ron Swanson still reeks of greatness, though.

"Happy Endings," meanwhile, continues to be adorable and silly, with fresh, zippy characters, while "Modern Family" is trying hard to keep up its winning ways, but only partly succeeding for me. I do like that baby Lily has gotten older and more difficult, but I'm tiring of Claire's type A personality on overdrive, as well as Cameron and Mitchell always squabbling.

The squabbling is also my problem with "Community," which can be very, very funny (its season finale was a paint-spattered, conspiracy theory classic) but its trademark bickering and kvetching within the study group is starting to wear thin. Ditto for "The Office," with its new boss intrigues. There have been some good post-Michael Scott moments, but I'm feeling a bit fatigued there, too.

And over on "Project Runway," which is winding down, I am more and more unamused by the Man Behind the Curtain, or whoever it is that is running the show. The designers seem perhaps less talented in general, but the manipulation and team challenge after team challenge has muddied the waters so much I have no idea who has talent and who doesn't. Anya has only been sewing for four months! Josh the Oompa Loompa is a drama queen and a jerk! Nobody likes Bert! Laura is a smack-talking spoiled baby! Anya is gorgeous! The judges love Anya, even when her clothes are falling apart on the runway or are not remotely acceptable for real life, given that there's no zipper and the thing has to be cut off and sewn onto the model! But she wins, anyway, because she is gorgeous and has only been sewing for four months and was a beauty queen with a sex tape so WHEEEE does she have buzz! And Kimberly and Victor seem talented but there's a lot more drama with the beauty queen who can't sew and the Oompa Loompa with the bad attitude, so let's keep handing wins to them, shall we?

Yeah, I should probably stop watching "Project Runway."

Thursday, October 6, 2011

"Think of All That We've Been Through..." (By Kevin Paul Wickart)

Kevin Paul Wickart is back to give us the inside scoop on his directorial debut, as he opens a Neil Sedaka jukebox show called "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do" with Prairie Fire Theatre on October 14th.

Take it away, Kevin!

I'm directing my first show.

How innocuous those words seemed when I first uttered them several months ago. Now, less than two weeks before opening night, they loom over me like a giant...looming thing. It is fortunate, then, that I am blessed with a cast and crew composed of experienced, talented and supremely capable people who tell me that everything is going just fine.

The show is "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do," a fairly new musical comedy featuring the music of Neil Sedaka, the guy who wrote about half the songs from the 1960s and 70s that get stuck in your head. The show features eighteen of his songs including "Where the Boys Are," "Laughter in the Rain," "Calendar Girl," "Lonely Nights," and of course the chart-topping title song. The songs highlight a script that is unashamedly, and often tongue-in-cheekedly, rooted in 1960.

Here's the plot: Young dental student Marge Gelman has just been left at the altar. Her best friend Lois talks her into going to Esther's Paradise, the supposed-to-be honeymoon resort in the Catskills, to meet boys and forget her troubles.* When Lois convinces Del Delmonaco -- the resort's up-and-coming singing star -- to romance Marge, it looks like the plan might just work. But Del has a little secret that involves his cousin Gabe, who is working the resort as a handyman. The resort's owner, Esther herself, is trying to cope with needed repairs that she can't afford to make, in spite of the questionable help of the nightly variety show's emcee and comedian, who is her late husband's best friend, Harvey. This gumbo of comic cliché is brought to the boil by the news that a producer from "American Bandstand" is coming to hear Del sing in the very last show of the season.

If you are a veteran viewer of musical theatre, you can probably figure out most of what happens. That's fine, because the plot isn't really the point. The show is designed to celebrate Sedaka's music not only by providing a framework in which to showcase it, but also by following a script that is as romantic, clever, triumphant, and just downright fun as the lyrics. Sure, it's a dramatic lightweight, but it is as full of little surprises as Neil Sedaka himself.**

What is no surprise is that the show is just plain fun to perform. The song arrangements are richly harmonious, the script brisk and delightful, and the choreography joyous and elegant.

Of course, all of this would be wasted without a cast sufficient to the task. Most are local theatre veterans, with a couple of relative newcomers to spice up the gumbo. Aimee Kerber is the emotionally vulnerable Marge, with Natalie LaRocque as her vivacious best friend, Lois. Headliner Del is played to the overbearing hilt by Nick McBurney, while the role of shy, clumsy Gabe is filled by Sean Stevens. Jennifer Lumsdon is the eternally put-upon Esther, while Your Humble Correspondent hams it up as Harvey. Each cast member is a vocal power individually, but when their voices blend it raises the music to often dizzying heights.

Supporting this cast are equally accomplished people. Michael Schneider holds the baton as Music Director and Whitney Spencer serves as Choreographer. Wardrobe and Props are handled by Opal Virtue and Sherry Bradshaw, with Lighting and Sound by Jamie Wilson. Ken Johnson designed and is building the set while his daughter Hanna, as Assistant Director and Stage Manager, organizes the whole process and keeps me from doing anything really stupid.

These people are not merely talented performers and crew. They are people with whom I have worked before, and come to respect and value their abilities. They are my friends, and without their support, dedication and professionalism I would be coming apart. But, like the song says, "Love Will Keep Us Together." And it does.

*This, boys and girls, was actually considered to be a good idea in the 1960's.

**At age 16, Sedaka published his first song and co-founded a musical group that later became The Tokens. About the only thing I accomplished at that age was being a complete dork. He is the only artist to hit the Billboard Top 10 twice with different arrangements of the same song. That song was, of course, "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do," and the feat was accomplished fourteen years apart. Sedaka isn't just about pop music. When he records songs in Italian, he does so with a flawless accent. He's also a virtuoso pianist who was slated to represent the U.S. in the 1965 Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia; his performance was canceled because of his connections to rock and roll--a form the Russians hated at the time. I consider myself lucky that I can even spell "pianno."

Prairie Fire Theatre

October 14–16, 2011, at 7 pm at Westbrook Auditorium-Presser Hall, Illinois Wesleyan University, 1210 Park Street, Bloomington.

October 21–23, 2011, at 7 pm at Shamrock Hall, Saint Patrick’s Church of Merna, 1001 North Towanda Barnes Road, Bloomington.

For more information, go to the "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do"
Facebook Page.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

No Off-Season for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival

We all think of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival as a summer phenomenon, but it turns out they stay pretty busy the rest of the year.

First, the ISF has announced their slate for next summer, with "As You Like It," 'Othello" and "The Comedy of Errors" from Shakespeare, along with Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "The Rivals." I remember seeing "The Rivals" back in 1990 at the Festival, and it was absolutely wonderful. I suppose that's why I still remember it! I am guessing that one of the three Shakespeare plays will be the "theater for young audiences" choice, performed as a shorter version on the Ewing Manor grounds during the day, rather than on the main-stage at night. My guess would be "The Comedy of Errors" since that one is listed last on the Illinois Shakespeare Festival site. We'll just have to wait and see if I'm right on that one! Tickets will be available after January 9th, 2012, and performances next summer are scheduled from June 28 to August 11. (If you don't want to wait to buy tickets in January, or if you'd like to give a little Shakespeare for Christmas, you can get a gift certificate now. You are advised to call the box office at 309-438-2535 for more information.

In the meantime, you can help support Milestones Early Learning Center and the West Bloomington Revitalization Project by attending a joint fundraiser for those two groups on Friday, October 7, from 5 to 8 pm at the BlueLine (602 N Main Street in downtown Bloomington). Tickets are $10 at the door and admission includes five "tastes" of wines personally chosen by the BlueLine owners. A basket from the Illinois Shakespeare Festival (with Platinum Plus seating and dinner packed inside) will be one of the items available in a silent auction. Here's your chance to help out two worthy organizations and score tickets and dinner at the ISF as well.

And if you are a teacher or otherwise connected to an area school that could benefit from a little Shakespeare, you'll want to know about the "Shakespeare Alive! Outreach Tours," available to tour to schools from October to December. This year, the choices are "To Thine Own Self Be True," billed as "a montage of scenes, stories, and monologues that interweaves true socially relevant stories with Shakespeare’s work," intended for junior high or high schoolers, or "Fortune's Fool," subtitled "Folly & More," which involves a game show, a Jersey Girls' explanation of "Romeo and Juliet," and something or other about Pyramus and Thisbe, all included in this "zany introduction to Shakespeare's work," intended for kids in elementary school or junior high. If either show sounds like something that would work at your school, call 309-438-8697 for more information.

The Discovery Walk Continues...

The weather has been fabulous, which means the Discovery Walk at Evergreen Cemetery in Bloomington has been very, very popular. Candace Summers, from the McLean County Museum of History, reported that almost a thousand people took the tour last weekend and got a good look at ten citizens from Bloomington-Normal's past.

This year's characters are:

George and Frances Ela (shown at left), a young married couple separated by war but maintaining their love and their patriotism in letters. (Performed by Nick McBurney and Gwen de Veer; script written by Kathleen Kirk.)

William Horine, a private in the McLean County Regiment who sent home very colorful letters about the conditions of war. (Written and performed by Michael Pullin.)

Eliza Esque, a former slave who helped organize celebrations in honor of the Emancipation Proclamation and a reception for soldiers, including her husband, when they returned from the Civil War. (Performed by Jennifer Rusk; script written by Julie Kistler.)

Lewis Ijams (seen at right), a Union soldier, severely wounded and assumed dead on the battlefield, who managed to make it back to Union lines and eventually home. (Played and written by Rhys Lovell.)

John McNulta, a Union colonel and commander of the McLean County Regiment who employed innovative methods to ensure the safety of the men under his command. (Played by Mickey O'Sullivan; script written by Todd Wineburner.)

Martha Rice, a Southern woman living in Bloomington. She and her husband, a Confederate sympathizer, were not looked on kindly by their neighbors. (Written and performed by Kathleen Kirk.)

John C. Roeder, a German immigrant who hunted lawless Confederate outlaws and desperadoes in Western Missouri. (Performed by Kevin Paul Wickart; script written by Ron Emmons.)

Lee Smith and George Stipp, doctors who experienced the horrific conditions both surgeons and patients faced in an ill-equipped, over-crowded Union hospital housed in a former hotel on the outskirts of Washington DC. (Performed by Jeff Ready and Todd Wineburner; script written by John Kirk.)

Audiences are enjoying the charming love story between the Elas, Eliza Esque (above) serenading them with a gorgeous performance of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" as she shares her joy at emancipation, injured Lewis Ijams hanging tough and fighting for freedom in the face of adversity, Colonel McNulta's take-charge military presence, Martha Rice sweetly but tartly explaining her side of the war on the homefront, wild-eyed John Roeder trying to hang onto his marbles and the good doctors Smith and Stipp doing their best to survive the horrors of Civil War medicine.

Tours continue next weekend, with start times of 11 and 2 on Saturday and Sunday. My friend, the talented photographer Dana Colcleasure, took the photos accompanying this piece last Saturday. Fabulous images, Dana!

Click here for more information about the Discovery Walk at Evergreen Park.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

October Has Arrived (Along With Plenty of Things to See and Do)

Shows opened at both ISU venues (Westhoff Theatre and the Center for the Performing Arts) last week. You still have a few chances to catch "The Merchant of Venice" at Westhoff or "The Women of Lockerbie" at the CPA, with both shows running through October 8th. You can click here to read what I thought of director Jeremy Garrett's take on "Merchant" as a comedy hovering on tragedy as pretty heiress Portia, her beau Bassanio and their rich, frivolous friends hover on the brink of the Stock Market Crash of 1929.

"The Women of Lockerbie" is an all-out tragedy (no hovering here) about the aftermath of the terrorist attack on a jet flying over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1998. ISU is augmenting the production with a visit from playwright Deborah Brevoort scheduled for Tuesday, October 4. You are encouraged to bring clothing donations to the CPA to echo the humanitarian efforts in the play.

The Discovery Walk at Evergreen Cemetery is now well underway and the weather has been beautiful so far. Performances continue next weekend at 11 and 2 on both Saturday and Sunday. My husband will be acting as a tour guide again next Saturday, so ask for Scott's tour if you want a good show from a learned guide. If you're interested in buying tickets for this historical tour around Evergreen Cemetery, with actors portraying colorful characters from Bloomington-Normal's past (this year all relating to the Civil War), you can get them at the McLean County History Museum, at the Garlic Press in Uptown Normal, or at the cemetery itself. Tickets are $12 for adults and $4 for children and students.

Eureka College opens its official fall season on October 4th, with George Bernard Shaw's "Arms and the Man," which takes a satirical look at war, heroes, idealism and romance. Oh, and a little chocolate. What more do you need? "Arms and the Man" is directed by EC Theatre Professor Marty Lynch, and continues through October 9.

The Station Theatre in Urbana brings "God of Carnage," the Tony-Award-winning play by Yazmina Reza, to its black box theater on October 6th, with performances till the 22nd. Celebration Company Artistic Director Rick Orr directs "God of Carnage," a story about two married couples trying to deal with a playground skirmish between their sons as well as their own lack of civility, with a cast that includes Jessa Thomas, David Barkley, Rachel Bradley and Jeremiah Lowry. (Extra notes: Roman Polanski has directed a film version of the script starring Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet, and it has played to excellent reviews at the Venice and New York Film Festivals. I saw it on stage in New York, and my review of that Broadway production is here.)

Don Shandow and New Route Theatre continue their One-Shot Deal series at the Eaton Gallery in Bloomington with a performance of "Soda," a new play by Kamaya Thompson, on October 12th. "Soda" is described as a play in poetry, touching on issues "such as 'old and new racism,' minority education levels, and the path that uneducated, underprivileged youth are currently taking," and performed "in a way that challenges and provokes." A discussion will follow the performance. "Soda" is directed by Jamelle Robinson and includes Matthew Robinson, Ariele Jones, Corey Hardin, Anne Cook, Charlene Ifenso-Okpala, Matt Vlazny, Tamar Lange and Terrance Washington in the cast.

As always with New Route shows at the Eaton Gallery, seating is limited and you are advised to reserve in advance by e-mailing a request to

The Normal Theater begins a tribute to ISU alums with "The Bucket List" (the ISU alum involved is Sean Hayes, who plays Jack Nicholson's valet in the movie) on October 13, followed by "Best in Show," the Christopher Guest "mockumentary" about dog shows (whose cast includes ISU alum Jane Lynch) on October 14, the superhero movie "Iron Man" (with special effects by ISU alum Brian Connor) on October 15, and "Of Mice and Men," the 1992 adaptation of Steineck's novel (starring John Malkovich, a very famous former student of the ISU School of Theatre). All shows are at 7 pm.

Fresh off his stint as a somewhat crazed Civil War soldier stalking bushwhackers in the Discovery Walk, my friend Kevin Paul Wickart is directing a musical based on Neil Sedaka songs for Prairie Fire Theatre. The show is called "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do." Kevin has written a piece on that show for me, and I will be happy to share that a little later in the week, so stay tuned for that! You can catch performances of "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do" at Westbrook Auditorium in Presser Hall on the IWU campus from October 14 to 16, or in Shamrock Hall at Saint Patrick’s Church of Merna over on Towanda Barnes Road in Bloomington October 21 to 23.

I used to be a huge fan of the British improv show "Whose Line Is It, Anyway?" and then a medium fan of the American version. If you, too, enjoy people doing the Alphabet Game blindfolded or a Kung Fu soap opera played sideways, you'll want to check out "An Evening with Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood" (both of whom can be seen on reruns of "Whose Line Is It, Anyway?" on the ABC Family channel) on October 15th at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts.

The Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company (AKA the CUTC) is offering a special "Rocky Horror Show in Concert 2" as a fundraiser at the Canopy Club in Urbana one-night only on October 22. Click here for details.

Parkland Theatre over in Champaign opens the intriguing Sarah Ruhl play, "Dead Men's Cell Phone" on October 26th. It's a popular play, with another production, directed by Rhys Lovell, taking the stage at Eureka College November 15. It's always fun to see what different directors do with the same material, so if you're looking to expand your theatrical horizons, you might want to try a compare/contrast with the two versions and report back.